Christianity is the world's most prolific religion, with more than 2.4 billion followers, and churches and chapels on every continent including Antarctica. Many of those are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
|“||For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life||”|
—Gospel of John, 3:16
Christianity is a monotheistic (believing in one god) Abrahamic (believing to be descended from the religion of Abraham who may or may not have lived in the second or first millennium B.C. in the ancient Middle East) religion and is today one of the most widely practiced religions in the world. Christianity believes that Jesus of Nazareth (who most likely lived from approximately 7 BC to roughly 30 CE, named after his likely birthplace, even though the New Testament states it to be Bethlehem) whom it calls Jesus Christ was the "Messiah" promised to the Jewish people by various prophecies and that he is in some sense the Son of God (the same God that Jews and Muslims worship). Christians believe that Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary as a virgin, and as the Son of God is the only one who can be considered free from sin in his own right, and that the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans was the sacrifice necessary to cleanse humanity of its sins. According to the Biblical account, Jesus was resurrected after his death on the cross and subsequent burial, and appeared before his disciples. Jesus was then raised to heaven where he awaits the end of the world, during which he would return to Earth and pass the final judgement on humanity.
The vast majority of Christians today also believe in some form of Trinity which is the belief that Jesus, God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit are one God in three Persons. The exact specifications of the Trinity, whether saints or icons should be venerated and how and questions of church administration caused a number of schisms which helped to provoke or provide a pretext for some very destructive wars and also resulted in the large number of Christian denominations in existence today, the most notable of which are the Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic church and various Protestant churches of which Lutherans and Calvinists are the historically most significant. While the great majority of religious people in some countries, such as the USA, Canada, Australia and most of Europe as well as almost all of Latin America are at least nominally Christian, Christianity is a minority religion in most of Asia (with the exception of the Philippines and East Timor), Africa (with the exception, mainly, of Southern Africa) and the Middle East. Christianity has influenced the culture of the countries it is or has been dominant in and has been influenced by preexisting local cultures, traditions and religions as well, and many important buildings bear witness to the Christian faith of today and bygone eras.
A key difference in doctrine between Christianity and Judaism is the concept of original sin in Christianity, which does not exist in Judaism. Christians believe that as a result of Adam's disobedience of God in the Garden of Eden, all humans are born tainted with this original sin, and that only through the sacrifice of an individual who is free from sin, of which Jesus Christ is the only one, can the sins of mankind be atoned for. As such, Christians generally believe that the only way one can be cleansed of sin and avoid eternal damnation is through belief in Jesus Christ.
Some main types of Christian buildings and sites are:
- Abbey: A church headed by an abbott/abbess, who is the leader of a community of monks/nuns
- Cathedral: A prominent church, the seat (cathedra) of a bishop
- Church: A building dedicated to Christian prayer and ceremony, inaugurated by a bishop
- Chapel: A similar, non-inaugurated building
- Monastery: A place where monks live and worship communally
- Convent: A place where nuns live and worship communally
- Cemetery: Can be tied to a Christian congregation or be multi-religious
One important difference between Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church on the one hand and some Protestant churches — particularly Calvinist ones — on the other is that while Orthodox Christians and Catholics venerate icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and saints, many Protestant churches are iconoclastic (rejecting the use of icons and in some cases in the past, outright destroying them), with simple churches that are not ornate and feature just a symbolic cross, rather than a crucifix showing the body of Christ in their churches. Protestant churches that do use icons to some degree and sometimes elaborate architectural decorations include Anglican and Lutheran churches, though the Anglican church also went through an iconoclastic period, during which they destroyed most English Catholic sculpture.
As in other religions, interpretations of scripture can also differ significantly between different Christian denominations. For example the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches tend to prefer a more figurative interpretation of the Biblical text, and generally allow for the theory of evolution and other scientific theories that do not match Biblical accounts. Conversely many evangelical churches, including the Pentecostal and Baptist churches tend to follow a strict literal interpretation of the Bible, and thus do not allow for evolution and other scientific theories.
Christianity's principal religious text, the Bible, comes in many different editions. The Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox bibles contain differing numbers of books, and the translations from the original texts (mostly written in ancient Greek) into most modern languages often also result in rather different interpretations.
