Scheduled to give a lecture at the 2018 Festival of Homiletics, I arrived at the designated venue well before my slotted time. I worshipped twice, listened to a good lecture and even had time to grab a quick lunch. I looked at my watch: 30 minutes until I was up. Not enough time to retreat to the hotel, too much time to sit eagerly on the front pew. Reading through my manuscript one last time couldn’t hurt.
I looked for a spot close to where I needed to be in a quarter of an hour, but not so close that the organizers might want to go ahead and test the mic. Somewhere in the sanctuary? I could sit inconspicuously in the back. Nope. People had gathered to meditate with the contemplative music. Downstairs? Nope. Too many people shopping for books, getting swag from sponsors, eating lunch. Outside on the church steps? Nope. Too hot while wearing my “I’m a professional” jacket.
I spotted a folding chair, unfolded, just inside the narthex. Perfect.
I settled in and began to flip pages. Soon someone came up to me. “Excuse me. Are you here to register people?” “No,” I responded. “Go through the sanctuary, out the right-side door and down the stairs.”
I returned to my notes. I think I look deeply engaged but another person approached me. “Excuse me. Could you tell me if this is where those who want to go do the advocacy action at the Capitol are supposed to meet?” “Yes.” I said. “They leave at 1:30.” (I was tempted to add, “But you won’t want to miss my lecture!”)
Now, where was I? Oh, right. The transition from part one to part two of my three-part lecture. “Excuse me. Could you tell me where the bathroom is?” “Just inside those big doors, to the left.” I looked at my phone. Time to go. But I couldn’t help but wonder if I was not more helpful right where I was, seated in the narthex, accessible even without a name tag, table or sign. Just sitting in the right spot, I was a magnet for those seeking information, directions and help.
Where, I keep asking myself, is the right spot for Christians to be when people mistrust religion, devalue institutions and have less and less experience with church? Being in the narthex, available but not in-your-face attentive, is a useful metaphor for where the church, Jesus’ disciples, ought to position themselves. That liminal space between the world and the sanctuary is a place to encounter those seeking, questioning and willing to participate, but not exactly sure where or how.
What are the metaphorical narthexes in our communities? Where might we sit so that others see us available and willing to respond to their questions, concerns, needs? Where can we be engaged in the work of the Lord – from study, to prayer, to meetings, to mission – where people notice and find us approachable?
In one church I served, the Christian education committee decided to meet one month at a local brewery. We discovered other church members there, some peripheral, willing to come speak and engage with us in ways they wouldn’t within the walls of the sanctuary or fellowship hall. We met friends of committee members, told the server where we were from and what we were doing. Some volunteered to join the committee if this is where we met to do our work. Some were curious and asked questions about our congregation. All because of where we chose to sit — in the world, but not completely of it.
I know this is not news to emergent church folks or those who have been doing pub theology or communion in the park or ashes to go for years. But perhaps it serves as a reminder to all of us that no matter our context, we need to be intentional about putting ourselves in positions where people feel free to approach us — places where we have no agenda, just a willingness to respond with kindness to whoever comes our way. It is a simple witness, but in a climate of suspicion, fear and anxiety, it is a powerful one.
Grace and peace,