I've noticed in most Christian gatherings, such as Mass, "Worship Service", etc., the arrangement of the participants follows a general pattern, regardless of denomination:

1) The congregants, or laity, are arranged parallel lines, or pews, facing the same direction

2) There is a divide in the congregants, or aisle through the pews, perpendicular to the lines of congregants, extending from the back to the front of the space

3) The Priest/clergy/minister is at the front and center of the congregants, facing them, sometimes elevated, sometimes at or in front of an altar.

What is the historical origin of this format of Christian worship? Is it from Roman or Jewish religious traditions? I also note it is similar to the format for traditional educational settings (classroom), political/military addresses, and theatrical productions. Is the origin in one of these? Is the format of gathering significantly different in non-Western religions and cultures?

  • The one I'm really curious about (perhaps I ought to ask another question?) is the cross-shaped sanctuary, with the pews in the cross-piece facing towards the middle where they can't even see the pulpit. That just seems really impractical.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 14:01

1 Answer 1


The arrangement of modern Christian gatherings is the result of the development of early church architecture.

In the early days, up to the fourth century, Christians worshipped along with Jews in synagogues and private houses. After Jewish and Christian worship separated, Christians continued to worship in people's houses (known as house churches), often the homes of the wealthier members of the community in a particular town.

In the smaller gatherings, the evidence (for example the testimony of the apologist Justin Martyr) suggests that everyone participated in the act of worship. This changed as the church became increasingly "clericalised". Clerics carried out the act of worship at the alter, the congregation observed from a distance.

This gave rise to the "two-room" church, with the mass being celebrated in the Sanctuary and the congregation in the Nave observing through the arched "doorway" between the rooms. In the medieval period, the doorway was partially blocked by a wooden "rood screen" with holes to allow the congregation to observe.

The congregation was arranged in rows. Initially, people seem to have stood to observe the ceremonies before backless stone benches were introduced for the congregation (from about the 13th century in England. Some on the continent were earlier). These were often subsequently replaced with wooden pews. Wealthier members were often seated in private "family pews" (which they paid for).

Rood screens went out of fashion with the Reformation, but the basic layout - with the clerics at the front being observed by the congregation in rows - remained. Aisles allowed processions to run the length of the church and also easier access to the seating. As an architectural feature in churches, aisles were inherited (together with much else) from the design of the Roman basilica (e.g. Trajan's Basilica in Rome).

The issue of "clericalisation" of Christian worship actually remains a subject for debate. Some reformers are still calling for wholesale changes to the current "medieval" form of Christian worship characterised by the layout you described.

  • 1
    The addition of pews in many eastern churches is also relatively recent. Prior to the 19th century, parishioners would attend and stand before the sanctuary (or sit on chairs placed along the walls). Not necessarily divided into two groups with a aisle through the middle.
    – Notaras
    Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 0:12
  • Up until the mid 1960's in Catholic churches, the priest stood with his back to the worshipers (and the mass was said in Latin). Pope John XXIII changed all that. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 17:05

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