Christianity began as a Messianic sect of Judaism, and the early Christians called their houses of prayer synagogues and continued to observe Jewish law, as Jesus had. The most important event in the early history of Christianity was the 'road to Damascus' conversion of Paul, when this zealous anti-Christian Jew was on his way to Damascus, where he planned to crush the local Christians and stamp out what he saw as a heresy. He had what he considered to be a vision of Jesus and from then on, devoted himself to the spread, rather than the annihilation of Christianity. Simon Peter and Thomas were the leaders of the Jerusalem community of Jewish Christians. Paul was able to gain their confidence and joined the leadership. Many of the early discussions of how to go forward are covered in Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. One of the most important issues came up when a non-Jew asked Peter to come to his house to share a meal with him, which would mean eating treif (non-kosher) food, in violation of Jewish law. According to the Biblical narrative, Peter had a dream as follows:
"And he beholdeth the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth: Wherein were all manner of four footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spoke to him again the second time, What God has cleansed, that call not you common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven." (Acts 10)
After having this dream, Peter ate treif food for the first time, preached to the non-Jew, and gained a new convert to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The two biggest obstacles to non-Jews converting to the budding new religion of Christianity were kosher laws and circumcision. After some early dissension, Peter and Paul adopted the policy that congregations that did not want to follow these Jewish laws did not have to, because the "New Covenant" of eternal life in Jesus Christ superseded the "Old Covenant" that God made with the Hebrews at Mount Sinai (as detailed in the Biblical book of Exodus).
Paul was by all accounts a very successful leader, and devoted much time to writing letters (which can be found in Epistles in the New Testament) inspiring the disparate Christian synagogues and maintaining unity. Communities that Peter sent epistles to included Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, near contemporary Kavala, Colossae and Thessaloniki. Peter, Paul and the other Apostles evangelized aggressively, believing as many other Jews believed in those turbulent times, especially after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, that the end of the world was nigh. They travelled widely, and Thomas is believed by many to have spread the "Good News" to India.
Once it noticed Christianity as anything but one of numerous Jewish sects (Judaism as the religio licita or allowed religion was exempt from the need to worship the emperor), the Roman Empire at first considered the emerging religion to be a threat to the unity of the empire and tried very hard, and often brutally, to wipe it out; many of the early Christian missionaries including St. Peter were martyred in horrific ways that are often depicted in Christian paintings and other artwork. However the intensity of Christian persecutions had waves and in the quieter times someone wishing to become a Christian martyr really had to go out of his/her way to catch the eye of the authorities and be executed. Anti-Christian purges were also often very localised, and large scale empire-wide purges were comparatively rare. Finally, in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine I announced that Christianity would be tolerated, and himself converted to Christianity. Under his sucessor, Emperor Theodosius I, Christianity was made the official state religion of Rome, and became mandatory for all Roman subjects. Pagans were oppressed as brutally as the Christians had previously been oppressed. The greatest threat to the primacy of Christianity in Rome was Mithraism, a secret religion of Persian origin in which it is believed that worshippers literally had to be washed in the blood of a bull, quite a close analogy with the Christian concept of being figuratively "washed in the blood of the Lamb", meaning Jesus' blood treated as a sacrifice that "saved" those who believe in him. The Mithraites were eventually totally wiped out, but there are some relics of their religion that remain. In particular, the crypt of the Roman church of San Clemente was a Mithraeum (Mithraic temple). But in any case, once Rome was officially Christian, a great temporal power was behind the religion, and this was probably the most important single event in the post-Peter-and-Paul history of the religion.
In the early years of Christianity, there were many competing sects that disagreed on which texts were considered sacred, as well as what it meant to be considered a Christian. For instance, some sects considered it necessary for Christians to adhere to Jewish law as Jesus himself did, while others deemed it unnecessary as they considered Jesus' sacrifice to supersede the old law; the latter view eventually won out. Eventually, the Roman Empire decided that it had to maintain control on the canon and began compiling what would eventually become the New Testament. Thus, out of over 20 gospels in existence, the church of the Roman Empire decided that only 4, namely the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were to be part of the New Testament, and that all the other gospels were to be declared heretical and destroyed, with the penalty of being burnt at the stake being prescribed for anyone with the audacity to retain copies of the unapproved gospels. To this day, these 4 gospels are the ones that continue to be held sacred by Christians, while the others have largely disappeared from the annals of history, though some of them have since been re-discovered by archaeologists in recent times. Other major disagreements were whether Jesus was to be considered divine, human or some combination of those two things and what exactly was meant by "the trinity" if it were to be considered a valid interpretation at all. In addition, there were also debates on the role women played in the church, with some of the since re-discovered lost gospels suggesting that Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus' key disciples, and not the repentant prostitute that the orthodoxy would eventually make her out to be.
Some of the earliest Christian churches included the Syriac church, centered in Antioch, which is now in Turkey; the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopia, the Armenian Orthodox church, the church in Georgia, and the Nestorians, who began in Constantinople, then had to flee to Persia because of doctrinal conflicts with other church leaders in Constantinople, and spread as far as India and China. Not far from Xi'an, China, you can visit the Daqin Pagoda, a Nestorian church that was built in 635 and was converted to a Buddhist monastery and shrine after the Nestorians died out locally. There are splendid ancient churches and monasteries, some of them still active, in Ethiopia, Armenia and Georgia.
