Churches are encountering first-generation believers who have little context. By investing in discipleship ministry, we can experience new, dynamic church growth.

How do you pastor people when they're not just the only believers in their family; they’re the first Christian for generations? 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 serve were never taught Bible stories, their families never prayed at meals or bedtime, and they never 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 must 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. Many of our neighborhoods are only one generation old, so there are a lot of multi-generational traditions, including church attendance, that simply aren’t in the community DNA.

Here are 10 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.

Many recent surveys have shown us that a lot of regular church attenders don’t know their Bibles as well as they should. This is especially true among first-generation believers. But with no assumptions to overcome and no shame about what they don’t know, they’re very open to hearing about the foundations of faith. They don’t know the Bible. They know they don’t know the Bible. So, when I teach them the elementary truths of the Bible it doesn’t feel condescending; it’s eye-opening. Not only do they not know the content of the Bible, they don’t know what the Bible actually is. But that’s okay too because I don’t have to undo any wrong preconceptions about that, either. When I remind them that the Bible is an ancient library of texts written by multiple authors over hundreds of years, they’re not offended to hear that it wasn’t authored by some old English king named James. Also, I don’t use phrases like “we all know the story of…” to summarize a Bible lesson. They don’t. 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 multi-syllabic 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. The way I frame their first glimpses of the Bible and theology will set the tone for how they will think, believe, and behave as Christians. 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 anymore. With a roomful of first-generation believers, it’s important for us to know why we do what we do, because we will be asked to explain it. Not out of criticism but from simple ignorance. And if we can’t answer them simply, clearly, and kindly, we need to rethink what we’re doing and why.

5. There are fewer arguments about the way church should be done.

I can’t remember the last time someone in our church complained, “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, they’re with me right away. That’s okay. 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, and I always 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 we’re 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 congregation that has been attending church for generations, because if they’re sinning, they’re probably deliberately defying what they know to be right. Preaching about sin to first-generation believers is different. Many times, they truly don’t even know something is a sin, so we must take that into account. We have to teach the “why” before they’ll understand — or care — about the “why not.” That usually means clear, pull-no-punches talk with less condemning, more explaining, and massive amounts of grace. Not a bad formula for any sermon, actually.

8. Money.

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 correctly without needing to undo false preconceptions. But it isn’t fast or easy. When first-generation Christians 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. And in the most recent couple of decades, those reasons growing exponentially. Today, they don’t trust us until we give them plenty of reasons to do so. Trust must 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. As the old saying goes, your life may be the only sermon some people will hear. 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.

10. Work with them about how to share their faith.

In previous generations, the “black sheep” was the one who didn’t go to church. In this generation, they’re often the one who does. This requires a significant rethinking of how they share their faith with friends and family members. Our old formulas won’t work. If you come from a Christian family, as I do, you need to talk with first-generation believers about the challenges they face to help them figure out new way to live and share their faith. Targeted discipleship ministry helps grow a church that reaches first-generation Christians and brings them into spiritual maturity that impacts their families and communities for the Lord.  

Learn more about Karl Vaters’ books and his work with small churches. This article originally appeared here.

Get more great content like this delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe Now