What is a Cultural Christian?
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Author Dean Inserra explains there are plenty of people who claim to be Christians but when it comes to Christ, they are clueless. Inserra talks about the best way to reach people who don’t know they’re lost.
What is a Cultural Christian?
Bob: You probably have friends or family members, who go to church regularly—who, if you ask them—would say, “Of course, I'm a Christian”; and yet, you still wonder if they're saved. Pastor Dean Inserra says there's a reason for that.
Dean: We have to realize that the God and the Jesus they've heard about their entire lives is not the God and Jesus of the Bible. It's an American vague, imaginary kind of friend creation. It's a person that maybe wanted enough of “Jesus”—and I'm putting air quotes in the air with “Jesus”—enough of “Jesus” to be associated with, but not enough to be inconvenienced. When they actually hear someone talk about what is the gospel, they've never heard it before.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 14th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. Dean Inserra says that we live in a country that is full of, what he calls, unsaved Christians. We'll talk more about what that means today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Pastor Dave, I should just remind our listeners—
Dave: Here we go.
Bob: —you pastor a church in Detroit; right?
Dave: Yes, I do; but you've never called me Pastor Dave until just right now. [Laughter]
So, I don't know where this might be going.
Bob: I want to know, from Pastor Dave, if you think you have any unsaved Christians at your church.
Ann: We just had this conversation this morning, actually.
Dave: Oh, yes; I would say, “Definitely.” I'm guessing that every church does—
Dave: —to some extent; but “Yes; for sure.”
Bob: I think that's right. Of course, our listeners are going, “What are you talking about?—unsaved Christians?”
Dave: Well, if our church had a better preacher, they probably wouldn't have unsaved Christians. [Laughter] But, we definitely do.
Bob: We are borrowing that phrase from Dean Inserra, who is joining us on FamilyLife Today. Dean, welcome.
Dean: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Bob: Dean is a pastor in Tallahassee, Florida—a pastor at City Church and the author of the book with that provocative title, The Unsaved Christian.
Ann: I like that title.
Bob: So, we should start off: “Can you explain exactly what you mean [Laughter] by an unsaved Christian?”
Dean: Well, it is great to be with you. This book is about what I believe is the largest mission field in America. It is a group of people; they're everywhere. They're at every church; oftentimes, in every family; and every neighborhood; and every job place; a sports team. They are people that, if you ask them if they are a Christian, they would say, “Yes.”
Their reason for being so, actually, has nothing to do with Jesus. It is because they aren't atheists; they aren't Muslim or Jewish; they aren't agnostics; so therefore, they are Christians. In fact, if they were going to fill out a survey that asked you to indicate your religion—in a moment—they would check Christian, without even thinking twice about it; because again, they are not atheists; they're not Jewish; they're not Muslim; so that means they are Christians.
If you ask them, “What makes you a Christian?”—the reasons they would give you are that they believe in God; that they are good people—and that would be about it. Notice, in that answer, they said nothing about Jesus; but in the Scriptures, there's no such thing as a saving faith apart from faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel. That's why I call them unsaved Christians.
Bob: There were more of them ten years ago than there are today; because more and more people are saying: “I'm not going to be a hypocrite about this. I'm a 'None,’”—so “No religious affiliation.” But we still have a wide swath of people, and I'd even take it one step beyond what you described. I think probably, for three or four years, I was an unsaved Christian—this is a little bit of my story.
When I was in high school, I grew up going to a mainline church—pretty faithful, not because of God—but because of the choir and because that's what good kids did. I went and sang in the choir and was a good kid—I mean good, in terms of how I was viewed in the community.
I started going to Young Life® when I was in high school—that's where I first heard the gospel, and I was attracted to what I was hearing. I was attracted to Jesus; I was attracted to the people I was hanging out with—we were having fun; we were singing cool songs. The girls were cute—I mean, it was a great environment to be in. I think, somewhere along the line, I thought to myself: “Yes, I think I believe this. I think there's a God, and this is the tribe I want to be affiliated with.”
I got to college; and a guy I knew from high school came up and said, “Hey, you were in Young Life in high school.” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “We've got a group here—we're leaders—we go into high schools and we lead Young Life Clubs for high school students.” I thought, “That would be fun to be a leader”; right? He said to come to the group, so I went to the group. For three years, I was a Young Life leader—going into high schools, and I was doing the talks; I was talking to people—giving them messages about Jesus. I was pointing people to their need for Christ.
