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The word church has several meanings, including:
  • A Christian building of worship. See altar, altar rails, confessional[?], dome, nave[?], pew[?], pulpit, sanctuary.
  • An assembly of Christian believers who worship together. This is one sense the word is used in the New Testament, and is the sense used by many Christians.
  • Christendom, or the Body of Christ composed of Jesus Christ and all Christians, living and dead. This is another sense the word is used in the New Testament, the sense 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 the Christian religion (such as the Catholic Church or Lutheran Church).

Several non-Christian religious groups also use the word "church" in self-reference, as the Church of All Worlds[?] and the Church of Scientology.

Table of contents

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. This became much more feasible and common when Constantine stopped the Roman persecution of Christians in the early 300s.

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 animal 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 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.

The first part of Christian worship in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions proceeds 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 and Eastern Orthodoxy, 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 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.

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