The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford University Press) is a wonderful and fascinating look at how Christian worship has developed from the first century to today. It’s a hefty (916 pages) and well-illustrated tome that will offer hours of insights about the legacy in which we share as preachers and worship leaders.

In his chapter on “The Spatial Setting,” James F. White observes that the earliest worship took place in private homes, then by the third century A.D. it appears renovations were being made to better accommodate worship. By the late third century, church buildings were beginning to be constructed in many cities. White writes:

“The greatest single change came in the fourth century, when under Constantine and his successors Christianity became respectable and then advantageous. Imperial architects built monumental churches in Rome, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It is significant that the form chosen, the basilica, was a secular building used for law courts, not the religious architecture of the temple. The basilica enclosed the community; the temple excluded it. Basically the basilica was a large hall that might have side aisles with clerestory windows above and a semicircular apse at one short end. The Christian bishop and clergy simply took the place of the judge and lawyers in the apse…

“Originally the preaching was done by the bishop seated in his cathedra in the apse. Saint John Chrysostom, a great preacher with a weak voice, began preaching from the ambo so as better to be seen and heard, and most preachers since have followed this adaptation by going to the people to preach. The rest of the service was led from ambo, throne, and altar-table. The pulpit had become a distinct liturgical center in its own right and could be quite remote from the altar-table, wherever the people could see and hear best.

“Many medieval pulpits stood on the north side of the middle of the nave, where listeners could gather to hear the preacher. This implied a mobile congregation such as still exists in much of the orthodox world. The biggest single change in worship in the West came late in time, after the Black Death of the 14th century, when pews began to encroach on open territory. The congregation, hitherto mobile, sat down on the job and ended with a single orientation, facing the east end. For a thousand years or more they had been on their feet; now their attention was fixed in a single direction.”

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