Several schisms were to split the church in the years to come, the effects of which can still be felt today in the form of the different denominations of Christianity. The first significant schism to last into our era happened after the Council of Ephesus in 431, known as the Nestorian Schism, when the Assyrian Church of the East disagreed with the council and broke off. The next one would happen after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when the Oriental Orthodox Churches (including the Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Ethiopian churches) disagreed with the council and broke off.
Perhaps one of the most significant was the Great Schism in the 1050s that occurred as a result of the Roman Empire being divided into the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople, and also due to some doctrinal disputes and the refusal of the Orthodox Christians to accept the Pope as having authority over them. The church of the Western Roman Empire eventually evolved into today's Roman Catholic Church, and the church of the Eastern Roman Empire eventually evolved into today's Eastern Orthodox Churches (including the Russian, Greek, Georgian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian churches). The vestiges of this split can still be seen today, and the Archbishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, remains the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, while the Archbishop of Constantinople (today's Istanbul), also known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, remains the symbolic leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches. The geographic division remains roughly the same as it's been for centuries, though it is not quite a neat one, as there are also some very longstanding Eastern Rite communities which are nevertheless Catholic because they recognize the Pope as their leader, and more recently but in some cases dating back a few hundred years, there have been localized Eastern Orthodox congregations in some mainly Roman Catholic areas of Europe as well. There is for example quite a nice Russian Orthodox church in Dresden complete with icons and Moscow-style church spires; while it was built in the 19th century, it must have made some Soviet soldiers very homesick during the Cold War.
Starting in the 12th century, the Cathars, also known as the "Albigensian Heresy", gained many adherents, especially in the South of France (the department of Aude calls itself "Cathar Country" today, but perhaps more for promotional purposes than any other). The Catholic Church considered them a threat, due to doctrinal differences. It ordered a Crusade against the Cathars and massacred tens of thousands of them, then in 1234, founded the Inquisition to root out the remainder. It took about 100 years for the remaining Cathars to be annihilated, but inquisitions — most famously, the one in Spain and its colonies, directed above all against crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims after the 1492 Reconquista of Spain from the Moors — continued against many other individuals and groups the Catholic Church considered to be heretics until some ways through the 19th century.
At various times there was more than one claimant to important church leadership positions, including that of Roman Catholic Pope. The popes had resided in Avignon starting in 1309 and came increasingly under the influence of the French kings. When shortly before his death in 1377, Pope Gregory XI decided to move back to Rome, not all members of the higher church hierarchy were willing to follow him, and elected an "anti-pope" to reside in Avignon upon his death and the election of a successor in Rome. While no major questions of theology or doctrine were involved in what came to be known as the "occidental schism" (to differ it from the "Oriental schism" that broke apart Orthodox and Catholic Christianity), it lasted until a compromise was reached in 1417 when the three rival claimants (one from Avignon, one from Rome and one failed compromise candidate residing in Pisa) stepped down and were replaced by a new compromise candidate elected at the Council of Constance, where earlier the Jan Hus issue (see below) had been resolved by burning him.
The first successful schism in the part of Europe to the west of the Eastern Orthodox lands was the one led by Jan Hus (1369 – 1415) in Bohemia. The reasons for the split were complicated but Hus is generally described as motivated by a desire to reform and renew the Catholic Church. He was burnt at the stake for alleged heresy, triggering a rebellion in Bohemia that succeeded in repulsing five Roman Catholic Crusades. The Hussite Church still exists today, although the present-day population of the Czech Republic is largely secular. A Hussite rebellion was also one of the things that led to a war breaking out in 1618 that would pit most of Europe against each other and last until 1648 — a very destructive conflict known as the Thirty Years' War in most of Europe. Today the Moravian Church is the main religious movement claiming Hussite ancestry and Moravian churches can be found throughout the Caribbean with their lamb imagery and the words "our lamb has conquered; let us follow him" very recognizable in places like Bluefields, Nicaragua.
Western Christianity would then be further split in the 16th century, when Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) led the Protestant Reformation to split off from the Roman Catholic Church due to disagreements regarding the interpretation of religious scripture, chiefly involving questions of whether only faith in Jesus Christ is needed for a place in Heaven after death (Luther) or good works are also required (Catholicism) and whether it is necessary to follow the Pope and Catholic Church hierarchy or vital for each Christian to read and understand the Bible individually. Luther's followers were known as the Lutherans, and most modern Protestant denominations can trace their roots to this movement. Luther himself was a well-known and beloved lutenist and composer who appreciated artistic beauty and decoration, and Lutheranism is not an iconoclastic sect, so while Lutheran churches may not be as ornately adorned as Catholic ones, there are often decorations on and in the buildings.
