I wasn’t born a Christian but I definitely feel like I was born in a church. Growing up I spent a bare minimum of three nights, an afternoon and a morning in a church activity of some form or another. That was my normal. Sometimes on special occasions we would spend every night of the week in church. I would always think, “How did I end up in this family?”
As an African American I have strong Christian roots because most of us are culturally Christian. By that I mean we know the gospel story and have no problem with believing in God and praying. Of all ethnicities in the United States we attend church the most. I would have to say it also means that Christianity for many of us is just a matter of holidays, film scenes (Tyler Perry and James Brown’s appearance in the Blues Brothers comes to mind) and phrases that have lost their meaning. So when I say I have strong Christian roots I mean it in that way but I also mean it in a way that is unique. My Christian roots run deep. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a Methodist pastor. My great grandfather on my Dad’s side was not only a pastor but a bishop. That’s like the MVP of church positions. It’s pastoring pastors. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a pastor for 30 years in South Central Los Angeles and my mother and father helped with the administration of the church. That being said I would have to clarify that I was immersed in church as a way of life, but I was not immersed in Christ.
Being raised in a Christian family and being exposed to Christian culture has its advantages and disadvantages:
Advantage #1 Not having to grasp a whole new worldview.
When you grow up in Christian family you do not have to stretch your mind to accept the stories of the Bible. It is much easier to believe because you are immersed in these stories from birth. In my case not only was I immersed in the Biblical stories of miracles but I also had the privilege of seeing real life miracles before my very eyes. One time my Grandfather prayed for a lady in a wheelchair and she got up and walked. On top of this I saw countless exorcisms and incidents of demonic possession (I know freaky huh?). Living in an environment like that made it easy to digest the Bible’s claims of miracles and healings.
I was raised with a very sensitive conscience and a foundation of Christian morality. Reciting the Ten Commandments as a child proved to be very useful. Reciting “thou shalt not covet” and “honor thy father and mother” convinced me that certain things were wrong or out of bounds. Coming to Christ with a background in Christian culture made it much easier to give up certain sins because well…I knew better.
The cherry on top of not having to grasp a whole new worldview was that I did not have to work hard on certain disciplines of the Christian life like prayer or tithing. They were natural to me as inhaling and exhaling. In fact, during my days as a “sinner” I don’t think I actually stopped praying or giving money to the church on Sunday (my biggest problem was what I did on Saturday nights). Growing up with these disciplines contributed to a rapid growth in my faith and helped me join church leadership. I had hundreds of scriptures already memorized and once I became a committed Christian they bubbled back to the surface of my mind and took on new life and power. Whenever I faced temptation or discussed Christianity with someone I could easily wield the verses I memorized to my advantage.
Advantage #2 Having a ready made community to support your faith and lifestyle.
One huge advantage to being a “generational Christian” was that I was not breaking away from my family. I actually became closer to them. I can remember the days that I spent going to my Grandfather’s house and having conversations about things I couldn’t understand in the Bible or in life. There was no awkwardness over different things such as praying over food or attending church. There were no arguments over different lifestyle choices. Once I became a committed Christian my new lifestyle fit together with the rest of my family’s to form a seamless whole.
While it may be that some people label my experience as “smothering,” I treasure the ready-made community of people I love. Family support was valuable in the very beginning of my faith. I believe it was one of the main factors in helping me to persevere through the rough patches of being a new Christian. Many times a new Christian has to face challenges in regards to their family of origin and their new faith and lifestyle clashing. Many Christians in countries that are hostile to Christianity have to endure being shamed, persecuted, and even killed by their own family members. I did not have to go through this at all and I am grateful for the community God gave me in my family.
Advantage #3 Receiving guidance and prayer and benefiting from the prayers and blessings that come from your Christian heritage.
I know for sure that I have benefited from the long history of sincere faith in my family. It has given us a strong work ethic and sense of morality and helped us avoid inner city pitfalls and traps. Strong morals have also helped us secure the blessings of material prosperity such as home ownership and being able to provide for the family’s basic necessities even in the midst of seemingly impossible circumstances. At the same time I would have to say that a strong work ethic and sense of morality are not the only major factors. I truly believe that even right now I am being guided by the prayers of my great grandfathers, my grandmother and grandfather, my aunts and uncles, and mom and dad.
