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Second Generation Christians

by Larry DeLong

I was a preschooler when my parents were called and joined what was then a fledgling Radio Church of God, later to become the Worldwide Church of God. My parents were baptized in 1960, at the infancy of the church in Canada, and I became as a result a “church kid,” and that makes me a “second generation Christian.”

By contrast, my wife Maureen, is a first generation Christian, being called in her late teens. Over the 30+ years of our marriage these two simple facts have caused many interesting reactions and discussions between us. Asking each other, “Why do you react that way, or why don’t you do this or that”? It has become very apparent that our individual callings as first and second generation Christians have resulted in differing approaches to our calling and church life.

Over the years I have wondered, and even struggled to understand, my call from God. You see, as a second generation Christian, I very often react to circumstances differently from that of a first generation Christian. These differences are maybe puzzling to many of the “first” generation Christians and even denied by some “second” generation Christians. But for many of us it is reality. So why, you may ask, is this subject of any note? My goal is to answer that question.

It is obvious that not every individual reacts or experiences God’s call in the same way and that includes second generation believers. I wondered for years, however, if my perceptions and experiences were uniquely mine or whether they were shared by others. Through discussion with many second generation Christians from Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, I soon found a common experience that is shared by many second generation Christians. I will tell you my story to illustrate.

I was baptized in the very early 70’s when baptizing second generation church members was still a rarity, especially in western Canada. After some counseling the pastor was very uncertain of my “readiness” because of how I answered his questions. Being raised in the church, knowing nothing else, my perspectives were different from what the “accepted norms” were of a church that was almost entirely first generation Christian. I knew all the right answers to the pastor’s questions from an early age. What was particularly hard for the pastor to understand was that I did not have the “first love” rush. “How was it possible to be called by God and not have that ‘first love,’ he wondered. My question was, “How was it possible to have it when the church was part of me for my entire life? So much so that I had been doing the Bible Correspondence Course since I was 10 (the original Correspondence Course went to 54 lessons).”

Even though I did not “fit the mold,” or displayed a “first love,” my pastor did baptize me, but also informed me that he was not too sure if he should.

So with that experience, and others, seeding doubt, it took me another twelve years to decide whether my baptism was valid or not. Did I get baptized because it was expected of a young person growing up in the church? Did I get baptized because it was important to my parents, and I needed to please them? Did I get baptized just because it was the thing to do? Did I get baptized because I needed to be fully a part of the church? Or did I get baptized because God had called me, Jesus Christ wanted me and I was answering that call?

As the years rolled by, I struggled with who I was as a church member and more importantly as a believer in Jesus Christ, as did many of my second generation peers, a few of whom survived, but many did not. My life experiences, along with the many conversations and letters I have received while researching for this article, and the counseling I have done with second generation young adults, all point to some very important concerns and aspects of our calling. We need to realize that we are not unique, but special. Here is a note I received from a person growing up in the church:

I have gone through cycles where I felt that I am not “good enough” or “perfect” enough. At times I have had the strength to deal with the pressure to be perfect and other times where I think I just couldn’t handle the pressure and more or less thought to myself, “I just can’t be so perfect in behavior and morality and life, so why bother to try and please?” My church experience is not like other people in the Church who “seem to have it all together.” It has been a hard struggle up to this point and I feel that I am a weak human being who fails at living up to certain expectations. I feel I am destined to fail simply because I am a human being. Today I am a fearful, insecure person who cannot open up and talk about life issues…I have felt at times in the past that I have not been heard, understood, and/or accepted and I feel that standards upon me were so much higher than upon others. This may or may not be reality, but it is/was my perception.……. I have experienced feeling ashamed, angry, disappointed and extremely frustrated with myself who, like the Apostle Paul, cannot understand why “I do the things I do not want to do and do not do what it is that I want to do.”

Why is it so difficult? It is difficult because many of us never felt the “first love” euphoria everyone around us talked about. You likely prayed, as I did, that you would feel the “first love” at or soon after baptism so that you would know for sure that you were called. However, when the feeling never came, it was disconcerting. This is about the time during the conversation when a first generation believer could say, “Oh what are you whining about? We all experience the same doubts and difficulties in our walk towards righteousness.” It is hard for most first generation believers to understand that I never had the experience, as they did, of the “Ah ha” moment when the “light came on” while reading or listening to an exciting “new-found truth,” or the “first love,” as we call it. To most second generation believers the first love is an elusive thing and our living of the truth and our relationship with God is affected by the lack of that experience.

