Denominational Differences 101 Decisive Deal breakers or Diminutive Disagreements?

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Anyone who has attended churches of varying views or backgrounds has probably encountered questions (especially if kids are involved) over why certain things are done so differently. For students, particularly those raised in one specific branch of the church, it can be tricky to understand or accept that there are so many distinctions when it comes to how Christians worship. This lesson provides a brief broad overview of several prominent denominations, describing basic beliefs and practices.
Goal: Students will understand that there are different styles of worship and methods of church.
Age Range: Adjustable, but likely older elementary-middle school students
Materials Needed: Charts, maps, handouts (if desired); white board and markers; candy/prizes
Opening Activity: “Deal Breaker or no Deal?” This game will open up the conversation with discussion of some key issues that define denominations to an extent. Offer several topics that can vary between church groups. Have students give a thumbs up or down if they consider the topic to be an important “deal breaker” or not (or in the middle if they are not sure or need extra information). Use a white board or PowerPoint to keep tally of the responses. Topics to consider can range, but include…

  • Communion celebration…should it be every week? Is it really the body and blood of Christ? Should we dip, or sip?
  • Baptism…Should we baptize infants? Should it be under water or just a sprinkle?
  • Is baptism necessary for salvation?
  • Is the word of God (Bible) to be interpreted literally, word for word exact?
  • Do I have a choice to follow Jesus, or does God decide for me ahead of time?

Ask students what they know (if anything) about various denominations in the country. Does anyone have experience with other types of churches? Any thoughts, impressions?
Overview of denominations…
How many different types of churches are there in the United States? How many various sects can we name? According to a 2012 study, there are at least 43,000 denominations worldwide. The history of Protestant splits, divisions, and developments is quite storied, and does not need much immediate detail… but for now, let’s take a peek at some trends and definitions.
-Pass around worksheets with some images and extra information…show trends and patterns of what groups seem to wind up in which spots, and mention a few details that might have contributed to those patterns. Give a quick run-down of group descriptions, pausing for clarification details or question answering as needed:
Note: these are listed in order of membership size (roughly)
The oldest and largest Christian organization; emphasizes ceremony and structure in the church; led by the Pope and bishops.
Baptist: Currently the largest Protestant branch (breaks down into American and Southern Baptists); Baptist beliefs emphasize the importance of free will in humans choosing their faith and following. They also reject the practice of infant baptism and stress the necessity for belief and confession of faith prior to baptism.
Methodist: Started by John and Charles Wesley, Methodists emphasize Scripture and tradition as main cores of teaching. They are a confessional group, and largely reject the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination for only a select group, affirming Arminianism (free will of believers) and availability of faith to anyone. Charity and gospel are also integral to practice.
Lutheran: “The original Protestant,” some would say, breaking away from the Catholic Church 500 years ago, with original inspiration of Martin Luther. Lutherans follow recitation of creeds, liturgical (traditional) style worship, and sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper). They emphasize grace, the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and assurance of salvation. Lutherans break down into Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (among others).
Presbyterian: Originating with John Calvin (predestination proponent), Presbyterian churches focus on the active involvement of members as well as believers. These “presbyters” are seen as essential to the life and sustenance of the body of believers.
Episcopalian: Originally branching off the Church of England, Episcopalian churches are similar to the more traditional worship style. They also emphasize baptism and the eucharist (communion) as key to faith and worship.
Evangelical: This slightly more modern branch has spread rapidly and includes various off-shoots. For the most part, Evangelical churches are focused on evangelizing others and serving one another. They emphasize personal conversion and are often involved in charitable acts locally and globally.
Church of the Nazarene: Started in 1908, the Nazarene emphasis is on holiness, or Christlike living. They believe God calls people to a pure and holy life through following His commandments and striving to live for Him. Nazarene congregations are also eager to spread the gospel.
Mennonite: This is the “mildest” of several denomination branches that consider themselves called out of culture and main society (Amish is a more extreme group). Mennonites follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and feel a strong will to be anti-secular.
Reformed: Reformed churches focus on the Holy Spirit and Supremacy of Scripture. To them, God’s body and blood are symbolized but not actually present in communion. Calvin, Zwingli, John Macarthur, and R.C. Sproul are among the famous heroes of Reformed churches (past and present).
Of course, this is not a complete and comprehensive listing of ALL denominations in the world or even in the country. And there are always variations from one congregation to another, in how strongly different people adhere to the traditions and tenets of their churches. But come back to the original question: What are the big deal-breakers? How do we know when to draw the line between “just a little different” and “heretical?” As Christians, we do want to be accepting and generous. But we must also make sure that Christ and the Bile are always shared, and that the word of Scripture is evidently supreme.
Game: Who am I?
Time allowing, have students take turns (and you can play too!) reading or coming up with a few descriptions of beliefs, and invite them to identify which denomination it might go with.
This is also a good time to field any questions that students might have about one group or another…
Concluding Comments: Emphasize to students that there is no perfect church. Most denominations have positive and negative elements, but at the end of the day churches are made of fallen sinners. We do our best, but God must be the first and foremost authority on our lives.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.      -Matthew 6:33

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