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The word church refers to:

  • the building of worship for believers in Christianity
  • An "assembly" of believers who worship Christ together. This is the sense the word in used in the New Testement and is still used by many Christians.
  • An institutional structure or division within the Christian religion (such as the Catholic Church or Lutheran Church)

Origins of Christian Worship

The architecture of Christian worship space grew out of the regular meetings of the followers of Christianity in private houses. 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.

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, including blood sacrifice, 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 sevice of readings from the Torah or the prophets followed by commentary. This could be carried out in a house if the attendence was small enough, and in many towns of the Diaspora that was the case. In others more elaborated 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 well into the first century when the new Christian movement and Judaism parted ways.

The first part of Christian worship in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions procedes this way with introductory prayers, readings from scripture, a recited or sung psalm, a sermon, and a statement of faith. This pattern, with its elements occasionally rearranged, is followed in many Protestant churches.

The second half of the service offered in the older traditions, known as the Eucharist in Catholicism, called for some novelty of arrangement. For the Eucharist, which reflects the Last supper of Jesus and his apostles, provision had to be made for a table or altar.

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.