The early Christian church was spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, with three hubs: Jerusalem, Asia Minor, and Alexandria. As the church grew, it confronted challenges to its identity and internal disagreements over doctrine and practice. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 was a significant milestone in clarifying the belief in Jesus Christ as both human and divine.

Eventually, three major branches of the church emerged: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. The Protestant Reformation raised major challenges to papal authority and traditional doctrine, and this resulted in a response from the Catholic Church in the form of a “Counter-Reformation.” Today Christianity is a worldwide religion of huge diversity—with a range of beliefs, doctrines, practices, and customs—and is gradually becoming less dominant in the developed world and more prevalent in developing countries, a new phenomenon with some known and some unforeseeable consequences.

The core of the Christian faith is a belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God who died for humanity’s sins and was resurrected by the power of God.Introduction to World Religions: Study Guide
The core of the Christian faith is a belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God who died for humanity’s sins and was resurrected by the power of God. According to various sources, including the Gospels of the New Testament and other historical evidence, Jesus was a Jewish carpenter from Galilee who was regarded as a prophet and miracle-worker by his followers and people who claimed he healed them. The Gospel stories tell of a man who claimed to be the messiah predicted in the Hebrew scriptures, who preached and healed, and who died because he threatened the authority of the Jewish community leaders and the Roman governor. After his death by crucifixion, a punishment used by the Roman empire for rebels and slaves, he was placed in a tomb, only to rise again three days later. After commanding his disciples to go out and spread his message of salvation, he ascended into heaven; Christians believe he will return at the end of time to judge all human beings.

The Bible is the sacred scripture for Christians, and it includes the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament, which contains the Gospels and letters from the apostle Paul to early church communities, among other documents. While in general all Christians believe in the central role the Bible plays in their faith and practice, various branches have differing views on its authority.

The characteristic features of Christian practice are baptism and the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. Both rituals are modeled after stories from the Gospels and symbolize a Christian’s commitment to belief in God’s grace and Jesus Christ as the keys to salvation.

The basis of mainline Christianity is an affirmation of the unique trinitarian nature of God as simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This affirmation is part of the creed that is recited in many churches at weekly services. Worship varies among the denominations and sects, but commonly it features prayer, hymn singing, recitation of biblical passages, and a sermon or homily by the priest or minister. Christian congregations vary in their use of scripture, the frequency of the Eucharist at services, the role and even presence of the clergy, and other liturgical matters. Most Christians celebrate festivals honoring the birth of Jesus (Christmas) and the death and resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and also recognize other important days in the sacred calendar depending on their tradition.

The early church, in its role as a minority community facing powerful hostility from an empire, de-emphasized the family unit and instead focused on growing and strengthening the church as a whole and as an alternative family. Modern Christianity has intensely focused on marriage and children as core aspects of adult life in the faith. Nevertheless, not all Christians agree on the importance of such a vision of family to the basis of the religion.

In the non-Western world today Christianity is growing at a rapid pace, enabled by its ability to be easily translated into different languages and cultures. While in general Christianity’s presence is weakening in the West, various entities, from missionaries to new churches established by small local groups, have expanded the Christian faith to many other parts of the world, particularly in the southern hemisphere. A strong evangelical movement has a significant role in this growth.

Wright, Beth. Introduction to World Religions: Study Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.
“Do This” (cropped) by Matt Gerlach is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.