Since before the 4th century C.E., Christians have come together to worship in a building dedicated to that purpose.From the birth of Christianity to the present, the most significant period of transformation for Christian architecture and design was the time between the birth of Christian humanism as a self-conscious philosophical tendency in Europe in the early 12th century, to the late Reformation period in the 17th century. According to historian James C. Russell[ci, this period was crucial in the development of Christianity in Europe, and the changing nature of the faith and its architectural design proved to be extremely influential to the world of religious architecture in general.
Christian Humanism began in the 12th century with the principle of commonality among all Christians as its basic ethos. Correspondingly, according to David Ross, this period of church design (1180–1275) marks the first flowering of dedicated church architecture. This era, referred to as Gothic, featured churches that were built to appear that they were "reaching for the sky", as a symbolic expression of religious aspiration (stretching toward heaven). At this time Church architecture had to symbolise Christian belief to a population that could generally not read or write. Carvings and statues had a role to play to people who could not read for themselves, which further allowed church architecture to tell a story. As a result it was in this period that religious symbolism became an important part of church design. Further, as most dwellings were little more than mud huts, the construction of the church from stone served to set it apart as a building of extraordinary significance. Therefore Christian Humanism emphasised the unity and equality of all Christians, and architecture played a significant role in allowing Christians from all walks of life to come together in comfortable (and occasionally even splendid) surroundings.
In the book Architecture in Communion (Ignatius Press, 1998), author and Catholic church architect Steven J. Schloeder notes that Gothic sensibility was rooted in the teachings of Dionysius the Areopagite, and was a theological rather than stylistic initiative:
"The Gothic cathedral as an expression of the heavenly Jerusalem was not an attempt at “stylistic” or aesthetic expression. Nor was it a theatrical presentation enabled by the evolving technology of the age. Instead it was a very real religious image —at least in the mind of Abbot Suger of St.-Denis, the builder the first “Gothic” building —of the celestial city on earth, “a spectacle in which heaven and earth, the angelic hosts in heaven and the human community in the sanctuary, seemed to merge.”
In the early 16th century Martin Luther and the Reformation brought a period of radical change to church design. Prior to the Reformation, the Bible had only been transcribed into Latin; thus only a few Church-educated priests and scholars were able to understand it. The Reformation saw the Bible translated into the common languages, beginning with German. Hence emphasis in the reforming churches shifted from the surroundings to the readings, which people were able to understand for the first time. In these churches, the pulpit now became the dominant feature, as the Word of God became the central focus of congregation and emphasis was placed less on the splendour of the setting and more upon the readings and sermon. Proscriptions against images and symbols meant that architecture, having lost its need to signify the sacred, became seen as merely providing for functionality. However while the birth of Protestantism led to massive changes in the way that Christianity was practiced (and hence the design of churches), Catholic churches retained an emphasis on the symbolic.
According to Duncan Stroik, late in the Reformation period, there was a shift across all denominations to an emphasis on "full and active participation". In the Roman Catholic Church this was achieved through an emphasis on "emotional exuberance", which meant that even those members of the congregation who were unfamiliar with the ceremony could still be deeply moved. With the onset late 16th century, exquisite marble statues adorned the churches, and gold fittings combined with superb stained glass windows in a celebration of the faith. In contrast, in Protestant churches the altar and tabernacle were often removed, and a communion table and pulpit replaced the altar. Despite the apparent disparity, both denominations sought to provide for fundamentally the same purpose: to allow the worshippers to feel close to God.