Subsequently, John Calvin (1509 – 1564) led a truly iconoclastic and severe branch of the Reformation that inspired the Dutch Reformed Church; the French Protestants, called the Huguenots; the Congregationalists; and the Presbyterians. Calvinist churches are generally quite plain, emphasizing symmetry and clarity of form and eschewing all but the simplest ornaments. While the French Huguenots were initially a powerful group, they were ultimately defeated after decades of on and off wars, and many of them were faced with an ultimatum: Convert, die or emigrate. Many chose the latter and many German princes, especially the house Hohenzollern that ruled Brandenburg and parts of Franconia accepted the refugees and even built entire neighborhoods for them, which is still very evident in cities like Erlangen. Others found refuge throughout Protestant-majority parts of Europe and some even went as far as the Americas (for example, a neighborhood of Staten Island, New York is named Huguenot) and South Africa. Some were able to stay in France and represent a significant minority in parts of Provence today.
The Anglican Church (known in the U.S. as the Episcopal Church to avoid references to the British monarchy) was formed when the Church of England split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, due to King Henry VIII wanting to get a divorce, which is not allowed under Roman Catholic doctrine. Although considered by many to be a Protestant denomination, it does not share the same Lutheran or Calvinist origins as other Protestant churches, and is in many ways closer to the Catholic and Orthodox churches than to other Protestant churches in doctrine and structure. As such, it is also considered by some people to be a completely separate branch from Protestantism. The Anglican Church, like the Catholic, Orthodox and to some extent Lutheran churches, uses icons, and many of its rites continue to be similar to Catholic and Orthodox rites.
In modern times, the United States has also been a breeding ground for new Christian movements, most notably the charismatic movement, characterised by its megachurches (with congregations numbering in the thousands) and rock concert-like services, which has led a popular resurgence of Christianity among many youths. In addition, several new churches, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), whose teachings deviate significantly from mainstream Christianity, were founded and remain popular to this day (though others, such as the Shakers and Christian Scientists, have virtually died out and been greatly reduced in size, respectively). Some of these churches add a third testament — a post-New Testament holy book (for example, the Book of Mormon) — and are therefore sometimes considered post-Christian or non-Christian by others. While almost all Christian denominations proselytize to some degree, most missionaries today belong to one of the newer American or American-inspired branches of Christianity. This proselytism has been largely unsuccessful in the more secular countries of Europe and more liberal parts of the United States, but notably effective in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America as well as some parts of Asia - even in countries that had previously been almost entirely Catholic. The influence of American-inspired evangelical megachurches is particularly evident in historically Buddhist South Korea, which currently boasts 11 of the world's 12 largest Christian congregations, and sends more evangelical Christian missionaries abroad than any other country except the United States.
In the course of proselytizing, the Catholic church in particular used combinations of carrots and sticks that might seem surprising to modern observers. While the Spanish Empire gave the needed incentive through military force for Natives of the Americas to convert, missionaries often learned local languages, spreading Nahuatl and Guaraní in particular and adapted some customs and celebrations to local mores. Looking at some festivals purporting to honor some saint or other, it takes little imagination that they might just be a "converted" festival of some pre-Christian deity. Missionaries also had and continue to have widely varying approaches to the non-religious aspects of native cultures, from appreciating them to a degree that they were rebuked by the church in Rome, as happened to some Jesuits in China, to stamping them out and burning even their non-religious texts, as sadly befell the Maya culture which lost all but three codices to religious zealotry. To this day missionaries are also often engaged in social works and help the most underserved communities in part in order to convert them but in part also to do good works for good works' sake. That said, less tactful missionaries continue to do harm in otherwise intact communities and are thus often viewed with great skepticism by host governments or even barred from entry. The 19th century with rapidly expanding capitalism in Europe and North America and the widespread pauperism caused by it gave rise to "inner mission" and Catholic social teaching, which were attempts to lure proletarians away from "godless" communism as well as earnest efforts to follow Jesus' teaching that "what you did to the lowest of my brothers you did to me". To this day, various Christian organizations continue to be active in poor communities in the first world providing aid and social work without any overt proselytizing. However, in modern times, the missionary work of American Evangelical pastors in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean has also led to a massive surge of extreme homophobia.
- 1 Vatican City. An independent state within Rome, center of the Catholic Church and home to St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel; Rome outside the Vatican is also full of churches, including San Giovanni in Laterano, the Pope's cathedral in his role as Bishop of Rome.
- The Holy Land, today divided between Israel and the Palestinian territories
- 5 Istanbul (Turkey). Formerly Constantinople and home of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, with his church being the Church of St George in the Fener district.
- 6 Canterbury (United Kingdom). Home to the Canterbury Cathedral, the church of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the spiritual leader of the Anglican Church
- 7 Alexandria (Egypt). Home to Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Pope, who is the symbolic leader of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
- 8 Erbil (Iraq). Home to Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the seat of the Catholicos-Patriarch, the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East.
