The "Giant Narthex" Idea

Our narthex is not giant. Like most 1950’s-era churches of neo-gothic design, our building offers hardly any space for the kind of pre- and post-service conversation that people of today want and need. Many congregations have done an excellent job of addressing this situation with a building project. Newly constructed space for greeting can be a great way to help visitors and members feel more welcome. But is there anything you can do in the short term? If yours is a big old church with a tiny narthex, read on…

The problem isn’t about finding space to visit before the service. The push of the crowd isn’t as powerful then, because people arrive at different times. Anyone who wants to chat with a friend or a visitor on the way in can usually do so without much trouble. The real challenge happens when the service is done. In a good-sized congregation with a small greeting space you’d better not stop on the way out of church or you’ll be trampled. The post-service push barely gives people time to shake a pastor’s hand.

So here’s the idea: instead of ushering people out after the service, find a friendly and creative way to encourage them to stay and talk. What you’re doing is temporarily turning your nave into a giant narthex. One key word here is “temporarily.” The nave is of course designed for worship. It is laid out in a way that enables people to proclaim law and gospel to one another. Pulpit, font, and altar are in plain view, the visible symbols of God’s means of grace. We’re not suggesting anyone dismiss the design of the nave for the sake of small talk. During the service, the nave serves its purpose. After the service, nave can serve as narthex.

This is how it looks in our church: our service ends with the benediction or a closing hymn. The bulletin reads: “Musical Postlude: a quiet minute for reflection and prayer.” Our musicians really do keep the music to a minute or less. Quiet music helps people stay quiet themselves. We’re creating a buffer. We’re giving people time to transition from the Lord’s blessing to the pot luck reminders. When the music stops, it’s clear that the service has ended. Now the nave becomes a narthex. It’s time for announcements, and it’s time to talk, time for members to greet fellow members, time for guests to be welcomed. We tell our people to stay as long as they like. We let them dismiss themselves whenever they’re ready. There’s time; Bible class doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes. After our late service some people stay for a good half hour.

In life, in business, in church work, most ideas are either expensive, time-consuming, or difficult. If it’s cheap and easy, it probably takes time. If it’s easy and fast, it’s probably expensive. If it’s cheap and fast, it’s probably difficult. This “giant narthex” idea certainly won’t convert unbelievers or strengthen the faithful. But it might help members and visitors feel more welcome in your church. On top of that it’s as easy as pie, it’s instantly usable, and it won’t cost you a dime.

Rev. Jon Zabell

Pastor Zabell is pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI. Zabell serves as St. Paul’s Minister of Music and Family. In addition to his congregational duties, Zabell is the chairman of the WELS Commission on Worship.

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