If you had come to me during that time, I'd have said, “Yes, I'm a Young Life leader; of course, I'm a Christian.”
Ann: “Yes; look what I do.”
Bob: I remember one night—Mary Ann and I had started dating—and she wanted to go see James Robison, who was doing a crusade in our city. At the end of that night, he was giving the invitation. I thought, “This is a guy, who's giving an invitation to make
saved people really doubt whether they're really saved.” It was one of these strong, “You need to come forward.” After the first wave, he came back with a second wave; and then a third wave: “You need to come forward.”
I remember sitting there, thinking: “I'm not going forward; but God, we're good; right? I mean, do I need to pray this again? Did I really ever pray it? But we're good; right?” And that's kind of where I left it. And then we were at another evangelistic event; somebody said, “You need to write down the date that you prayed this prayer.” I thought, “I think I've prayed this before, but I didn't write a date down; so I'll write a date down,”—all of this stuff.
Fast forward to a Bible study that I'm in—this is the summer after my junior year in college. We're going to this Bible study; and a guy comes up to me at the end of Bible study—he says: “Could I get together with you this week? I've got some questions I'd like to ask you.” My thought was, “I wonder what he needs me to explain to him.” That should have been a little tip-off that pride is still a huge issue in my life; right? [Laughter] But that wasn't—the questions he had were not questions about my interpretation of Scripture. We sat down; he said, “I don't think you get it.” And I said, “What do you mean?” This is interesting; because this ties to what you write about in your book, Dean. He opened to Romans 3 and he started reading. He said: “I want you to read, starting there at verse 9.” “‘There is none righteous, no not one. Nobody seeks after God,’”—it's this whole description of depravity.
Bob: He said, “That's about you.” And I was like, “Wait; what are you saying?” He said: “It's about me, too; but it's about you.” He said, “I don't think you understand sin the way the Bible describes sin.”
Well, from this perspective—dead on. I'd seen sin as a few bad habits I had—mostly a good guy with a few bad habits. If Jesus had to die for those habits, I don't understand how all of that works; but that's God's business; you know? So, I'm mostly a good guy with a few bad habits that I guess Jesus had to do something for; but I'm on the team because I decided to be on the team and, maybe, I can bring some value to this whole Christian thing that's going on.
Well, this guy, in one afternoon, sits down and lays out an understanding of sin and, then, says, “And God is the One who intervenes—God's the one.” I walked out of that place, and I was weak in the knees.
Dave: I was going to ask, “How'd you respond?”
Bob: In that moment, I was just kind of dumbfounded and didn't know what to do. But I walked out and I thought, “Okay God; is what he said for real?” I was going to go to the Bible—he was sharing things about the sovereignty of God; about the doctrine of election—and I'm going, “I don't know about all of this.” In fact, I was going to go to the Bible and start in Genesis and show, “No, it's all about free will. I know…”
Over time, as I started to read the Bible—the Holy Spirit working in my heart—that's where I look back and go, “Three years after being a Young Life leader, I think God finally saved me.” You've heard stories like that, right and left; right?
Dean: You basically just told my story. [Laughter]
Ann: I was going to say, “Dean, what is your story?”
Dean: I was raised mainline protestant—and that's not to say there aren't some remnant great mainline protestant churches out there—there certainly are.
Dave: Sure; sure.
Dean: But sadly, there are many, who have gone the way of what I call “gospel-less preaching”; it was a nice church, with nice people, and a great family atmosphere. Unless we were sick or out of town, we were there every Sunday. And again, if you had asked me if I was a Christian, I would've told you, “Yes, of course.” I would have been offended if you had suggested otherwise. We prayed before dinner; I knew a few Bible stories; I could tell you a few of the Ten Commandments.
Bob: —the Lord's Prayer—you could recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Dean: I could definitely recite the Lord's Prayer and the Doxology, and I could probably even do some of the Apostle's Creed; because we read it every single week.
But I never had anyone actually tell me that I was a sinner, who needed to be saved; that only Jesus, actually, was the One who could provide that. Did I believe in Jesus?—I believed that He born in a manger in Bethlehem and was a good teacher. I even believed He died on the cross—I knew that as an historical event—but the significance of that, for me, and for others—it just didn't mean very much.