I have benefited immensely not only from their wise choices and example but also from their prayers which reach me right now in the 21st century. The choices that they made to stay in faithful marriages and to work hard and save money have helped in forming me into the man I am today. Being raised as a fourth generation Christian has made me a recipient of untold blessings from God.
On the flip side, there are many disadvantages to being raised as a generational Christian:
Disadvantage #1 Not knowing how those who do not have a Christian worldview think.
I know I said having a Christian worldview was a plus but it can also be a minus. When you interact with others who don’t have the same worldview it can be hard to understand them. This limits your capacity to empathize with those who have different views on morality and the Bible’s supernatural claims. In turn this limits your capacity to lead and share your faith. In order to truly listen to others we must be able to understand their point of reference and many people’s point of reference is not the Bible. It is a jump for some people to believe that God could make seas part or choose to come to earth as a Palestinian Jewish man and die for people’s sins (however that works). It is an even further jump for some to believe that there is a God. I think I am better now at understanding different perspectives, but it is still hard for me to truly empathize with non generational Christians.
Disadvantage #2 Danger of not truly owning your faith separately from your family.
There is also the danger of having a “borrowed” faith and not a faith you can call your own. Many have faith but it is the faith of their parents or grandparents. To have a borrowed faith is to be a cultural Christian. It means that you have inherited the customs and culture of Christianity but not the substance. They used to have a saying in my old church that “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in a garage makes you a Cadillac.” We can never be born Christian in the same way that we can be born African American, Caucasian, Korean, or Guatemalan. We are all sinners and we need to have a spiritual second birth. Without a spiritual second birth we will always be attached to the culture of Christianity but not have a relationship with Christ himself.
Borrowed faith can never stand the tests of life and I am grateful that the examples of those around me were of a sincere faith and not just going through the motions. As a generational Christian I have experienced life crises that remind me how important a personal understanding of Jesus is. I am always being pushed into experiences where I cannot rely on my grandfather’s faith but must summon up my own. There are situations that I deal with that my great grandparents and even my mom could not have imagined. Experiences such as dealing with hostile Muslims, how to counsel Japanese believers, what to say to my homosexual friends who are seeking Christ have pressed me to own my faith and seek God for myself.
God uses trials and decisions in my life to sift out what is my faith and what is my family’s. I have had to actually disagree with my family on such topics as music, tattoos, and alcohol consumption. It is here where careful discernment is needed in regards to my spirituality. I have to decide on certain things based on what the Bible says, my context, church history (which is probably a bit longer than my family history) and the input of family and friends. While I still have love for my family, these situations show me how much I need to grow in my faith and not the Christian culture that was passed along to me. It is one thing to be shaped by my religious culture but another thing to develop the character of Jesus portrayed in the gospels and elaborated on by the rest of the New Testament. It is this path of growth that will not stop until I lay in the grave.
Disadvantage #3 Judging others who do not have the benefits of a Christian heritage.
Another thing that I succumb to on a regular basis is judging others who do not have the benefits of my Christian heritage. I am constantly tempted to look down on people who have a different sense of morality. This temptation is usually sparked when I see someone’s poverty or addiction and I want to point the finger and say look where your choices have landed you. It is usually when I see an alcoholic person or someone who is on welfare or in prison (or on Jerry Springer).
The reality is, probably someone is looking down on me. If it wasn’t for God’s grace I could be that very same person I am looking down on. The reality is I should not be pointing the finger at them but pointing my finger at God and saying, “Thank You” a thousand times. Not because of my choices but because of his choice of placing me in the family that I was raised in.
With all of the advantages and disadvantages it’s hard to say whether it’s better to be a generational Christian or not. I think either way being a Christian is good enough for me. Like most things in life there is a upside and a downside. In my life I have seen the upside and the downside and I’m hoping to see more of the former and not the latter. As I think about the different choices I have made I can see the hand of God in my family line and in a way I am glad to be the link in a chain of ancestors who have walked this path before me.