Have you ever gotten lost on a church campus? I did, and it was a small church campus!
I stopped by the church to speak with the pastor. The campus was only about two acres in size, there were signs everywhere, but I couldn’t find the office.
A custodian finally pointed me in the right direction. “Oh, you can find Pastor in the vestry, right over there,” he said.
As Christians, we often use weird language, words that are way out of date or no longer accurate to their original meaning.
Words mean things. Unless you don’t know what they mean. Then they mean nothing, and confusion sets in.
How we describe our church facilities and the language we use hasn’t evolved much over time, but it needs to.
Outsiders can get confused when they show up to a church for the first time. For those who didn’t grow up in a church, they might think we were speaking a different language. It’s weird and today’s generation of youth don’t understand it at all. In addition, most of the terms we use don’t accurately reflect what their original purpose was anyway.
Where does the pastor of your church work? In the vestry? Or in an office? I wondered how many people got lost on this church campus and just gave up looking. The term vestry originated in the 16th century after the Reformation when local parish and church councils began to govern themselves as they pulled away from the Catholic Church. The vestry became a designated room, often next to the altar, where vestments were stored and where church governments or councils met to discuss church affairs. Sacristy is another term frequently used for the same traditional space, although, in my experience, I find it’s usually a closet used to store communion plates.
We frequently name our primary church meeting place a sanctuary.
We view it as a holy place because it is where we worship God, pray, and hear the Word of God proclaimed each week.
It’s a generic name and term Christians have used for generations. But to anyone outside of the church, the meaning can be confusing, or they may think we have overemphasized the theological importance of a mere building.
Certainly, our churches are important and should be treated with the utmost respect and honor, but as Christians, our sanctuary is no longer found in the temple building. Rather, it is in our body, our soul, and our being in who we are as Christians. The true sanctuary is in us, not in a building. Perhaps we give the wrong impression when talking about and labeling the sanctuary as a room or building.
For most modern-built churches, any other similarly designed room would be called an auditorium or lecture hall. Lecture hall seems too academic, but auditorium is simple, understood by anyone, and rather universal. It’s not threatening to a person who has no religious background. It also does not bring confusion from a theological standpoint. Some churches often use Worship Center. This seems to take a balanced approached with both the emphasis of the room’s importance with modern verbiage.
However, if you ever want to rent or loan your space out to another organization (Christian or not), they may be deterred or may not appreciate the terms used on all of your signage, direction, website,contracts, etc.
Auditorium is not offensive, always means the same thing whether in a religious environment or not, and universal in nearly every way used.
If your church is older and perhaps built in the mid-1900’s or earlier, chances are the shape of your building is the traditional “A-frame” style with slanted ceilings angled up to a high center-point. It might have wooden pews and be decorated with ornate stained glass and large chandeliers. The feel and style of the room may not resemble an auditorium or lecture hall at all. Rather, it might exude religiosity at its finest! In this case, labeling it an auditorium may invoke even more confusion since it clearly is decorated as a traditional worship space. In this case, perhaps Worship Center may be more appropriate.
Changing the name from sanctuary to auditorium is not disrespectful to our faith, but it might ease the discomfort of a new person who truly does not understand . . . and easing one’s discomfort is a first step to listening to what you have to say when talking about Jesus.
Do you invite people to meet in the narthex?
The space between the exterior front doors of a church and the sanctuary doors (otherwise known as the lobby) is frequently referred to as a narthex in the Christian world. Not only is the term narthex not used anywhere else in the English language, but its original meaning would also be quite degrading to any visitor or new Christian. The early Christian churches and Roman Catholic cathedrals all contained a narthex, an entry point that was always on the west side of the building. It was where the “sinners” gathered to hear the priests, and those who needed to repent were often baptized in the narthex area before they were allowed to enter the rest of the church. Tradition has the narthex on the west side so that you had to look east to face the pulpit (another term I’ll get to below) and you would be facing the direction that Scripture says Christ will return from.
Today, most of our churches don’t have these rules, but the terms have still stuck with us. In fact, two different churches that I grew up in had an area frequently referred to as a narthex. The problem is that one had the narthex on the north side of the building, the other was on the south. So not only did these churches not follow the term’s original intent, they left visitors more confused than ever.
The reality is that this space is a lobby.
Theatres have a lobby, banks have a lobby, many commercial offices have a lobby. It’s a generic meeting space for people to wait or gather before they go to the place they really are there for. It’s a lobby, so let’s call it that!
Do you preach from a pulpit?
It may be the traditional wide and tall wood-carved ornate decorative pulpit on the side of the stage, elevated above everyone else. Or maybe it’s a modern single-leg cocktail table just barely large enough to hold your Bible and some notes. Regardless of the style, does your church refer to it as a pulpit? We get the term from the Latin pulpitum, meaning platform or stage. To me, pulpit sounds very religious, authoritarian, and evokes images of the fiery-tongued preacher of the 1950s shouting out, “You might walk out of here today and get hit by a car, so repent now!” Perhaps we should consider something more modern. Platform or stage seem to be quite universal, widely understood, and acceptable to anyone, Christian or not, knowledgeable or not.
Do you have meetings in the Fireside Room? My church had one when I was growing up . . . there was no fireplace in it!
Even as a young child, I understood something wasn’t quite right. What about Sanctorium? Chamber? Parlor? Chancel? Refectory? I don’t even know what refectory means!
If renaming your facilities seems trivial to you, I’d encourage you to consider walking through your church campus and view everything through the eyes of a visitor. Better yet, invite a non-church friend to walk through your campus and have them honestly tell you what they think. What do they see? Have them describe for you what they do or don’t understand about what your church labels and facility descriptions mean.
Renaming facilities and using different terms and verbiage doesn’t minimize or discredit theological importance, but it can break down barriers that outsiders experience, removes confusion, and makes it easier for people to be engaged.
Plus, maybe people won’t think we’re so weird.