- 9 Antakya, 10 Tarsus, 11 Ephesus and 12 Alexandria Troas (close to Geyikli-Dalyan) in Turkey, 13 Athens, 14 Corinth, 15 Thessaloniki and 16 Samothrace in Greece, 17 Caesarea in Israel, where St. Paul is supposed to have preached
- Seven Churches of Asia, Turkey, are seven major early Christian communities mentioned in the New Testament.
- 18 Cappadocia (Turkey). A refugee for the early Christians where they escaped persecution in numerous underground cities and colourful churches dug into the volcanic rocks of the area.
- 19 İznik (Turkey). As ancient Nicaea, the town was the site of the First and the Second Councils of Nicaea (or the First and the Seventh Ecumenical Councils), convened in 325 and 787 respectively, probably inside the basilica of Hagia Sophia that still stands at the town square.
- 20 Mount Athos (Greece). A peninsula with many Orthodox monasteries - where women are not allowed at all
- Moscow (Russia). center of the Russian Orthodox church
- 21 Salt Lake City (United States). Center of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) movement. Note that Mormonism could be considered post-Christian because they have another text (Book of Mormon) added after the New Testament. Notable Mormon sites include the Salt Lake City temple at Temple Square, as well as the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
- 22 Lourdes (France). The world's best-known center of Marian pilgrimage
- Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, an important pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages
- 23 Aparecida (Brazil). Home to the sanctuary of Brazil's patroness, the Holy Virgin Mary of Aparecida
- Saint Olaf's Way to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, where St. Olaf is buried
- Several places in Germany are instrumental in the history of Lutheranism: The Wartburg, near Eisenach, where Luther translated the bible into German (one of the first and most notable modern vernacular versions of the bible), Lutherstadt Wittenberg where the 95 Theses were written and where Luther began to preach against the Pope and other, smaller places, mostly in Thuringia.
- Longobards in Italy, Places of Power (568–774 A.D.), 7 religious buildings in Italy built during the Early Middle Ages and listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
- Wooden tserkvas of the Carpathian region — 16 log churches in Poland and Ukraine, listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Several lesser known places also venerate the apparition of Mary or the supposed remains of some saint, especially in Orthodox and Catholic countries. As Melanchton, a 16th century ally of Martin Luther famously quipped "Fourteen of our twelve apostles are buried in Germany". Oftentimes those religious sites and objects have been a major draw for travelers for centuries and thus (former) "tourism infrastructure" may be an attraction all by itself.
Churches tend to use the language of the country they are located in, though this is by no means true in all cases. There are also many expatriate churches in many places using the language of a community's homeland. Religious language is often a solemn, antiquated variety as evidenced by the still most common English-language Bible, the King James Version that was translated from the original Greek and Hebrew by contemporaries of Shakespeare. However, most evangelical megachurches use newer translations of the Bible that are written in modern vernacular to make their Bibles more accessible to youths. There is however a significant minority that considers the King James Bible the only valid translation and similarly, the Luther Bible is often considered a work of supreme linguistic beauty or even genius never surpassed by more contemporary translations among German language Lutherans.
The Roman Catholic church used to employ the Latin language widely, although this has changed since the 1960s so that services are typically given in the language of the community. The Vatican is a place where Latin may still be observed in active use. Latin Masses are still offered in many other places around the world as well, and some people find the experience to be superior to a mass in the vernacular.
The original languages of the Old Testament are the Jewish holy languages of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, while the original language of the New Testament was classical Greek. Jesus of Nazareth is widely believed by historians to have been a native speaker of Aramaic.
Many Christian houses of worship, particularly many Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican ones, are spectacular buildings. On their exteriors, many churches have stone carving, for example in their tympana and niches. In their interiors, many have priceless works of art, in the form of frescoes, framed paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, mosaics, and woodworking. They may also have relics - the remains of body parts or objects associated with saints or other figures holy to Christians - that inspired the original construction of a cathedral, or famous icons of the Virgin Mary, which are primarily responsible for making the building a place of pilgrimage.
In addition, cathedrals and other large churches may have lovely bell towers or baptisteries with separate entrances that are well worth visiting, and particularly old churches may have a crypt that includes artifacts from previous houses of worship the current building was built on top of, and associated museums that house works of art formerly displayed in the church.
Protestant churches that are largely unadorned for doctrinal reasons can have a kind of serene, simple beauty all their own. In some places former mosques have been turned into churches (or vice versa) and more than one church has changed denomination due to the once common principle cuius regio eius religio (Latin that roughly translates as: Who owns the land decides the faith). This sometimes shows in architecture as well as adornments or the lack thereof.
