Whether you call it a narthex, vestibule, foyer or lobby, the usually smallish room at the entrance to a worship space has an instructive history. And despite its reputation as the haunt of nervous brides and bad furniture, the space has tremendous potential to demonstrate that the church’s arms are open to those outside her membership.

Margaret Visser, in The Geometry of Love (North Point Press, 2000) describes the origin of the word:

The vestibule of the church is known as a narthex, a Greek word meaning “fennel stalk. ” In the ancient Mediterranean world, a section of a very large fennel stalk was commonly used as a container. For example, Prometheus in Greek mythology stole fire from the gods on Mount Olympus and gave it to humankind, carrying the hot brand down to us enclosed in a narthex. A perfume box, too, could be made out of a section of a hollow fennel stalk. The front and transitional portion of a church was known in the Greek Christian world as a narthex, a sacred enclosure. Other sources point out that in ancient times the narthex was a spacious room or porch where persons preparing for baptism or penitents excluded from Communion stood. Confessions were heard here. Alms were received and distributed here. People “checked ” their weapons here.

For modern vestibules, the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay organization (usually an excellent resource) recommends allocating 1.5 to 2.5 square feet per person. This is miniscule compared to the 6, 8 or 10 square feet provided in the lobbies of commercial theatres. And though the increased size and cost constitute a significant demand on resources, the investment is, in my mind, one of the best a Church can make. While ministries and strategy change, the task of the church to engage those outside its circle does not.

Yes, these rooms can be used for meetings, meals and informal worship, replacing a number of smaller, dedicated spaces. But less formally (and at least as importantly) they are wide places in the road that allow friends to stop and reconnect without causing a 5-Christian pile-up. They are public squares where strangers can watch a Church’s culture from safety. They’re a place to check your weapons.

The narthex is the room where the church meets the world. Other than to worship, what greater treasure could a chamber aspire to hold?