Are there times when you hear the ministry or your parents express excitement and passion about the Church that you really don’t feel?
Do you wish for the type of calling that your parents had, one that is direct, unexpected and dynamic? Have you ever been told by the older people in your church area that you are taking for granted the opportunity of being born into the Church?
Dan Apartian, a deacon in Illinois, gives a sermon about the differences between first- and second-generation Christians. He describes how God calls people in different ways, depending on their age when introduced to the truth and whether they grew up with believing parents. The key is that there isn’t a better or worse way to be called. This message has struck a chord with many listeners across different age groups. We’re glad he gave Compass Check his notes, so we could share some of the concepts from his message. This article focuses on the unique ways God calls believers from different generations in the Church, why those differences are important, and what we as second-generation Christians can do with this information.
What is the difference?
First-generation Christians are those called as adults, usually without other primary relatives. “Adult” here means all those old enough to decide their spiritual path by themselves, so sometimes this group includes teens and young adults. First-generation Christians are the first people called in their families.
In the Bible, Paul is an example of a first-generation Christian. Acts 9 tells the story of what God’s calling looked like in Paul’s life:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. And as he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven.
Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:1-6).
Paul’s conversion was unexpected, dramatic and direct. Most first-generation Christians have a story they can (and often like to) tell about their calling.
What does it mean to be called?
The Greek word kletos, translated “called,” can also be translated “invited.” A calling by God is His offer, His invitation, to repent and enter into a relationship with Him. For more information, check out this Bible study lesson: “Who Is God Calling?” (Bible Study Course, Lesson 7, What is God’s Calling?, “Who is God Calling?”).
Second-generation Christians, on the other hand, initially come in contact with the truth as children through their believing parents or relatives. (The term second-generation Christian will be used to also describe third- and fourth-generation Christians.) Currently, the majority of the Church is second-generation Christians. Mr. Apartian is a second-generation Christian, and so am I.
Timothy from the Bible is a second-generation Christian. In 2 Timothy 1, Paul writes to Timothy: “I thank God . . . when I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also” (verses 3 and 5). For Timothy, God’s calling was in his youth; it was expected and indirect. Christians like Timothy usually don’t have a “road to Damascus” story to tell.
Second-generation Christians are born to a birthright by being born into the Church. First Corinthians 7:14 says: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.” And in Acts 2, Peter explains that God promises His Spirit to those He calls and their children: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call’” (38-39).
Second-generation Christians also have access to God’s mind and the gift of a special calling. But it’s often wildly different than the calling our parents received.
Why is this difference important?
First- and second-generation Christians have the same spiritual objectives but see life very differently. Understanding the generational differences within the Church allows us to understand each other and develop more unity, along with enabling us to meet each other’s needs. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
It’s important for both generations to realize there are two different ways of entering and coming into God’s Church. One is not more official than the other. And they each have their own challenges and pitfalls.
The process of conversion for first-generation Christians usually begins with God revealing or making available a teaching which challenges their current lifestyle. It involves learning information about God that to them is provoking and even threatening. Their abrupt exposure to the new teaching usually compels them to scour and study the Bible about it deeply and thoroughly. When they are convinced of its validity, they are led to find a Church that upholds that truth. Eventually they realize the spiritual obedience taught in church provides a more important goal than the life they had been living. They then come out of and turn from a world they now see as evil. Their calling is first an academic or mental process of studying information. This develops into an emotional zeal for the truth, which then convicts and convinces them that practical application of this truth is necessary and good.
Compare this to second-generation Christians. We are born into the Church and often sheltered from what is outside of it. We start attending church because we have to go with our parents. We remember sleeping on a blanket, playing with toys and getting scolded for talking. Sometimes church felt like the longest two hours in history! We are trained to live God’s truth and obey long before we ever validate it as the right thing to do. We learn practical application before it’s a personal conviction. In contrast to our first-generation Christian parents, the world seems at times to us like a place full of untapped adventures. We realize there are problems there, but sometimes, frankly, we see similar problems in the Church.
For second-generation Christians, it’s easier to take God’s calling and His truth for granted. We were brought up knowing it, so none of it comes as a shock to us. Because we applied the truth first, and were often praised for doing so, it’s likely we skipped personally proving all or parts of it. This leaves us feeling shocked and unprepared when our beliefs are challenged. It’s more common for us to feel defensive and embarrassed when asked about the Church and our beliefs if we haven’t personally proven to ourselves the truth we’ve been taught.