Aside from the art you can see in churches, there is much sacred Christian art, especially framed paintings and sculptures, in art museums around the world, and there are also many beautifully decorated books of sacred Christian writing, including complete Bibles, separate Old and New Testaments, sets of Gospel readings for a year of masses, books of prayers with music notation for chanting or polyphonic singing (in which several different vocal lines intertwine in different ways) and books of devotional poetry. One particularly notable style is that of the illuminated manuscript, in which a book is handwritten in calligraphy along with decorative and informative illustrations. Illuminated manuscripts are generally found in libraries — either public libraries, university libraries or indeed church libraries.
Things to do in church
Churches are places for:
- Personal meditation, contemplation and prayer between masses/services
- Worship services, which vary widely in style between different churches
- Confession of sins or/and counseling
- Religious education and spiritual direction
- Various sacraments, such as baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals
- Communal activities, such as shared meals or snacks
- Charitable giving and receiving
- Many also run concert series or other performances, some of which are world-famous, or/and are known for having a great organist, chorus, or/and solo singers and instrumentalists
Churches generally have pamphlets in plain sight of visitors, describing their spiritual mission, schedule of services, communal and charitable activities, what charitable and maintenance/restoration work needs contributions, who to contact to find out more information about all of the above, and often the history of the building and its artworks.
There are various places of pilgrimage around the world that Christians traditionally visit. The age-old way to perform a pilgrimage was on foot or on the back of a horse or donkey. Among the traditional pilgrimages, the following are probably the most famous to do in the traditional way:
- The walk along the Via Dolorosa, the street in Jerusalem on which Jesus is said to have carried his cross, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
However, there are many other places of pilgrimage, and most of them are usually no longer approached by taking a long trek. For example, most long-distance travellers to The Vatican arrive by plane to Rome's Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport.
Music has always been a key part of Christian worship, and composers throughout the ages have set many hymns and prayers to music. The earliest surviving form of notated Christian music is the Gregorian chant, actually a set of Frankish chants recorded by scribes at the command of the Frankish King and first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, around the turn of the 9th century, and then blessed by the Pope. There were originally several styles of church chant, all of which are collectively known as plain chant, meaning that only the melody was chanted, without any countermelodies or harmony, but because of the Pope's imprimatur, Gregorian chant gradually supplanted the other styles to become the single official Roman Catholic chant style. Gregorian chant continues to be regularly performed at Masses in the Vatican City and in various monasteries and convents throughout the world.
Gregorian chant would later evolve into polyphonic chanting during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, distinguished from monophonic Gregorian chants in that in polyphonic chants, different segments of the choir often sing different melodies which are supposed to blend together in harmony (as in the organum of the 12th/13th-century French composer, Perotinus, probably the first man to compose music for performance in the Gothic church of Notre Dame in Paris) or the same or a similar melody, sung in overlapping imitation (typical of Renaissance practice starting no later than the time of the Guillaume Dufay [c. 1397-1474], from a town near Brussels). Perhaps the most famous Renaissance-era composers of polyphonic chants and other polyphonic church music are Josquin des Prez (c.1440 - 1521), a very highly celebrated Burgundian composer who worked for the courts of Milan, Rome (in the Papal Choir) and Ferrara and as Provost of the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, 50 km from Lille, which was then part of Burgundy; and the Italian, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), who worked for the Pope in various capacities, including as maestro di capella (Music Director) of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.
A special effect was attained by Andrea Gabrieli (1532 or 1533-1585) and his nephew, Giovanni (mid 1550s–1612): They placed different choirs in separate choir lofts on either side of the second level of the cathedral of San Marco in Venice, in order to produce an impressive stereophonic effect, also called antiphonal. Both Gabrielis also mixed instruments into the choirs; Giovanni composed some purely instrumental antiphonal music as well, including the Sonata Pian'e Forte, the first piece of European music to explicitly call for soft (piano) and loud (forte) playing. The instrumental music was also at least as religious as it was secular, as all of the Gabrielis' antiphonal music for San Marco represented a unity between one chorus that represented the Doge (the temporal ruler) and the other, which represented the Archbishop.
Music with instrumental accompaniment has been a key part of Western Christian traditions since at least the Baroque period. Many famous composers including those of the First Vienna school — Joseph Haydn (1732-1809, from the village of Rohrau, Lower Austria), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, from Salzburg), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827, from Bonn) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828, a native of the Vienna area) — and the aforementioned Dufay, Josquin and Palestrina were Roman Catholic, and set the Ordinary of the Mass to music — the "Ordinary" consisting of a series of prayers typically chanted by a choir (that is, not just by the priest) during Mass. These days, their settings of the Mass are more frequently performed as concert pieces than as part of the liturgy, but there are exceptions among both Roman Catholic and what are called "High Church Anglican" churches. A special type of Mass that is typically performed at funerals and memorial services is the Requiem Mass, the most famous settings of which were composed by Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901, a famous opera composer who was born in Le Roncole, Province of Parma and wrote mostly for La Fenice in Venice) and Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924, from Pamiers, a small town in Ariège Department, who had a long career in Paris).