I went to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat when I was 13 years old. You mentioned the pretty girls at Young Life. [Laughter] One of the reasons I went, as a middle-schooler, was cause some of the pretty girls invited me to go. I was an athlete; and I was, of course, a Christian, because: “I'm not an atheist; I'm not Jewish; therefore, I'm a Christian.”
I went to this retreat. The pastor at the retreat, during the assembly time, gave a classic gospel presentation. He read from Matthew, Chapter 7, verses 21-23, which really is the base Scripture for the entire book, where Jesus says, “On that day”—the day of judgement—“many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, didn't I prophesy in your name?—perform miracles in your name?—cast out demons in your name?' And I will tell them, 'Away from Me, you evil-doers. I never knew you.'”
He read that text and said, “Some of you are the people he's talking about in this passage. He gave a come-forward invitation, and I went forward—I'd never seen one of those in my entire life. I joke that I'm the only person who came to faith in Christ and be angry about it. [Laughter] Now, don't get me wrong—I had joy—but I seriously was thinking, “How have I been in church my entire life and no one has ever told me this before?”
I had one of the coaches kneel down with me and tell me what it meant to trust in Jesus, repent of my sins, have faith in His gospel. The thing about that text that is so important is that a lot of people want to take the “I never knew you” part in Matthew, Chapter 7, and then preach a sermon about how it's a relationship with Jesus, not a religion.
Is that true?—of course, it's true. But that's not the main, primary purpose of that part of the text. What's happening in that text is—here are people, appealing to themselves and to their actions for their righteousness. They're appealing to their own good deeds for why they should be in heaven and be with God. These are not atheists; these are religious leaders He's talking about. Again, they've performed miracles in His name; cast out demons in His name.
What Jesus is saying is that: “Your appeal must be to Me, not to yourselves.” That's what cultural Christians miss. This whole book is about cultural Christianity. What cultural Christians miss is—they admire Jesus and like Jesus and have a vague belief in God; but they appeal to themselves and their own goodness, not actually to the work of Christ on their behalf.
Dave: Yes; and when you were coming out of seminary, you start the book with that conversation with your buddy, Matt, who really says—well, tell that story about how you were going to end up in an area, where you're going to see a lot of this.
Dean: My buddy, who was my seminary next door neighbor was going to northern California to be part of a church planting group—moving his family across the country. I really admired that; it's a very secularized area, such a need for churches. Here, I'm going back to my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, that is about 15 miles from the Georgia line and less than an hour from Alabama.
Again, it's basically: “I'm going to the beach for spring break; he's going to the orphanage in a third world country,”—[Laughter]—that's how I felt. I felt like I was selling out/taking the easy road. I just—you know, when you're insecure about certain things, you try to say something spiritual to sound better. As we were in the parking lot, I'm just kind of saying, “May the Lord be with you and Godspeed,”—I didn’t know what Godspeed means, but I said that. [Laughter] And I said, “I so admire where you're going and what you're doing.”
He cut me off—he’s like, “Oh, stop it.” I was like, “What?!” He said, “Where you're going is probably more difficult than where I'm going.” I said: “What in the world are you talking about? I don't want to debate which place is more difficult, because the enemy is everywhere, so everywhere is difficult.”
But his reason was—he said: “Where I'm going, in northern California,”—these are his words—“there's no confusion over who's a Christian and who's not. Either you are believing the gospel and following Jesus, or you're not. Where you're going, everyone thinks they're fine; like there's so much confusion. There's no clear starting point for a gospel conversation. Where I'm going in California, the starting point is unbelief or disinterest. Where you're going, you have to find the starting point—someone has to get lost in order for them to get saved.”
At that moment, I almost had—this really was kind of a moment in the parking lot—I don't have very many of those in my life—but I had this moment, where I said: “Wow. There's ministry to be done in the Bible Belt and in cultural Christianity.” But since then, I've realized it extends everywhere; because again, most of your neighbors—with the exception of a few small regions of the country—most of your neighbors and co-workers are not atheists. They would claim to believe in God, but is it the God of the Bible? Is it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?—probably not. It's usually a very vague and generic god. We worship a God who has made Himself known; He's revealed Himself to us through the Scriptures; He's not vague; He's not generic. He has told us who He is, and we can make sure that we help people understand that; so I'm passionate about this kind of ministry.
Bob: It's often easier for us to have evangelistic conversations/gospel conversations with people who, as you said, are clear-cut—the northern Californian people, who would say, “Yes, I'm not a Christian,” and they're open to having the conversation; but the lines are clear.
