If the Man from Mars arrived in Corvallis and wanted to know what Christianity was all about, what would you tell him? There are many denominations and the nuances within the denominations vary even moreso. So what is Christianity at its core?
To put it even more plainly, it is a religion fundamentally based on just two principles.
Love, and forgiveness.
Love thy neighbor. Love thy God. Beautifully simple phrases that outline something to strive for in life. Harder to carry out than to quote. Does loving your neighbor mean supporting them in whatever decision they make? Giving them anything they might need or want?
Hendershott said that the most important part of practicing Christianity is having a faith that is so strong that one not only talks about God’s love but demonstrates it. And that is perhaps where forgiveness comes in.
“Not a syrupy kind of love but a love that really is compassionate towards people—that enters into their struggles and their lives,” he said.
As aforementioned, the followers of Christianity are so varied and unique in their approaches that any attempt to describe individual denominations here would be almost pointless. There are, however, two sacraments that almost all Christian denominations share at least in theory if not specific practice: baptism and communion.
Some sprinkle, some immerse. Most have some version of ceremonial washing. Many religions have purification rites involving water. Unlike others, though, Christians generally only need be baptized once in their life.
“Baptism is the first step in becoming a Christian,” said Hendershott.
“We’re brought into the family of God and claimed as God’s children,” continued Pastor Netsie Griffith, also from Grace Lutheran.
In the Lutheran faith, babies are baptized, although adults can also be baptized. Many faiths practice infant baptism; some reserve baptism until the children are old enough to make the choice for themselves.
Griffith said that God’s grace is not based on the child’s belief, though. “It’s not contingent on us understanding it,” she said. “That’s why we continue to encourage infant baptism.”
“The graceful fact of infant baptism is that when a child is brought into the church, they can never remember a day when they were not a Christian,” Hendershott added.
Griffith also said that they encourage children to take communion. “It’s not based on their understanding but the grace of God.”
“Eucharist is the meal that we have every Sunday around the altar,” said Hendershott. “We see that as a time when we commune with God, but we also commune with one another as well. It’s a time when we commune with the church in the past and also the church in the future.”
Like baptism, denominations differ on the practice and literal meaning of communion. Some allow anyone to participate others ask that only members of the congregation take part.
Whether the bread and wine are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ is another point that not all Christians agree on.
“We believe that the bread doesn’t become the body of Christ in a literal sense, but that Christ’s body is present with us in the world,” said Griffith. “It helps us to become the body of Christ in the world in terms of love and service.”
I went to a Sunday worship service that was typical—in form if not in message—to many modern Christian services. There was singing, prayer, a sermon, communion, and more singing and prayer.
The service I attended, at Northwest Hills Community Church, started at 10:45 a.m. and lasted about 90 minutes. Josh Carstensen, adult ministries pastor, spoke on homosexuality as part of a series titled, “The Beginning of Marriage.”
Carstensen started his message by affirming that Christians are called to love and live at peace with all people. He then went into the subject of marriage, asking, “What does the Bible say about marriage?”
He said that marriage is a reflection of the gospel with Jesus Christ as the groom and the church as the bride.
“Homosexual marriage is an oxymoron,” he said.
How did he recommend his congregation respond? His frequent refrain was, “We are all broken sinners. Your job is to point towards Jesus, not to try to convict of sin.”
His message was not a hateful one. In fact, it highlights the stark differences that are present within Christianity. Grace Lutheran Church, for example, is a Reconciling Lutheran church. Reconciling Lutherans are inclusive of all sexualities and call on “the entire church to be a visible proponent of justice for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.”
While talking with a few locals, a youth pastor offered some words that seemed to really bring it all together. Although he has no fear of speaking his mind, he asked to remain anonymous so that his personal thoughts wouldn’t be taken as being the same thoughts held by his congregation.
“It took me a while to find my home, as far as church is concerned. I’ve been a Christian all my life, but really only in the most basic of senses, which seem the most important. We all have our own interpretations, and where that may sometimes be a weakness, it can also be a strength,” he said.
“There are Christians, and believers in other faiths, [that belong to] every walk of life. And sometimes it is hard to know which way is up. That’s where the teachings of Jesus come in, and to me that’s beautiful. I feel that these underlying concepts unite all spiritual people, not even just those of my own faith.”
This brings us squarely back not only onto the topic of diversity amongst the denominations, but especially those that practice within them—which might be a more important concept altogether.
The attitudes and feelings expressed within a Baptist church in the southeast will be quite different than that of one in the Pacific Northwest. Catholics affirm the existence of Purgatory, while most other groups deny it—including everyone from Lutherans to Baptists. The Catholics also believe that many facets of truth can be found outside of the Church’s confines, while Baptists would say that salvation can only be found within Jesus Christ. In the middle of that spectrum, you can find the Anglicans and Episcopalians generally asserting that cooperation with other faiths is in their best interested, despite their leanings in other directions. The Baptists nearly stand alone in their belief that Salvation cannot be lost. Which Church’s can ordain women?
This can vary right on down to a local level, and it serves as a reminder that one can’t pigeon-hole an entire belief system from a wide angle. With issues such as abortion and gay marriage sitting at the forefront of national discussion, many Christians have been unfairly targeted based on stereotypes that are simply too generalized.
But of course, as with everything, there is much more to it than the sum of just the loudest parts.
Where To Go From Here?
For a deeper look into the quieter—but much more numerous—parts, to so speak, there’s a nigh endless supply of information out there that’ll help open you up to a better understanding of the world’s most populous religion (estimated to have about 2.1 billion followers the world over).
Just pick your topic, and there will be interesting views on all sides of these aisles; views which will undoubtedly help any curious party better understand the whole. Check out the following links to get started!
By Lana Jones