We can look at the apostle Paul as one with a most vivid first love. We read of him before his calling, in Acts 8:1-3, ravaging the church, dragging faithful men and women off to prison, hating the truth and everyone who lived it. Then in Acts 9:1-18 we see likely the most dramatic calling recorded, a changed man having a passion for the truth that few could match. What a turnaround. Suddenly a persecutor of the church preaching the gospel (Acts 9:20). That experience fuelled his first love, giving him power and drive to serve Jesus Christ till his death.

In contrast we look at Timothy, a second or possibly third generation Christian, a young man that Paul loved as his own son (2 Timothy 2:5). Timothy was brought up by a Christian mother and grandmother and had remained faithful. From Paul’s perspective, and perhaps some concern, Timothy did not appear to have the fire or first love of Paul. Paul proceeds then to give Timothy a charge to fight the good fight of faith and to avoid the pitfalls of the world; to resist the worldly enticements that as a second generation believer he could see, but had never experienced. Paul knew that Timothy could be susceptible to the bright lights of a dark world (1 Timothy 6:12, 20). It is often hard for a second generation Christian to maintain the standards God has set for us, partly because we have not really experienced the world as a contrast, and partly because that all-important first love is not there for an anchor.

It is particularly difficult for second generation Christians who chose, in their developing years, not to experience the life of a prodigal son or daughter, to still recognize growth within themselves. We were “good” as a kid, “good” as a teen, and were baptized in our late teens or early twenties. We had little to gauge ourselves with, often saying “there was so much that we weren’t allowed to do, growing up in the church.” We were never part of the world, (not saying that we had never sinned), because generally we followed the teachings that we had been taught by our parents and the church. We didn’t see the “sins of the world” invading our lives, therefore we saw no need to repent of them. In a convoluted way, however, we tried our best to convince ourselves that we were not, and could not be good enough.

And grace was often a concept we could not grasp. A sense of responsibility coupled with guilt from an always watching “church,” made it hard to recognize spiritual growth within ourselves. We saw ourselves living a “good” but difficult life! It was difficult, because when examining ourselves from our church life as a child, we saw struggle but little achievement. So why was there a 12-year struggle in my life? If we were good kids, good teens, why do we labor with a sense of doubt and guilt? For me the answer came down to understanding the nature of sin.

At the end of my 12-year struggle I realized that I didn’t have to repent of going to church on Sunday - that was for my mother to do. Christmas and Easter were what my grandparents did. Smoking is what my father had to give up and swearing was how the neighbours spoke. I didn’t have to repent of all those worldly things, that was for someone else.

But I did hate the big kids on the school bus that tormented me when I was small, teasing me about my crazy religion. The thoughts of revenge I had with school peers that constantly harassed me about my short hair when all the other boys of the 60’s had very long hair. The anger I had because my dad was very strict and refused to let me have “after-school” friends that were not in the church (I was the only church kid for 100 miles in any direction), and on it goes. Once I realized that I did in fact have a lot of sin to repent of, God’s grace all of a sudden began to make sense and had value for me. Once I stopped and looked at Jesus’ amplification of the law and meditated on Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people,” much of my doubting and inner turmoil was gone. To accept Jeremiah’s words I had to examine my motives, thoughts and attitudes. Satan knew that most of the worldly distractions had little or no effect on me. BUT motives, thoughts and attitudes were what Satan could work with.

Even though most Bible readers only focus on the “negative warnings” to the seven churches in Revelation chapters two and three, I as a second generation Christian, take heart from God’s message. God praises the church in Ephesus for their hard work, and perseverance, though they had forsaken their first love. I always saw this as a message to my parents. They built the church with hard work, they persevered through the 1960’ and 70’ but by 1995 they had lost that first love. Satan knew that. God’s message to my parents, to first generation Christians, was remember and repent. To Smyrna I could relate.

