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 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 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 or icons 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, 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 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. 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 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 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. Finally, in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine I announced that Christianity would be tolerated, and himself converted to Christianity. Under his son, 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.
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 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 and Armenian 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. 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 Istanbul, also known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, remains the 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.
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.
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 the Lutherans. 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 initially were 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 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 and 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 congregation sizes 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 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
- 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 church in his role as Bishop of Rome.
- The Holy Land, today divided between Israel and the Palestinian territories
- Istanbul (Turkey). formerly Constantinople and home of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with his church being the Church of St George in the Fener district.
- Canterbury. home to the Canterbury Cathedral, the church of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the leader of the Anglican Church
- Alexandria. home to Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Catheral, the seat of the Coptic Pope, who is the leader of the Oriental Orthodox Church.
- Antakya, Tarsus, Ephesus and Alexandria Troas (close to Geyikli) in Turkey, Athens, Corinth, Thessaloniki and Samothrace in Greece, 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
- Mount Athos (Greece). A peninsula with many Orthodox monasteries - off limits to women
- 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 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
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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.