In addition to the Mass, other Christian religious genres of work include the Vespers, Psalms, motets, sacred cantatas, oratorios and passions. The best known setting of the Vespers is probably that by the Mannerist (late Renaissance/early Baroque) composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643, from Cremona, who worked at the Gonzaga court in Mantua and then as Music Director of San Marco in Venice). Perhaps the most famous composer of the sacred cantata is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, from Eisenach, who worked for the Ducal court of Weimar, then for the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, and then as Music Director of the Thomasschule in Leipzig), a Lutheran whose sacred cantatas include Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (featuring a famous movement known as "Jesus bleibet meine Freude"), and is also well known for his huge repertoire of liturgical works including Passions that retell the last days of Christ according to the Gospel accounts of St. Matthew and St. John. An example of a well-known motet is Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, though these days it is very rarely performed in liturgy, but instead often serves as a concert showpiece for the world's leading operatic sopranos.
Another important form of Christian music is the oratorio. Oratorios are in essence similar to operas in structure, the main differences being that oratorios are usually on a sacred subject in contrast to the usually secular subject of operas, and that oratorios are rarely staged, whereas operas usually are. Many musicologists believe the word oratorio dates back to the time when Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) composed sacred music in a style very similar to the then new operatic style of Monteverdi, et al., for sacred concerts he directed at the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso in Rome. Oratorios are typically composed to educate the public about stories in the Bible. The most famous oratorios include Messiah (which features the famed "Hallelujah Chorus") and Solomon (which features a famous instrumental passage known as "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba") by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759, who was born in Halle and attained great fame as Court Composer in London); Haydn's Die Schöpfung; Juditha Triumphans by the Venetian, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741); Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847, from Hamburg); L'enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869, from La Côte-Saint-André, Isère) and Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Easter Oratorio.
A form of music unique to the Anglican tradition is the anthem, the most famous composers of which are Henry Purcell (1659-1695, from London) and Handel. A famous example of an Anglican anthem is Handel's Zadok the Priest, which was originally composed for the coronation service of King George II in Westminster Abbey, and continues to be performed at British coronation services to this day. It has also served in a secular context as the inspiration for the anthem of the UEFA Champions' League, the world's most prestigious tournament in club football (soccer).
In Eastern Christian traditions, religious music is required to be sung a capella (that is, without instrumental accompaniment). Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a setting of a divine liturgy is the version of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by the Russian Romantic, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893). There are also very beautiful traditions of sacred choral singing in Russia and Georgia.
Many evangelical megachurches also compose their own music, usually in very modern styles, and services as these churches typically resemble rock and pop concerts more than traditional church services, though of course, the subject of the music is sacred rather than secular. A church whose music is well known among charismatic churches worldwide is Hillsong Church in Sydney, with their music being regularly performed in charismatic churches throughout the world. Additionally, many African-American churches are also well known for the catchy tunes of their Gospel music, with the congregation often breaking into song and dance during worship services. Due to the use of modern musical styles, Evangelical megachurches tend to be the most popular churches among youths in many countries, and have also attracted more youths to convert to Christianity than any other churches.
Depending on the definition of "Christian", the Mormon tabernacle choir is also a household name in US Christian music. They are perhaps most famous for their rendition of the religious / patriotic "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that originated during the Civil War as new lyrics to a song about anti-slavery radical John Brown. Famously the Mormon version was the first to replace "die" with "live" in a critical section, a tradition since mostly followed by other renditions.
Pianos are often used in services, especially in African-American churches, but it is above all the organ that has a long history of connection with the church and church music. The ancestor of the organ, the hydraulis, was used as a secular instrument in Roman times but died out in Western Europe, while continuing to exist and be developed in the Hellenistic "East". However, after a hiatus of a few hundred years, the hydraulis was reintroduced to Western Europe when Pepin (c. 714–768), King of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, was gifted one by Emperor Constantine V of Byzantium. The hydraulis and then organ have been used widely in churches ever since this period. It is even theorized that the word organum, a genre that existed starting no later than the 9th century as a simple form of note-against note polyphony and then developed by the 12th century into one in which one voice holds out plain chant notes while one or more higher voices sing much faster counterpoints to that melody, may owe itself to the organ being used to hold the long notes, though this is uncertain.
What is certain is that a very large number of churches have impressive, beautiful organs whose appearance and sound are major draws for visitors and congregants. Many churches also feature their regular organist and/or other organists performing recitals on their organ.
Some churches have a money box where visitors can pay for candles and booklets or give to the church or/and its various missions and charities. Others have cafes or/and gift shops. Some do not want you to give money unless you attend regularly, as their spiritual mission is to welcome all comers, but it is a rare church that wouldn't welcome a sincere donation.
