The word church has several meanings, including:
- A Christian building of worship. See altar, altar rails, confessional, dome, nave, pew, pulpit, sanctuary, lych gate.
- An assembly of Christian believers who worship together. This is one translation of the Greek Koine word "Ecclesia," used in the New Testament, and is the sense used by many Christians.
- In Christian theology, the Body of Christ composed of Jesus Christ and all Christians, living and dead. This is another sense of the word used in the New Testament, also used by the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds ("... one holy catholic and apostolic church ..."), and the sense used by many Christians.
- A religious organization or denomination within Christendom (such as the Catholic Church or Lutheran Church).
- A surname. Those with the surname "Church" include the logician Alonzo Church (famous for the Church-Turing thesis), the painter Frederic Edwin Church, and the writer Francis Pharcellus Church (famous for the editorial "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"). Church's Chicken, a brand of fried chicken.
Several non-Christian religious groups also use the word "church" in self-reference, as the Church of All Worlds
and the Church of Scientology
. The term is, however, not generally used by Muslim
, or Hindu
groups for either the worshipers or the building. See mosque
, and temple
for buildings of worship of these and other faiths.
The remainder of this article discusses church buildings as an element of Christian worship.
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. 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 religion 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 and Parthian 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.