What is Christianity?
Christianity is a monotheistic faith, sharing common traditions and values with both Judaism and Islam. Together these three major monotheistic faiths are referred to as ‘Abrahamic’ in view of the shared common ancestry through Abraham and his descendents (the so-called ‘Patriarchs’, as described in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis). The Christian scriptures are based on the Old Testament, which shares
a great deal of material with Judaic scriptures and the New Testament, which describes the work of Jesus as well as containing many letters written by St Paul and other early adherents to fledgling Christian communities and individuals growing up around the eastern Mediterranean.
Christianity began as a development of Judaism following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ (which means ‘anointed one’ in Greek).
It soon grew into a faith that was open to non-Jews as well, and within a century of the death of Jesus had become a significant and radical religion active throughout the Roman Empire. Early Christians were persecuted by the Roman powers, but during the fourth century after Jesus’ death Christianity had become the state religion following the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Since that time, Christianity has developed into one of the global faiths, with adherents in virtually every country. The values and beliefs have become embedded into the cultures of what we now refer to as ‘The West’. In the UK, in particular, the legal, political, educational and many other aspects of society are based on Christian principles.
Beliefs and Rituals
Christianity is a redemptive faith, believing that God became directly involved in the life of all creation in the form of his son, Jesus, who is recognised as the saviour of humanity. He is the son of God and has a transformative quality. Christians believe that it is through Jesus that we can know God. It is through God’s grace that we are all saved and redeemed from our sin. Since the formation of the early
church a vast array of forms of Christianity have developed across the world. Christians often talk in terms of denominations (e.g. The Church of England, Methodism, Roman Catholicism, The Baptist Union, the United Reformed Church). These are more formal structures, but there are other types of churches or Christian communities that are exploring other ways of being Christian (house churches, network churches etc).
Jesus’ death and resurrection
Regardless of the various structures, at the heart of the Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus which is celebrated each Easter. Jesus was crucifed on Good Friday. Christians believe that Jesus died to save us, and was resurrected after three days on Easter Sunday, and ascended to heaven where he is alive and concerned for us on earth. Jesus resurrection is remembered during the service of Holy Communion, or Eucharist, when Christians eat bread (Christ’s body) and drink wine (Christ’s blood). The symbolism of rebirth and renewal is very important to Christianity. Jesus taught a message that ‘no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ (John 3:3). The image of the cross has central importance to Christianity.
Christian baptism is one example of how such rebirth or renewal can be recognised in a person’s life. Baptism, meaning ‘immersion’ is considered by many to be necessary for entry into Christianity. In some traditions it is is by full immersion in water, whereas in others water is sprinkled or poured on a person’s head. The symbolism is one of washing away of sin, of an older life, leading to renewal.
Regular prayer is considered essential to Christian life. Prayer may be public or private and can take many forms. Traditional prayer during public worship is based on some form of ‘liturgy’ or public service, and involves supplication, thanksgiving or intercession. A Christian’s prayer life will also be private and, of course, vary enormously from person to person. Prayer is a vital way of coming to know God, and through this relationship, of being able to be an active and effective Christian in the wider world.
The final words of Jesus before his ascension are recorded in the Gospel of Matthew as “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in
the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with
you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mat 28:19-20). This is a clear commandment to all followers of Jesus to actively share their faith with
everyone and to show others how Jesus’ teachings are for the whole world to share. This is one important aspect of Mission. Christians are
encouraged to be missional.
Christians in the World
Churches, especially church buildings, are the most common and instantly recognisable feature of a Christian presence in British culture.
For many people, however, the only times they will venture inside a church will be for the significant moments in their lives such as weddings,
baptisms and funerals. Christmas and Easter services also attract infrequent worshippers. However, churches are open to anyone who wishes to attend, whether a professing Christian or not. Services are generally on Sundays but many churches also hold communion or prayer services on some weekdays. Traditional denominations appoint ministers or priests to lead worship and maintain a cohesive Christian community. This may be less so in other more recent church structures, but some form of pastor is usually available as the first contacft point for any community.
Being a Christian is not simply about going to church, however. The concept of renewal and rebirth are explored in many ways by different Christians, but at the root is the need to be missional: to take the message of the Gospels into the world. Christians talk of their ministry to the world, which, translated is all about service. Jesus taught that, whilst he was the Son of God he was our servant, and that Christians should seek to serve for the glory of God and to help bring God’s Kingdom to the notice of all humanity. Again, it is through renewal that a deeper relationship with God can be found, and renewal requires transformation.
Social and spiritual transformation are essential parts of a Christian life and Jesus provided a model — Jesus is often described a model for all
humanity. Caring for the poor, walking with the excluded and challenging social injustices are all ways that society, and therefore humanity, can be transformed and renewed. Christians in the United Kingdom have been leaders of cultural and political systems that have cared for the poor and supported those on the margins of society.
»» The Methodist Church in the UK: www.methodist.org.uk
»» The Churches Council for Industry and Social Responsibility: www.
»» The Church of England: www.cofe.anglican.org.uk
»» The Baptist Union: www.baptist.org.uk
»» The Catholic Church in Bristol: www.cliftondiocese.com
»» The United Reformed Church: www.urc.org.uk