Lexicons of Faith and Practice

By Jeff Gill

For those of my readers who are not church folk, may I ask that you bear with me a few lines while I make a bit of a point? Thank you.

So: narthex, sanctuary, chancel, pew, steeple, pulpit, lectern, stole, paraments, chalice, vestments.

Or: doxology, Gloria Patri, invocation, benediction, introit, postlude, homily, offertory, responsorial, collect (no, not that), proper (uh uh), diaconate, cantata, Pentecost.

And then, as if those weren’t enough: redemption, atonement, intercession, incarnation, epiphany, transubstantiation, adoration (well yes, but), confessional, sacramental, evangelistical, connectional, and covenantal.

Yes, church folk use some specialized terminology. The first set was architectural and object names in churches, the second set are terms used in worship services, and the third are theological words. Wait, do I need to explain theological?

Maybe so. And yet . . .

In fields like architecture you run into cornice and architrave and footer; if you go to concerts, you expect to hear about concertmasters and thaumaturges and tunings; anyone who stays past the final credits knows that movies have animation supervisors and gaffers, grips, best boys, and “assistant to Mr. Spielberg” along with various wranglers and caterers. It doesn’t put us off of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” so why do we worry so about how language and lingo can keep people out of our temples?

One difference is that you can enjoy the movie or concert (in fact most people do) without ever understanding what a continuity person does, or all their colleagues. The technical language is kept neatly off to the end or a quick nod at the beginning, but the bulk of the group experience is open to those who have not a clue about the central role of a cinematographer.

In church life, we’ve been accustomed to keeping the lingo and in-group labels right in the middle of things. There used to be assumptions that most people just knew what this all meant, but it may have been that people just used to be more tolerant of those in authority talking over their heads.

Not any longer.

My own weakness is “narthex,” which is a handy word for the room many would call a “lobby,” the space usually the width of the worship space, or auditorium, or sanctuary if you wish, that is separate from a vestibule, which is where you can take off and hang up your outer & dust-covered vestments. The narthex used to be a working part of the church proper, where those preparing to make a confession of faith would worship, until they formally became members of the body of believers.

Adding to the muddle is that this technical language can have different meanings in divergent traditions. Most low-church Protestant congregations I’ve known call the general seating area (usually filled with bench-type seats, or “pews”) the sanctuary, while more liturgical traditions refer to the “nave” while the area up around the pulpit and lectern (reading stands from which prayers and preaching are done) is called the sanctuary.

And in Orthodox churches it has an even more specific definition!

There’s also a chicken and egg question here: is it that faith communities have technical language that is why people don’t go to church, or is it the increasing numbers of people who don’t go to church that makes faith language so problematic?

I’d make an omelet here and just note that there’s room to stir up the whole question. In-group language reinforces those who are in as in, and increases barriers to helping new people feel included and involved, so it’s a problem to be considered and edited carefully.

At the same time, in worship there are acts and ideas that simply don’t just translate into everyday terms, and even when there’s an outward similarity, it makes sense to suggest the differences intrinsically between a table and an altar by using separate terms.

The process of teaching and sharing “this is what we mean by redemption” can be a good way to integrate a visitor into the community, and a few questions in that visitor’s mind as they leave I doubt will make them decide “next week, I’m going somewhere I know the names of everything.”

But if they leave thinking “those folks like it that outsiders don’t know what’s going on, and aren’t interested in helping people figure it out,” I can give you a new technical term.

Non-returners.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what church term has always puzzled you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

[Note: This article first appeared in Faith Works in the Newark Advocate here.]