Christianity in Two Hours or less

I have spent the last five years working with students from all kinds of Christian traditions, and from non-Christian religions and secular families as well. Multiple times each year, I have the opportunity to introduce them to Christianity, in all its various versions and sects and denominations. Whether it is talking in chapel, teaching New Testament, or discussing world religions, I often have to help students find a "road map" to understand the diversity and variety of spiritual viewpoints and practices we call "Christian".

As a result of this experience, I have developed a curriculum of key ideas, charts, and videos designed to introduce teens and adults to the vast family of Christian traditions in around two hours. This assumes that the audience already is introduced to the basics of what the Bible is all about, and what basic ideas are shared across Christian traditions (such as Trinity, Incarnation, Revelation, Salvation, etc.).

This course will not work with someone who has not had a basic introduction to the Bible and some version of the Christian worldview. Nor would it work to introduce someone to Jesus or bring them into the faith. Nor would it suffice to introduce someone to all the depth of one's own tradition. Rather, this moves lightly over the broad terrain of all Christian traditions. Digging deep in one specific tradition should be the goal of another course.

The aim of this mini-course is unique. It is not aimed at a comprehensive understanding of different Christian beliefs or history. Rather it is aimed at giving students a basic set of categories and vocabulary to make sense of the situation when they encounter a Christian or a Church different from their own tradition. For instance, many of my students will be exposed to Catholic worship or Charismatic worship at some point, and I want them to have enough information to orient themselves when they do.

If you are teaching in a Church, this is designed to be broken up into two hour long Sunday morning sessions. If you are a classroom religion teacher, it can be taught over four periods (with appropriate discussion), leaving the fifth day for a quiz or test over the material. It consists of four elements:

  • A "Christian Family Tree" chart of denominations and traditions.
  • A chart on three different axes on which to organize Christian traditions.
  • A talking points outline of key concepts, along with a two page handout with blanks for notes.
  • Several Youtube videos that are very helpful to illustrate concepts that are discussed.
  • You may download a free PDF packet for this course HERE (all I ask is that you attribute it to me)


1. THREE AXES TO UNDERSTAND CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS:  One way to understand Christian traditions is by looking at where they fall on three axes of: (i) How they use Scripture and Tradition in building their beliefs (more conservative or liberal?); (ii) How they worship (more sacramental or experiential?); and (iii) How they structure their community (more hierarchical or congregational?)

1a. CONSERVATIVE - A broad movement across Christian traditions that is skeptical toward modern claims and change. They seek to defend, conserve and strengthen tradition. A group may be conservative in one area (such as doctrine), while being liberal in another (such as worship).

1b. LIBERAL - A broad movement across Christian traditions that is skeptical of traditional, conservative and exclusivist interpretations of Christianity. It stresses the "broad" commonalities across traditions, and seeks to integrate faith with reason and science.

1c. SACRAMENTAL - A form of Christian spirituality in which God's presence is primarily mediated by certain rituals, especially the sacrament of the Mass or Eucharist. Sacraments are "outward and visible signs of God's inward and spiritual grace" working through our rituals. Worship is focused on the altar and God is the audience while the people are the performers of the liturgy.

1d. EXPERIENTIAL - A form of Christian worship in which God's presence is primarily mediated by human experience, especially by encountering God's Word in preaching, singing and prayer. Worship is focused on the preacher and musicians, God is the performer, and people are the audience.

1e. HIERARCHICAL - A Church structure in which power flows from the top leadership down. Typically, there is a well-organized system of leadership with the "three fold" ministry of regional bishops/overseers, local priests/pastors, who are helped by deacons/ministers.

1f. CONGREGATIONAL - A Church structure in which power flows up from the people. Typically, local congregations elect or depose their leadership, and leaders only serve at the pleasure of the people.

2. EASTERN ORTHODOXY - A Church Tradition rooted in the first New Testament Churches around the near East and Greece. They tend to be extremely conservative. Their worship is highly sacramental with layers of icons, vestments, candles and incense. Their structure is also extremely hierarchical, with national churches led by archbishops that are called Patriarchs or Metropolitans.

2a. LITURGY - Comes from a Greek word for "work of the people". It refers to how the work of the people is organized in worship. Every Christian group has this either written down or implicitly, because every group has organized patterns for their worship.

2b. ECUMENICAL COUNCILS - Worldwide meetings of bishops from 325-787 which defined boundaries about who God and Christ are, and how we approach God. God is Trinity: Three persons in one Being. Christ is Divine and Human united in one Person. Icons and sacraments are used to approach God. Nestorians and Miaphysites disagreed with exact wording, while agreeing on substance.

3. ROMAN CATHOLIC - A Church Tradition rooted in the Church planted by Peter and Paul. They are relatively conservative, with very sacramental worship focused on the Mass (and six other sacraments). They are the most hierarchical Church with all power flowing from the Bishop of Rome.