You sit down with somebody to have a gospel conversation, and they're regular church-goers, it's like they've tuned you out because they figure they already know what you're talking about.
Dean: Yes; the difference that cultural Christians see between themselves and someone, who is actually following Jesus, is that they just think you're more into it. They don't think you're different than them, they just think that maybe you're really religious. They might say, “Oh, they're just, you know—they are just really into their religion.” That makes it really complicated—they don't see a natural distinction.
We're not saying, “Look at me.” We're not saying that we're the example of what it means to be a Christian. Also, we're not the judge of who's a Christian and who's not—I want to make that clear; that’s not our job—but the Bible is. The Bible makes clear what is a Christian and what is not; what saving faith looks like.
I think one of the most important things about understanding cultural Christianity—about what I call unsaved Christians—is a mistake we've made. We see it as a discipleship issue, where they just need to get more serious about following Jesus—you know, just kind of repent of their sins—like: “Let's go man. Let's lock in. Let's get serious about this. Don't be casual; don't be lukewarm.”
I argue that's actually a false understanding. It's not a discipleship issue; it's an evangelism issue; because I believe cultural Christianity is a different religion altogether. What makes it complicated is there is no category for it. When you go check that box, asking to indicate your religion, it doesn't say “Cultural Christian.” It says: “Nothing,” “Atheist,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” “Buddhist,” “Christian.” Again, they're none of those other things; and they have a generic belief in God—they went to church with Nana when they were five—so you check “Christian.” That's not a Bible-belt thing; that's an everywhere thing.
Dave: In fact, if there was that box, can you imagine an unsaved Christian or a cultural Christian—they would be offended.
Dave: They'd be like, “There's no way that even remotely describes me.”
Help me; if I'm sitting down with somebody, talking to them, how can I identify if they're an unsaved Christian?
Dean: Yes; it's definitely offensive if someone suggests that you might not be a Christian, when you've claimed to be one your entire life. Again, I don't want to be a broken record, but we don't believe we are the judges on who and who's not—the Scriptures are.
I think it's really important to ask good questions—and not “Gotcha”; back you up against the wall” questions—we don't want to do that either. We want to be people of peace; right?
I will just say, “Hey, I noticed that on your Facebook® wall” or “…on your social media account, sometimes you'll kind of post things that sound pretty religious,”—I'll use one of their words: “religious.” “We talk about football; we talk about politics; you know, we talk about work and our kids. I realize that we've never actually had a talk about our faith.” I'll even apologize: “We talk about everything else, but we've never talked about faith before. Tell me about your story,”—frozen. “Tell me how…” I'm not trying to catch them; I just want to know.
Dean: So, if you ask a cultural Christian about Jesus/about their faith, they're going to say things like: “Oh, it's really important to me. I'm a spiritual person.” They're not going to talk about Christ; they're truly not—that gives you a big open door for a conversation.
Another thing that I've learned that's critical is—those kind of conversations—for someone to understand what Christianity is, they often need to understand what it's not. I'll tell them: “This is what it's not…” “This is not what Christianity is, in terms of being a good person,” “….I've been to church before.”
One of the gateways to seeing their eyes open is to actually invite them to gospel-preaching churches; because they are not hostile to churches—haven’t been in a long time; they're indifferent towards it. You invite them to a church that's actually going to preach the gospel. I'm not talking about denominationally; I'm not talking about a certain theological tribe—I mean, they are clear on who Jesus is, and what He's done, and our need for Him. You'll see their eyes open and go, “What's going on here?”
They've only seen Christianity presented as God kind of as a moral therapist in the sky, that has no accountability/no real involvement in the affairs of your life, unless things go really poorly; and you need to join Carrie Underwood and “Ask Jesus to take the wheel,” or something like that—[Laughter]—that's like the only kind of time that He matters. We have to realize that the God and the Jesus they've heard about their entire lives is not the God and Jesus of the Bible. It's an American, vague, imaginary friend kind of creation.
When they actually go to a church, where they hear it—I'm sure you guys, in your churches, see this over and over again—where it's not the atheist that walks in the door. You know, we hope they come and, sometimes, they do come; but it's the person that maybe wanted enough of “Jesus”—and I'm putting air quotes in the air with “Jesus”—enough of “Jesus” to be associated with but not enough to be inconvenienced. And when they actually hear someone talk about: “What is the gospel?”—they've never heard it before.
