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The sanctuary is the most sacred part of any church. The word “sanctuary” comes from the Latin term for sacred place, and it refers to the religious space in a church where the congregation gathers for worship.

The sanctuary is typically located at the east end of a church building, and is separated from the rest of the sanctuary by a screen or wall called an iconostasis (which means “icon stand”). The iconostasis can be made of wood, stone, or metal. It may contain icons (religious art) or images (like stained glass windows).

The altar sits in front of this wall or screen. On top of it are candles and other objects used during worship services like communion cups and crosses.

In ancient churches, there was often no separation between nave (the main part of the church where people sit) and chancel (the area behind where clergy would stand). This meant that when you walked into a church building, you could see all of these things right away!

Church buildings have been a cornerstone of Christian faith since the beginning, however, their size and construction have changed over the years. Early Christians met in homes or large public buildings to encourage each other and to maintain unity. As the church grew, the need for larger buildings that were designed specifically for the purpose of worship became obvious. In some cases, existing homes were remodeled to suit such purposes and in others, new buildings were constructed. The design of the church building itself is purposeful, incorporating symbolic meaning from the Bible.


In the Catholic church, the vestibule is usually the first area encountered upon entering the church. This area separates those who are reconciled to the church from those who are not. A baptismal, or pool of water used to baptize infants, is kept near the entrance on purpose, as baptism is the “door to the church” in Catholicism. Near the baptismal are shelves in the wall that hold oil used in different ceremonies, including baptism, confirmation and ordination. In other churches, there may be a foyer immediately upon entry or the doors may lead directly into the nave or worship center, as it may be called.


The nave is the area of the church where parishioners, or members of the church, sit or stand. In Catholic and Protestant churches, this area is comprised of pews. In modern churches, it is not uncommon to see rows of chairs or even tables with chairs in this area.


In most churches, the sanctuary is in front of the nave, and kept separate by railing if possible. This area is home to the altar, tabernacle, pulpit and a chair for the priest or pastor. The pulpit is generally raised and used during the sermon, or instructional time of the service. The altar is the place where the priest prepares communion, which is stored in the tabernacle when not in use. Modern churches may simply have a stage without altar or tabernacle. In these churches, the pastor may sit or stand and the use of a pulpit will depend on the local church.

4Choir Loft

In some churches, a raised area above the sanctuary, or a set of risers behind the sanctuary may be occupied by the choir. This area is called a “choir loft” and was originally used for the choir to sing responses to the mass with the congregation. Now it is used for a choir to sing hymns or Christian songs.


Some non-denominational or modern churches may incorporate other elements into a church building that are more commonly found in community centers or banquet halls. This may include a coffee bar or snack area, nursery and schoolrooms for younger members of the church or prayer closets, where one can pray onsite but separately from the congregation.

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