Cantata comes from the Latin word cantare, which is a verb meaning "to sing." While cantatas can have lyrics that are either sacred or dramatic in origin, a church cantata is always sacred in theme.
Cantatas find their origin in the Baroque time period, generally considered to be between 1600 and 1750. As previously stated, the lyric content of cantatas can be either sacred or inspired by drama or poetry.
While cantatas were originally written as chamber music (music written for performances by small groups for private banquets or other small events), church cantatas are often performed by a full choir. These performances are often centered on church holiday services such as Christmas or Easter.
Cantatas have historically referred to a specific form of music, and church cantatas in particular give shape to a church service. However, Absolute Astronomy points out that in the modern church vocabulary the term cantata is commonly used simply to distinguish choral pieces from vocal solos.
Even though it was not necessarily as common for Baroque cantatas to have a narrator, and that is a frequent occurrence in contemporary church cantatas, the part of a narrator is not out of place in either form.
J.S. Bach is known to have written more than 300 cantatas for the church, though the music for many of them has been lost over the years; however, about 200 Bach cantatas have survived to this day.