It’s important to clarify that there’s a difference between recognizing and proving God’s truth. Second-generation Christians tend to recognize God’s truth very easily. I identified with Mr. Apartian when he remembered that as a teen, many ministers’ messages sounded the same. Sometimes we feel like we can finish the speaker’s sentences. We’ve heard similar sermons and sermonettes since we were kids. Our problem is not in recognizing, but in realizing, proving and knowing. That’s why we’re uncomfortable when asked pointed questions to defend our spiritual beliefs. At these times we need more than buzz words to fill in a sentence. When friends ask us to defend our being different and our spiritual intentions, we’re asked to dig inside the core of our beliefs and personally know why we do what we do. That requires proving it (Romans 12:2).
Until we as second-generation Christians come to know why we do what we’ve done all our lives—and make the emotional connection to want to do it—we’ll never be totally comfortable being in God’s Church. It was a fight for our parents to enter the Church. For us second-generation Christians, we usually don’t have to fight to get into the Church; we were born into it. Our fight is to stay in it! And without proving what we believe, we’ll lose the fight to complacency.
Knowing this, what should we do?
With this viewpoint about the differences of God’s calling between generations, it might be interesting to reread a familiar story: the parable of the prodigal son. Every person’s calling is unique, and in this story both brothers are second-generation Christians. However, the disillusionment often felt by second-generation Christians is similar to the older son’s words in Luke 15:29-30:
“‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And the Father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.’”
Many second-generation Christians have similar feelings to the older son who felt resentment toward those God dramatically works with, whom God seems to “kill the fatted calf” for. In contrast, second-generation Christians may feel like they have been serving Him all along without fanfare. The issue is that our callings differ greatly. A first-generation calling might sound exciting, but a second-generation calling is equal in God’s eyes and should not be undervalued. Growing up in the Church can offer a certain amount of protection and keep us from making some big mistakes. It doesn’t always work out that way, but when it does we should appreciate the blessing. You may not even recognize the long track record of how God’s truth has changed your life. Second-generation Christians reap the rewards of following His way from infancy, so it’s hard to see and appreciate how things could have been otherwise.
Ecclesiastes 11:9 reminds us that it’s good to have fun, to strive for success, to live a full life, but with all of it we remain accountable: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment.”
Don’t feel guilty because you’re different or don’t have a dramatic story to share. There’s no way as babies we could prove God’s truth before we applied it. But do prove your beliefs now; make them yours. Remember that your convictions aren’t complete until you know why you do what you do and personally choose to do them. Doing God’s way doesn’t bring success until we combine it with conviction. 1 Thessalonians 1:5 says, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (English Standard Version).
We can only tap into the full power of the Holy Spirit through baptism. Second-generation Christians have been counting the costs of living God’s way all our lives through our actions. We have been conditioned in the responsibility of following His laws. But there comes a time when we each must deal with the core of our nature. Counting the costs of baptism is still a factor, but the question of baptism for us is more about accepting the cost of our calling and admitting our personal need for God and Christ’s sacrifice. Part of proving your beliefs is realizing the importance of God’s invitation and accepting it.
Finally, don’t be afraid to broach open and honest discussions of real world situations with others in the Church. It’s okay to challenge and talk through hard realities. Ask first-generation Christians to share experiences when they were tempted or faced difficulties doing God’s way. We can learn from each other.
When friends ask us to defend our being different and our spiritual intentions, we’re asked to personally know why we do what we do. That requires proving it.
I hope this article gives a little insight into the differences between two ways God calls people into His family. There isn’t a better or worse way in the calling of God’s people—God’s calling to eternal life in His Kingdom is always unique and extraordinary! As first- and second-generation Christians, we all have a very special birthright. If we respect and work together to complement our unique differences, we can bridge the gap between our Christian generations and collectively attain the great prize of becoming first fruits.
If you’re interested in hearing Mr. Apartian’s full sermon, search for “The Difference Between First and Second Generation Christians” at ucg.org .
If you want to know more about your calling, we recommend the article “My Parents Are Christian, but How Do I Know if God Is Calling Me?” also at ucg.org.