Trying to explain denominations to an 11-year-old is hard.

Tonight, after our all-ages small group, in which Lutherans and Catholics were mentioned, my 11-year-old daughter asked me, “Dad, what are Catholics and Lutherans and Covenant?” (By “Covenant” she means the Evangelical Covenant Church, which is our denomination.)

There really isn’t a simple way to answer that question, but I did my best. This was my off-the-cuff (but somewhat polished after the fact) answer:

Well, to start with, right now you have Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. In the beginning, after Jesus ascended, there was just The Church. Then, about a thousand years later, there was a disagreement in The Church about something they believed. So The Church split, East and West. In the East was the Orthodox Church, in the West was the Catholic Church.

About five hundred years after that, some people in the Catholic Church thought that there was too much corruption in it, that they were too concerned with power, so they wanted to clean it up from the inside. They came to be known as the Reformers. They wanted to clean it up on the inside, but the Catholic Church didn’t like that, so they left the Catholic church [or were kicked out] and they became what we know as Protestants, because they protested the bad things they saw in the Catholic Church.

[Now here is where it gets really complicated.]

So as Protestants you had Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans. You had Martin Luther, which is where “Lutherans” comes from, and the Reformed church, which was connected to John Calvin. Now there were some who didn’t think these reformers went far enough, and they were known as the “radical reformers”, out of which you get Mennonites and Baptists.

(“What does the Covenant have to do with this?”)

Well, we are connected to the Lutherans. In the 1800s there came what was known as “evangelicals.” They were people who were concerned with having a personal relationship with Jesus and reading their Bibles and telling people about Jesus. They were concerned that the other churches were too “formal” [I didn’t have a better word for “rote” or “state-oriented” or what have you].

So the Covenant comes out of the Lutheran and evangelical groups [I mentioned Pietists but didn’t explain them]. These days it doesn’t matter so much what denomination you are a part of. What matters is that you believe in Jesus and want to follow him. You can do that whether you are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.

This is all fairly simplistic, but I think it’s a pretty good distillation of the story. She seemed to understand, but I don’t know how much. All this protesting has made church history rather complicated!

Other than my ecumenical note at the end, which I’m sure some of you will have trouble with, what would you add or change (keeping in mind this is for an 11-year-old)?

5 thoughts on “Trying to explain denominations to an 11-year-old is hard.

  1. DubblD

    At the risk of over simplifying the issue, since we are talking to an 11 year old (hey chickie!), doesn’t all of the complicated history come down to how people relate to God? Some find the beauty of God in liturgy, some in nature, some in artistic expression, some in verbosity…and once they find like-minded individuals, they find scripture to back up their “beliefs” (which they will always find), and a denomination is born. The complication arises when one denomination thinks itself exclusive to the blessing & presence of God. Which is, of course, preposterous. And ironic, since EVERYONE finds scripture to back up their beliefs. Why wouldn’t they? God made us all different, and fully intended us to relate to Him in different ways, AND wanted us to be a community with other like-hearted individuals.

  2. Toni

    Hi Marc, I saw your comment on Facebook and wanted to follow through. I think what you wrote (and presumably said) was good and helpful for her from a historical point of view. Something that might have helped her understand the *why* it happened would be to explain about how the church from the time of Constantine has been associated with power and politics, rather than being like the church the we typically see today, which is more like a nice club people can go to if they wish. Without that understanding it’s hard to see why church history happened the way it did.

    I also commend my point about God renewing the church and some moving/some staying, partly because I believe it is a real reason often overlooked and partly because it reminds us that God has always been at work in His church, even through the darkest times.

    To somewhat comment on DubbID’s post, worth mentioning that, at least in the UK, those in the historic traditions often have no idea of the content of scripture, the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus or salvation by faith in Him. The “God stuff” (I’m quoting a friend who has come back to faith recently) is done by the good people and priests, and not for people like him who have done so many bad things and aren’t good enough. While I believe God is at work in all denominations, some will work with Him and some regardless. You also need to travel to continental Europe to see how weird religion can get in the name of God.

  3. Jeff

    I think you did about all you could without getting into historical European politics and pre-modern and modernist mindsets about truth. I think the current trend of post-denominationalism is tied to postmodernism: with less emphasis on denominational distinctives and more emphasis on discussion and ecumenicism, the boundaries between denominations break down. If we continue on as we are, she may never really need to know more than what you’ve already told her about denominations, because they’ll cease to exist as we now know them. On the whole, I think that’s a good thing.

  4. Linea

    I hope she keeps asking. I think it is important to know what your roots are and why you choose to believe as you do so that she can make wise choices herself. I am pretty sure that I did my confirmation class when I was about 13 and in my day the class was taught the history of the church – I know there are messy parts that were left out but those are important too. It would be good for her to know the distinctives before she heads out on her own so she understands why all the differences exist. Some of them make a difference in the way we practice our faith and might help her find a place to fit. Faith is more important than denomination but I think we all need a community within which to practice the faith and we need to understand why we do what we do as we worship.

  5. Andrew

    Great topic for discussion with kids, and I like your summary of Church history. I think it’s an important one to emphasize the fact that all denominations – including evangelical or ‘born again’ – come from a tradition, a community of believers interpreting scripture in a particular way and shaping their collective story accordingly.

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