When ranking subjects according to their complexity, Church history is probably right up there with rocket science and quantum physics. So I’m guessing I’m not the only youth worker who has been asked this question, or a variant of it, by students: “What’s the difference between Christians and Catholics?”
This is an important answer to get right, as the majority of the students in your youth group have friends, family members, and other acquaintances who identify as Catholic. Or, if you work in a Catholic youth group, your students inevitably rub shoulders on a daily basis with people who attend Protestant churches.
Here is how I have answered the question for students. Please note that this is a simplified answer that doesn’t quite capture the full complexity of the topic, but students aren’t typically looking for a detailed explanation.
First of all, it’s important to emphasize that Catholicism is not “different” than Christianity. Catholicism is simply a type of Christianity. When most people say they are “Christian instead of Catholic,” what they mean is that they identify with a Protestant Christian church. Protestant Christian churches include Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Lutheran churches, Presbyterian churches, and several others.
If Christianity is a tree, Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity are branches of the tree. There is a third major branch called Orthodox Christianity. All three branches are part of the same tree.
As long as someone has genuinely accepted Jesus as their savior, who died on the cross for their sins and then rose from the dead, that person is a Christian. All three major types of Christianity generally agree with that.
The main differences between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians are the ways in which they express and practice their faith in Jesus. That’s why a Catholic church service looks very different than a Baptist church service. People in both services are worshipping the same God and following the same Jesus— but how they go about doing that is different.
That’s one of the beautiful things about Christianity: that it includes members from so many different cultures, traditions, and backgrounds, and all are part of the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, many Christians choose to focus on how they are different from other types of Christians.
This is why it’s so important for youth leaders to emphasize the ways in which all Christians are similar and unified. A smart bearded guy once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Taylor Bird is the Middle School Pastor at Southwest Church in Indian Wells, CA. He has been serving in youth ministry for five years.