- This article is about the Christian buildings of worship. For other uses of the word, see Church (disambiguation).
A church building is a building used in Christian worship. See also altar, altar rails, confessional, dome, nave, pew, pulpit, sanctuary, lych gate.
The word "church" is derived through Middle and Old English from the Greek κυριακον (δωμα) Lord's (house). However, most English versions of the New Testament use the word "church" to translate the Greek ἐκκλησία congregation, assembly, a word originally used in Greek without specific reference to religious gatherings.
In English, the word can be used in reference to a gathering of people for a religious meeting, but is sometimes used to refer to a building or group of buildings. It is also used to refer to a denomination that places the leadership of all congregations in a central location, such as the "Roman Catholic Church". It can also be used in an institutional sense to refer to all churches, such as "... the church today...."
Although the Christian Bible says that the church is actually the body of believers, in Jewish times, the temple at Jerusalem held the presence of God in a place called the Holy of Holies. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Bible says that the Holy Spirit / presence of God is stored within each believer.
Origins of Christian places of worship
The architecture of Christian worship space grew out of the regular meetings of the followers of Christianity in private houses and synagogues, and occasionally in catacombs when necessary. When either the size of the community outgrew the space or the complexity of the uses of the space outpaced the architectural adaptation of houses, buildings began to be built specifically for worship. This became much more feasible and common when Constantine stopped the Roman persecution of Christians by issuing the Edict of Milan in 311.
In the first century
The first Christians were, like Jesus, Jews resident in Palestine who worshipped on occasion in the Temple in Jerusalem and weekly in local synagogues. Temple worship was a ritual involving sacrifice, occasionally including the sacrifice of animals in atonement for sin, offered to Yahweh. The New testament includes many references to Jesus visiting the Temple, the first time as an infant with his parents.
The early history of the synagogue is controverted, but it seems to be an institution developed for public Jewish worship during the Babylonian captivity when the Jews did not have access to the Jerusalem Temple for ritual sacrifice. Instead, to give a rough summary, they developed a daily and weekly service of readings from the Torah or the prophets followed by commentary. This could be carried out in a house if the attendance was small enough, and in many towns of the Diaspora that was the case. In others more elaborate architectural settings developed, sometimes by converting a house and sometimes by converting a previously public building. The minimum requirements seem to have been a meeting room with adequate seating, a case for the Torah scrolls, and a raised platform for the reader and preacher.
Jesus himself participated in this sort of service as a reader and commentator (see Gospel of Luke 4: 16-24) and his followers probably remained worshippers in synagogues in some cities. However, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70, the new Christian movement and Judaism increasingly parted ways. The Church became overwhelmingly Gentile sometime in the second century.
For the history of how services take place within a church, see worship or do a search on any particular religious denomination that you might be interested in.
Early examples of church architecture
The Syrian city of Dura-Europos
on the West bank of the Euphrates was an outpost town between the Roman
empires. During a siege by Parthian troops in A.D. 257 the buildings in the outermost blocks of the city grid were partially destroyed and filled with rubble to reinforce the city wall
. Thus were preserved and securely dated the earliest decorated church and a synagogue
decorated with extensive wall paintings. Both had been converted from earlier private buildings.
The church at Dura Europos has a special room dedicated for baptisms with a large baptismal font.
A common architecture for churches is the shape of a cross (a long central rectangle, with side rectangles, and a rectangle in front for the altar space or sanctuary). These churches also often have a dome or other large vaulted space in the interior to represent or draw attention to the heavens. Other common shapes for churches include a circle, to represent eternity, or an octagon or similar star shape, to represent the church's bringing light to the world. Another common feature is the spire, a tall tower on the "west" end of the church or over the crossing.