What is a Cultural Christian?
About the Guest
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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, December 28th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Dean Inserra says we live in a country that is full of what he calls “unsaved Christians.” We'll talk today about what he means by that. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. So, 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.
Bob: Did you?
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 go, “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. [Laughter]
Bob: We are borrowing that phrase from Dean Inserra, who wrote a book called The Unsaved Christian. We’re going to talk more about that today; but before we do, we’ve got a message for all of our listeners from the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins. This is a pretty important week for us, here at FamilyLife.
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Now, let me introduce our guest, who is joining us on FamilyLife Today, Dean Inserra. 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 with, “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 that are everywhere. They're in 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 are not 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.
Dean: 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—Dean, one step beyond what you described—because 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. And 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.” 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, “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 the messages about Jesus. I was pointing people to their need for Christ.
Fast forward to a Bible study that I'm in—this is the summer after my junior year in college—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.” We sat down, and he said, “I don't think you get it.” 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.” 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? 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, and I thought, “Okay God! Is what he said for real?” I started reading the Bible. The Holy Spirit started 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.
Dean: 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 He was born in a manger in Bethlehem, and He was a good teacher. I even believed He died on the cross. I mean, 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]
Dean: One of the reasons I went, as a middle-schooler, was because some of pretty girls invited me to go. I was an athlete, and I was, of course, a Christian, because, again, “I'm not an atheist, and 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 judgment—“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 ever to come 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?”
Dean: I had one of the coaches kneel down with me and tell me what it meant to trust in Jesus, repent of my sins, and 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, “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 were 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, with 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.
So, again, basically, I'm going to the beach for spring break, and He's going to the orphanage in a third world country. [Laughter] That's how I felt. I felt like I was really kind of 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—so, we were in the parking lot, and 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 was 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,”—again, 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. 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. It’s almost as if 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, and I don't think I’ve had 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.”
Dean: 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 has 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 churchgoers, 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 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. And 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, and what saving faith looks like.
I think one of the most important things about understanding cultural Christianity, and 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 you 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, and they went to church with Nana when they were five; so [they] 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.”
So help me, if I'm sitting down with somebody, talking to them, how can I identify if they're an unsaved Christian?
Dean: Well, it's definitely offensive. It’s definitely offensive if someone suggests that you might not be a Christian, when you've claimed to be one your entire life.
Dean: Again, I don't want to be a broken record, but we don't believe we are the judges on who is and who's not, but the Scriptures are. I think it's really important to do is—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, but I just want to know.
Dean: If you ask a cultural Christian about Jesus—about their faith, they're going to say things like, “Oh, well, it's really important to me. I'm a spiritual person.” They're not going to talk about Christ; they're truly not. And then that gives you a big open door for a conversation.
Dean: And another thing that I've learned that's critical is—those kinds 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. They just haven’t been in a long time; they're indifferent towards it. So, 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 just 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 with 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 really 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. So, when they actually go to a church where they hear it—and 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, even though 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 is 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? Who is He?” That's where it has to go first. And I don't mean this deep theological conversation, even though just 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, “I need Him”; right? I need Him for my salvation—not to be my buddy, but for my salvation.
I was at a campus ministry one time, and the gospel presentation was “Jesus wants to be your friend.” I'm like, “Well, there are definitely implications that we have Jesus as a friend, for sure.
Dean: But that is nowhere near even remotely kind of a gospel presentation.
Dean: Actually, the Bible says that we were God's enemies. 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.
Dean: 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 [is] —the things that we do, where we talk about being a good person/having more good deeds than bad deeds—those kinds 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.
Dean: Is that your game plan? I’m sorry! [Laughter]
Dave: 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—no matter how good of 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, and 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.”
Now, as we mentioned, back at the beginning of today’s program, we’ve got just a few days left in 2020. Well, that means just a few days left for us to try to take advantage of the matching-gift opportunity that has been made available to us here this year. We need to hear from as many FamilyLife Today listeners as we can in the next few days. We have not met the matching-gift challenge yet.
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Now, tomorrow, we're going to talk more about some of the different ways that cultural Christianity is being lived out in our world. Dean Inserra will be back with us, again, tomorrow. I hope you can be here 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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