For the first time in American history we have a generation without Christian parents or grandparents.
Many of the people – especially the youth – who give their lives to Jesus in the church I pastor were never taught Bible stories, prayed at meals or bedtime, or heard grandma sing Jesus Loves Me.
If you live outside the USA, this may have been true of your culture for a long time. But for us, it’s new. Actually, if you live in the Bible Belt, it may not have happened in your community yet. But it is coming.
This makes pastoring today both a great opportunity and an interesting challenge.
Overcoming The Christian Heritage Gap
I'm a third generation pastor. It’s a heritage I thank God for every day.
When I’m ministering to other multi-generational believers, we easily find a common rhythm of speaking and understanding, even if we've never met before. That kinship and common heritage is rich, comforting and beautiful.
But that heritage can put me at a distance from those who aren’t multi-generational Christians. Without that common background, I have to work harder to cross barriers that I may not even recognize at first.
As a pastor, I'm learning how to speak from my multi-generational faith to people who have no Christian family heritage to draw from.
This is especially true in California, where I live. Most of our neighborhoods are only one generation old. Many traditions, including church attendance, are non-existent.
A lot of the Christians in our church are not just the only believers in their family, they’re the first one in generations. Maybe ever.
Here are 9 lessons I’m learning about doing ministry in a church with a lot of first-generation believers:
1. I can't assume even the simplest biblical understanding
...including what the Bible actually is. So, in addition to teaching from the Bible, I always teach them something about the Bible.
Also, I don’t use phrases like “we all know the story of…” to summarize a Bible lesson.
And I never assume that everyone owns a Bible. Instead, we make free Bibles available and I tell them the page number where they can find Ephesians.
Because of this, I have to (and get to) teach the basics more often.
2. I can’t use theological terms – unless I explain them first
I’m not a fan of using theological terms when ordinary words will do. But sometimes you have to. First, because some words, like redemption and salvation, have no parallels. And second, because learning essential terms is an important aspect of good discipleship.
First-generation Christians aren’t put off by basic theological terms as long as they’re useful to their spiritual growth and explained in simple terms
3. I get to watch the thrill of discovery
This is the upside of having to explain basic Bible stories and theology.
Many times someone will come to me after a service wide-eyed and amazed about a simple biblical principle that they’ve heard for the first time.
This is both a great joy and a great responsibility, because how I frame the Bible and our theology will set the tone for how they think, believe and behave. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
4. They understand very little about how church is done
So much of our church experience is filled with unwritten rules.
Where to sit, when to stand, how to pray, what to wear.
We’ve taken them for granted. But we can’t any more.
Now, we need to know why we do what we do, because someone might ask us to explain it. Not out of criticism, but from simple ignorance. And if we can’t answer them simply and clearly, well… maybe we don’t need to do it that way, after all.
5. There are fewer arguments about the way church should be done
I can’t remember the last time someone said “we’ve never done it that way before!” because so many in our church have never done church any way before.
It’s such a relief!
With first-generation Christians there are a lot more questions, but far fewer arguments. If we take their questions seriously, that is.
6. I’ve expanded my base of sermon illustrations
If I tell a story about John Wesley or Martin Luther to illustrate a point, I’ll be met with blank stares.
But if I quote Yoda from Star Wars, they’re with me.
That’s okay. Jesus and Paul did the same thing when sharing the gospel to newbies.
In addition to Sabbath and temple illustrations, Jesus referenced non-religious activities like farming, fishing and sweeping the house. And Paul quoted pagan poets on at least three occasions (Acts 17:28, 1 Cor 15:33, Titus 1:12).
By the way, it’s not that I don’t use illustrations from Christian history. It’s part of discipleship, as we saw in Point 2. But I never do more than one per sermon (another term I seldom use), and I always take the time to explain who they were and why they matter. Time well spent.
7. Sins “everyone” used to know are no longer assumed
There are so many polls lately bemoaning the fact that, not only is biblical literacy dropping, but a clear understanding of biblical morality is on the decline. Even from regular churchgoers.
Both of those are reason for serious concern, of course.
But if we were to survey my congregation and compare it to a decade ago, our biblical and moral literacy would probably seem to have fallen, too. Not because I’m not teaching biblical theology and morality, but because we have so many brand-new, first-generation believers now, compared to a decade ago.
It’s one thing to preach about sin to a multi-generational congregation, because if they’re sinning they’re probably deliberately defying what they know to be right.
But preaching about sin to first-generation believers is different. Many times they truly don’t even know something is a sin, so we have to take that into account. We have to teach the "why" before they’ll understand – or care – about the "why not".
That usually means less condemning, more explaining – and massive amounts of grace. Not a bad formula for any sermon, actually.
Multi-generational Christians had a certain understanding about regular giving to the church.
First-generation Christians have to be taught from scratch. But, as with previous points, this is also an opportunity to teach them right.
But it isn’t fast or easy. Even when they start to give, they’re likely to want to see where their hard-earned money is going, and they often want to participate in getting it there by doing hands-on ministry.
The good news? They’re more likely to want to do ministry with us, instead of paying us to do ministry for them.
The bad news? Most of our church structures are set up for the latter.
9. Trust must be earned
People used to trust pastors until they were given a reason not to.
Unfortunately, over the last couple of generations we’ve given them lots of very public reasons not to.
Now, they don’t trust us until we give them plenty of reasons to do so. Trust has to be earned. And it doesn’t come easily.
But it will come. If we do one thing, and do it consistently.
Live what we preach.
Now, more than ever, integrity matters.
According to the old saying, your life may be the only sermon some people will hear. Now, for first-generation believers, your next sermon might literally be the first one they’ve ever heard. And it will set the pace for everything that follows for life and belief.
Let’s speak it well. And live it with integrity.
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