Christianity is the world's most prolific religion, with churches and other dedicated buildings on literally every continent, including Antarctica. Several sites built in the name of Christianity are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
As Christian congregations have had a significant role in most communities where they are present, a traveller regardless of faith will learn much from visiting a local church.
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 lived from approximately 7 BC to roughly 30 CE, named after his likely birthplace, even though many Christians believe it to be Bethlehem instead) 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 the Jews and Muslims worship). The vast majority of Christians today also believe in some form of Trinity: i.e. 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 should be venerated and how and questions of church administration caused a number of schisms which helped cause 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 and most of Europe as well as almost all of Latin America are at least nominally Christian, Christianity is a minority in most of Asia (with the exception of the Philippines and East Timor), Africa (with the exception 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.
Some main types of Christian buildings and sites are:
- Cathedral: A prominent church, and the seat 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 or outright destroying them), with simple and not ornate churches and 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.
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 conversion of Paul. Then a zealous anti-Christian Jew, Paul was on his way to Damascus, where he planned to crush the local Jewish Christians and stamp out what he saw as a heresy. He had a vision and from then on, devoted himself to the spread, rather than the annihilation of Christianity. Peter and Thomas, called "the Twin" and considered literally the twin brother of Jesus by some, 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. 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. 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 (see Exodus).
Paul was a brilliant leader, and you can learn a lot about his methods of inspiring the disparate Christian synagogues and maintaining unity by reading some of the numerous letters he sent, which are preserved in the Epistles in the New Testament. 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 it 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 Christianity 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. Finally, in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine I announced that Christianity would be tolerated. Shortly thereafter, Christianity was made the official religion of Rome, and polytheists 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.
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.
- See also: Holy Land
- Vatican City, an independent state within Rome, center of the Catholic Church and home to St Peter's Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel; Rome outside the Vatican is also full of churches, including San Giovanni in Laterano, the Pope's church in his role as Bishop of Rome
- Jerusalem, Israel, site of Jesus' crucification and also a holy city for Judaism and Islam
- Bethlehem, West Bank, the birthplace of Jesus according to the New Testament
- Nazareth, Israel, the home (and likely historical birthplace) of Jesus
- Mount Athos, Greece, a peninsula with many Orthodox monasteries
- Moscow, Russia, center of the Russian Orthodox church
- Salt Lake City, United States, center of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) movement (note that some Christians consider Mormonism post-Christian because they have a further testament after the New Testament)
- Lourdes, France, world's best-known center of Marian pilgrimage
- Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela an important pilgrimage route since the middle ages
- Aparecida, Brazil
- Saint Olaf's Way to Trondheim, Norway, to Nidaros Cathedral, where St. Olaf is buried
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.
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.
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.
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. While by no means universal, 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.
The Roman Catholic church used to employ the Latin language widely, although this has been changed since the 1970s 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 may still be held upon explicit request and some people claim the experience to be superior to a mass in the vernacular.
Many Christian houses of worship, particularly many Roman Catholic and Orthodox 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.
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.
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.
While some Catholics still observe a variation of "dietary law" in only eating "fish" on Fridays (historically this could include anything from beavers to turtles) and 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 Christianity.
Some denominations celebrate communion in a matter more akin to an actual meal than the mostly symbolic Host eaten in Catholic or Orthodox 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.
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 entertainments shut on a Sunday.
Some monasteries and convents offer accommodation to travellers.