3a. POPE - This is the bishop of the Church of Rome. While many traditions such as Orthodoxy and Anglicanism accept him as the rightful Bishop of Rome, Catholics say that he is the chief pastor of the entire Church across with whole world, and "infallible" when he officially defines doctrines.

3b. APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION - The hierarchical idea that, in order for a bishop to be legitimate, he must be in the line of an historic succession of ordinations that stretches back to the Apostles and Christ.

3c. MASS - This is the Roman Catholic name for the sacrament of Eucharist or Holy Communion. It is the principal act of worship in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism and Lutheranism.

3d. ADORATION - This is a Roman Catholic meditative and worship practice in which the worshipper spends time viewing and praying in the presence of the consecrated bread of Eucharist. The presence of Christ in the sacrament is supposed to be a tangible way to draw closer to God.

4. MAINLINE - This refers to the older, established denominations that largely came over from Europe. This usually refers to Protestant denominations such as Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, but can include Catholics as well. They trend more liberal on belief systems.

4a. ANGLICANISM - A worldwide tradition rooted in the Church of England, but including national churches such as the Episcopal Church, united around "Common Prayer" using liturgies from a Book of Common Prayer. They are usually conservative in keeping the Creeds, hierarchy, apostolic succession, and sacramental worship, while often liberal in gender roles, women's ordination and sexual norms.

4b. REFORMED - A worldwide tradition rooted in the theology of thinkers like John Calvin. Their worship tends to be structured, but not sacramental. They are often led by elders or presbyters. They tend to stress God's sovereign control, our inability to do good, and God's sheer grace in saving us.

4c. ORDINANCES - A view held by many Protestants that rituals are mere symbols which do not share God's presence. Usually only two rituals are "ordered" by Christ: Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

4d. BELIEVER'S BAPTISM - A view of many congregationalist protestants rejecting baptism of young children. In this, baptism must be part of a conscious adult choice to have faith in Christ.

4e. FUNDAMENTALISM - A very conservative movement that rejects Liberalism and much of Modern culture. It stresses what it views as traditional elements of religion, especially: Biblical inerrancy, Virgin Birth, Literal resurrection, Christ's immanent return, and traditional sexual, gender and racial norms.

5. EVANGELICAL - A broad movement across Protestantism that stresses a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior, an emotional conversion experience, and a conservative view of the Bible.

5a. BORN AGAIN - An Evangelical term that refers to a personally-felt conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior. This happens at a specific time, when we consciously choose to accept Christ.

5b. SINNER'S PRAYER - The prayer someone prays when "born again", which emphasizes personal sinfulness, God's forgiveness through Christ, and acceptance of Jesus as personal Savior and Lord.

5c. DISPENSATIONALISM - A type of Evangelical theology that teaches God works differently in different eras of history. They often deny God does miracles or causes people to speak in tongues in our era. They affirm Christ will return unexpectedly and "rapture" his followers to heaven with him.

5d. NON-DENOMINATIONAL - A version of Evangelical Christianity (and many charismatic groups) in which the local congregation refuses to join membership with a larger, established denomination.

6. PENTECOSTALISM - This is a movement that started in 1906 in Azusa CA. It is characterized by miracles, prophecy, and glossolalia. They insist that glossolalia is THE evidence that someone has been "baptized in the Spirit", and as a result were often kicked out to form new denominations.

6a. CHARISMATIC - This is a movement within Christianity that started in the 1955 with an Episcopal priest, Fr. Dennis Bennett. It is similar to Pentecostals, but does not insist that everyone has the gift of glossolalia. Mostly, these people stayed in their own denominations.

6b. SPIRITUAL GIFTS - Empowerments given by the Holy Spirit so that followers of Jesus may live like Jesus did and do ministry like Jesus did. Includes "miraculous" gifts and natural "talents".

6c. BAPTISM IN THE HOLY GHOST - A pentecostal/charismatic term for the first time someone is "filled" with the Holy Spirit. It is a person's "immersion" into the life and experience of the Spirit.

6d. FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT - A pentecostal/charismatic term for the experience of being overwhelmed with, and controlled by, the Holy Spirit. As the Spirit is "released" through a person, they manifest positive experiences (such as joy and peace) and spiritual gifts.

6e. GLOSSOLALIA  - This Greek word means "to speak in tongues". It refers to the Spiritual gift given to early Christians which enabled them to speak human languages they did not know, or to be able to speak in "heavenly" languages.

6f. SLAIN IN THE SPIRIT - A pentecostal/charismatic term for the overpowering of the Spirit's presence, in which someone falls down or even passes out because of the experience.

6g. PROSPERITY GOSPEL - A charismatic movement that stresses how God not only wants to heal our body and spirit, but also give us riches and power too. Usually we must plant a "seed" of money given to preachers (said to represent God) in order to reap a harvest of wealth. Often taught by TV preachers.


Mainly for students and/or parishioners who are familiar with Mainline sacramental worship, but may not be familiar with Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostals or Charismatics.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.