Many Protestant churches also require their members to contribute 10% of their monthly income to the church. This is known as a tithe. In addition, churches also collect monetary donations from worshippers at services, which is optional and on top of the tithe. This is known as an offering. In some places (e.g. Germany or Austria) the tithe is collected by the state on behalf of the churches, meaning it is rather common (and perfectly legal) for an employer to ask for your religion.
The aforementioned religious music is of course often available for purchase as are (replicas) of religious artworks. In the past there was also a vibrant trade in (real or fake) reliquias and indulgences - so vibrant in fact that it kicked off the Protestant Reformation - but most major dominations have since left this market.
While some Catholics still observe a variation of dietary law in abstaining from meat (other than "fish", which historically could include anything from beavers to turtles) on Fridays during a contemplative period of the church calendar called Lent (which precedes Easter, and in some places, follows Carnaval/Mardi Gras), there is not really an equivalent to Muslim halal or Jewish kashrut in mainstream Christianity.
Many of the newer American branches of Christianity, though, have some stricter dietary laws that are not followed by more traditional Christian denominations. For instance, some evangelical megachurches, as well as the Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons, prohibit consumption of alcohol. Seventh Day Adventists are also encouraged to be vegan and absolutely prohibited from eating pork, while both Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists are forbidden from drinking tea and coffee. Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden from consuming blood and blood products (which includes receiving blood transfusions), so any meat they eat has to be properly drained of blood before consumption.
Some denominations celebrate communion in a matter more akin to an actual meal than the mostly symbolic Host eaten in Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican mass. Christian charities and missionaries are also active (almost) worldwide in providing food for the needy.
Some churches offer wine (with alcohol) as part of a communion service. Others will offer a non-alcoholic replacement such as grape juice.
Some denominations of Christianity prohibit or restrict alcohol consumption, while others celebrate it. So whereas a social event organized by a Baptist church in the United States may be strictly alcohol-free, a Catholic church in Germany is likely to invite all members of the congregation to join the celebrants at a beer hall after a high mass. The beer hall may even be next to the church, and the beer they serve may be brewed by monks. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, as well as some Baptist churches prohibit the consumption of tea and coffee.
Different branches of Christianity have different attitudes to other activities on a Sunday. In some areas customs or even secular laws may demand that shops and places of entertainment shut on a Sunday. In some places, notably certain states of Germany, discos and similar venues and activities of entertainment have to be closed on "silent" holidays like Good Friday or All Saints' Day. In other places all Christian holidays - even more somber ones like Good Friday - are celebrated with music, parades in the streets, drink, merriment and traditions that sometimes predate the local introduction of Christianity.
Some monasteries and convents offer accommodation to travellers. Churches and religious community centers are also often used as a place for youth groups of the same or a similar denomination to spend the night, such as Christian Scout groups during Hajk.
The expectation of conservative dress and respectful behavior varies greatly between individual churches, although generally speaking churches will welcome all strangers from all faiths without pre-condition.
When attending a service or ceremony at a Christian place of worship, it is appropriate to dress conservatively and show respect; details vary by place. It is a very good idea to learn a bit about the local rules before visiting a place of worship. There is a vast difference between any expected behaviour during a service; for example, some may define behaving reverently as not eating or drinking or taking photographs, checking your mobile phone, and so on. On the other hand many churches are more like a modern concert in style where all of the above are welcome. Some even have the eating and drinking as the basis of the service sitting around in a 'Café Style'. Similarly, while some styles of worship involve the congregation quietly listening to a professional choir sing hymns, at many churches of people of African heritage in the Americas, the entire congregation is expected to join the choir in singing, clapping, even dancing. In many Christian churches, a man should remove his hat, and in some, a woman is expected to cover her head. Depending on the church and what is going on at the time, voices should be kept down, and mobile phones and similar devices should be set to silent. You should avoid leaving the church while the service is in progress unless necessary, again depending on the type and style of service.
While the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches have a wealth of classical music heritage, actual orchestral church services in these denominations are rare in modern times, and much of this music is more commonly performed in a symphonic concert setting rather than the liturgical context they were originally intended for. Should you be lucky enough to attend one of those rare liturgical orchestral performances of such music, be aware that unlike at a concert, you should not applaud the performance, as applause is considered to be inappropriate in the context of the solemnity of a church service.
If you are visiting a place of worship that is a destination for travellers and you are not interested in worshipping yourself, it is better to wait for a service or ceremony to conclude before visiting. Alternatively, if you want to know more of the heart of the community, go to a service. Many - though not all - architecturally interesting churches belong to styles of Christianity that expect people - especially women - to dress conservatively. Often (especially in the heavily visited cases) this will be spelt out in so many words, but exceptions exist, where you might commit a social faux pas or even get thrown out of the church, without even knowing. When in doubt, ask a local before heading out.