Greek to me

The other day I was telling a friend a story about the credence table being removed from the chancel area. I stopped after I said those words and said, “and I can’t believe those words just rolled off my tongue so easily.”

I often fight the use of jargon in churches. I understand it serves a purpose—when church geeks (ordained or not) talk to other church geeks, it is faster to say “the credence table” than “the table we put the extra communion elements on” and easier to say “chancel area” than “the area up by the altar.” But when we use these words in a broader context, I believe we put walls up and leave people out. There is a whole foreign language you can encounter inside the church.

In the church I work in, I often give announcements about things people can find in the space-outside-the-space-we-worship. In most of the English-speaking world, you would call this a lobby. In the church world, you call this a narthex. And every time I have to say that word, I pause, point, and someone from the congregation says “narthex.” I usually follow that up with saying “the narthex, otherwise known as the Lobby.” Yes, it is the narthex. But it is not because I’m an intern that I pause before saying that word. It is not because I don’t know the word. It is because I want to make sense to people who were not born in the church.

The church can seem like an alternate reality that you have to go through a wardrobe to get to, or run your cart into the space between two train stops. Maybe a tornado. That’s the idea you might get if you hear people talking about stuff in the Narthexes, the new-colored paraments, (colored banners that are on the altar and pulpit, or perhaps church decorations in general) vestments (what the minister wears) fair linens, (uh, its one of the many cloths that have something to do with communion) chasubles, (Otherwise known as the Christmas tree skirt-like garment some ministers wear during communion) Patten (plate), chalice (cup)…the list is endless; I only have about half of it down. While my friend says our liturgy professor would be impressed with the ways that credence table and chancel tumble out of my mouth these days, I know I have far more to learn before I’m able to decently converse with those who are the keepers of the liturgical language. Thankfully, that is not my goal. My goal is to make sense to people when I talk to them about church, and God.

I get that the church is called to be something different, to live into God’s kingdom. Maybe it is like Hogwarts, Oz or Narnia. That would be kind of cool. I like the time I spend in those fantasy lands when I read. But if we follow the example of Christ, the church is also called to meet people where they are. Is it really that important to tell them to go to the narthex? Or can we meet people in the lobby?

There will be those who want to keep the language because it makes it sacred—separates the holy from the rest of life. I am more interested in pointing to how God is at work in all things, making all of life holy. I hope that what we do in church reminds us of all that is sacred in the world. So it makes sense to me to use language that makes sense to people, whenever possible. Sometimes it makes sense to teach people new vocabulary. And often it makes sense to just use words we all know.



2 thoughts on “Greek to me

  1. MrE says:

    I definitely understand being sensitive to the way that our “insider” jargon can make those on the outside feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. However, I’m also thinking of the huge curiosity in our culture with the less familiar religious traditions (i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.), all of which use a language that is completely unfamiliar to most of us in the west. Perhaps there is some discomfort with these traditions because of the unfamiliarity, but on the whole, I would say that the intrigue for most of us is greater than the discomfort.

    I’m curious about the obvious double standard that the culture-at-large holds in this respect. (Admittedly, I have to often include myself in this statement.) When we attend any number of non-Christian devotional services, the chants and liturgy say in a Buddhist service, most of which might be in the completely unfamiliar language of Pali, often draw us into the service, whereas “narthex,” “credence table,” “corporal,” “chasuble,” or any other of our theological/liturgical language push us away (or at least make us bored).

    The fuzzy but popular distinction between religion and spirituality in our culture probably has something to do with this double standard. I think of an astutely ironic observation from Stuart Davis in an episode of “Sex, God, Rock ‘n’ Roll”: “If it’s from your culture, it is religious. If it is from some far off culture in a distant land, it’s spiritual. Prayer is religious. But Tibetan Prayer Flags are spiritual.” (Here’s the URL for the video:

    I don’t disagree with you that the welcoming term “Lobby” is a very appropriate alternative to to the unfamiliar and unwelcoming “Narthex” but I wonder if we’re losing something important if we too easily make these concessions as opposed to dealing with something deeper like, for instance, our irrational distinctions between religion and spirituality. Maybe we are, for some strange reason, afraid of admitting that our own traditions possess depth as well.

    • Fascinating thoughts and good dialogue, MrE. As taking the jargon out does have potential to shed the mystery–something I am opposed to. I do think it has something to do with the unnecessary (but not always false) binary of religion and spirituality. Huh.

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