As a teen, belonging to a church with different beliefs, I did feel that I suffered persecution from class mates at school and in a way lived in poverty because of “all the things we couldn’t do.” However, what is truly important must be kept in perspective. What does God say to Smyrna, and to me, a second generation believer (Revelation 2:10)? ‘Don’t fear these things, be faithful to what I have taught you, and I will give you a crown of life!’

One of the great sins in this world today is compromise, a warning to the church at Pergamos. The other is immorality, the warning to Thyatira. We live in a world of uncleanness and lasciviousness, a world of compromise and sexual immorality. Those of us who have always been in the church must take these warnings seriously. Satan knows how to entice. We must not allow the world’s definition of tolerance to affect the words we speak, along with the motives and attitudes we display. The final danger we live is the warning to Sardis and Laodicea, that of being superficial and lukewarm.

Easy to do for a second generation believer if they have just floated on the coat tails of others over the years. But take heart if you have been faithful to the truth, if you have shown love and faith in your service. God’s message to Philadelphia is, “I am coming soon, Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown (Revelation 3:11).

To us, Paul speaks in 2 Timothy 1:6-8 (NIV), “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord.”

Paul gives powerful loving advice to all second generation Christians, answering many of our worries, questions and doubts. Paul is telling Timothy, and us, don’t doubt your calling, your conversion nor your God-given gifts (verse 6). Do you have confidence in your calling? Paul tells us we have been given a spirit of power, love and sound discipline. Be proud, not ashamed of your calling, stand tall against this world. God has called you according to His purpose and by his grace (verses 7,8). Paul understood how difficult it is for Christians who have not really experienced the world as a contrast, or had that all important first love as an anchor, to maintain their focus on the standards God has set. “Retain the standard of sound words that you have heard, guard the treasure that you have been given through the Holy Spirit” (verses 13,14).

I will share with you another letter I received from a young lady in the United States. She as with many second generation Christians has wrestled with many of the same issues, but is now standing proud as a saint with Jesus Christ.

As a third generation Christian the decision to become baptized was very recent, but after I made that decision I knew it to be the right one and the best thing I have ever done or could ever do. However, growing up in the church was difficult. Despite loving God and believing in the Bible I told myself that I was never going to be baptized; I wasn’t good enough and was never going to be.

At times I have disagreed with some of the behavior of church members and found much hypocrisy I didn’t want to be part of. It took me a while to realize that my commitment was to God and not the people; that I was to follow Him. After I realized this, all I wanted was to have my sins wiped clean and be an official member of His family. I felt a responsibility as well. I had the knowledge given to me all of my life and I believed in it, I could not turn away from it. I suppose I never really had the excitement of discovering this knowledge as something new and life-changing because I had always been taught His way. But I am looking forward to the Kingdom and Christ’s return. And it is exciting that I seem to understand a little more each day and I feel closer to God.

Paul would be proud of this young lady’s commitment, focus and the hope she has developed. In 2 Timothy 2, Paul gives Timothy, and us, some loving advice. “Be strong, suffer the hardships of this life as a believer. The world and its affairs are very enticing but we must stay away from them. If we wish the prize we must play by the rules God has set out before us.”

We need not worry about the validity of our baptism. Instead we must examine ourselves for the attitudes Satan presents to this world. Critical natures, judgmental minds, motives, thoughts, attitudes and self righteousness are our enemies. Accept the fact that we truly do need our Lord and Saviour, and not just by paying lip service to Him. Truly surrender to REAL active service to God and Jesus Christ. We need to humble ourselves and, as difficult as it is, accept the fact that our Father and Jesus Christ do love us, have called us independently of our parents. Accept that we have been given the Holy Spirit so we can display the fruits of the Spirit.

Meditate on where we would be today if we had not been called and baptized. We need to meditate on our human nature and where it would have taken us, and contrast that to where we are today with the knowledge, understanding, and wisdom that God has given us (the spiritual growth via the Holy Spirit).

The secret, if there is a secret, for us as second generation Christians is understanding our thoughts and motives, accepting the love of our Father in Heaven, and recognizing the spiritual growth within ourselves.

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