It’s a Sanctuary; or is it?

Did you know the space where we worship on Sunday is not a Sanctuary? Many people, including pastors, misuse the name Sanctuary to describe that space. So, you may wonder, if it’s not a Sanctuary, what is it? Read this article and you might find yourself saying; I Didn’t Know That.


Many churches have multiple areas in the worship space (see diagram), at Zion there are four:

  • The Narthex – the area between the outside doors and the doors into the worship space.
    • from the Greek word narthex which means “giant fennel”
    • the portico on a Jewish temple was called narthex because it resembled a large hollow fennel stem

  • The nave – the area where people actively participate in worship (it is not a space to sit, but a space to actively sing, pray, speak, respond, and interact with one another and with God.) It contains the aisle and pews, and is the largest area.
    • from the Latin word navis which means; ship.
    • the early church used a ship as a symbol for the church
    • if one looks up at our ceiling, and disregards the air duct, one might visualize an upside-down ship’s hull

  • The Chancel – the area where the ministers lead the worship service; this area contains the musical instruments, pulpit and lectern and choir
    • from the Latin word cancelli which is the name for strips that form a lattice.
    • In some churches the chancel is separated from the nave by a railing with lattice work. In our space it is separated from the nave by the first set of stairs.

  • The Sanctuary – the area surrounding the altar. It is considered a place set apart from the world, a sacred place where we encounter God. The altar is the place where God is present in a very special way; the body and blood of Jesus.
    • from the Latin word sanctuarium, which means a container for keeping something cherished and important
    • The altar is generally in a place separate from the chancel and contains nothing but the altar. Our church was remodeled several decades ago to move the altar from what was the sanctuary (up the second set of steps). Soon, the altar will be returned to its sacred place so our focus can be on the saving power of Christ done through Holy Communion.


For simplicity, we refer to the whole area as the Worship Space, for that is what is done in the nave, chancel and sanctuary. Now you know.

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