Bob: I'm wondering if we're talking to people, who are going, “I wonder if I'm a cultural Christian?” If you're talking to somebody, who's wondering if they're a cultural Christian,
how do you have that conversation? What would you say to the person listening?
Dean: I would first ask them what they believe: “What do you really believe about Jesus?”—like: “Who is He?”—that's where it has to go first. And I don't mean this deep theological conversation—even though the question of “Who is Jesus?” actually is a deep theological conversation, whether we realize it or not.
Dean: You know, seven-year-olds have a deep theological conversation when they talk about “Who is Jesus?”
Ann: Even the word, “believe,”—is it an intellectual “I believe”?— knowing, intellectually, that He said He was Jesus or He said He was God? Or is it a belief that stirs you on to movement?
Dean: Sure. And that first movement is that: “I need Him”; right?—that I need Him for my salvation—not for my buddy—but for my salvation.
I was at a campus ministry one time, and the gospel presentation was that “Jesus wants to be your friend.” I'm like, “Well, there are definitely implications that we have Jesus as a friend, for sure; but that is no where even remotely kind of a gospel presentation.” Actually, the Bible says that we were God's enemies before—this is like Romans 5—we were enemies; but then we were reconciled.
We're not buddies; and again, it's a small view of God. Remember, cultural Christians have a really small view of God; so in the conversation, I want them to understand that sin is not a random mistake—it's not just: “Oh, God knows my heart. I'm sincere. None of us are perfect,”—all of the things we like to say.
I think what's been lost in our country, in general—even with some evangelicals—is that our sin, first and foremost, is against God. Our sin is against God—like the holy God, the Creator of the universe. If that is true, then I need to ask: “What are the consequences of that?” If God is any God at all, He must not let sin go unpunished; so “What does that mean for you?”
I like to say: “Are the things that we do—where we talk about being a good person: having more good deeds than bad deeds—those kind of things have no basis
for that belief.” That's something to realize—is that many cultural Christians, the things they believe—there's no basis for it.
We actually have a basis, and it's the Word of God. But these people claim to be okay with the Bible; they're not opposed to it, necessarily; so: “Okay; the faith that you claim to have—is it consistent with what the Bible says is a saving faith?” I want to know what they believe, and what that belief actually leads to.
So somebody, real quick, who says that their good deeds outweigh their bad—that's like going to Chick-fil-A® and getting four-count nugget and extra large fry and thinking it all cancels out because you got a Diet Coke®. [Laughter]
Dave: Wait, wait, wait; that's exactly what I do. I thought it did cancel out. [Laughter]
Dean: That's what it's like to believe that our good deeds cancel out our bad. It's like: “Wait; no, God can't let those stored up good deeds, by American standards, you've done—God can't let our sin go unpunished.”
Bob: I love what you said earlier. If somebody asks you the question: “Tell me about your faith story/your Christianity,”—and the first place you go is to you; there's your tipoff that you probably don't have the faith story that the Bible is talking about. If the first place you instinctively go is to what you're doing, what you believe, what it's all about—rather than to Jesus and what He did and accomplished for you—you need to reconsider.
In fact, I'd encourage listeners—go to our website; there's a link on our website to something that's called, “Two Ways to Live”—that sets out the difference between someone, who's actually walking with Jesus, and somebody, who's not walking with Jesus. Click on that, and look at that, and ask yourself the question: “Which one looks like me?—which one is me?” and then get a copy of Dean Inserra's book, The Unsaved Christian. Read through these descriptions that Dean, you've got in your book, that help us separate biblical Christianity from cultural Christianity.
We've got copies of the book, The Unsaved Christian, available for you, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The book is called, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel. You can order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-358-6329 to order—that's 1-800-”F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
We're talking about this, this week, because lots of times in our families, we have parents, uncles, aunts, loved ones—who would indicate with their words that they're Christians—but we scratch our heads and wonder: “Do they really know Jesus?” Our goal here, at FamilyLife®, is to help effectively develop godly marriages and families; so that those godly marriages and families can have an impact on your extended family, on your neighbors, on your friends and family. We want to make sure, first of all, you're walking with Jesus and know what that means. And then secondly, that you're pointing others in that direction. That's our mission, here, at FamilyLife.
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Now, tomorrow, we're going to talk more about different ways that cultural Christianity is expressed in our world. Dean Inserra will be back with us tomorrow. I hope you can be with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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