If there is such a thing as missional insecurity, I have felt it. It’s that feeling you had in college when your friends spent spring break serving in a Haitian orphanage while you drove to the beach. My most vivid experience of this insecurity came while moving out of my seminary apartment. I was loading up to make the drive back to my hometown of Tallahassee, where I would begin local church pastoral ministry. I was excited to be heading home until I saw my neighbor from our seminary apartment complex, Matt. He was moving to Northern California to join the staff of a local church. Great, I thought. There’s Matt packing up his family and entire life to move to one of the most secularized regions in America, and I am going back home, where I will live ten miles from the Georgia state line and less than an hour from Alabama. He’s going on mission. I’m headed to the Bible Belt.
I felt like I was taking the easy road and Matt was taking the courageous one, leading his family to an area where preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ would be just barely harder than finding a Republican. I was heading to the Land of the Monogrammed.
I said, “I really admire what you’re doing and will pray for you as you head to an area with such an important Great Commission need.”
Matt’s reply was not what I was expecting.
“Whatever,” he said. “The Bible Belt is the most difficult place in America to pastor a local church.”
I was stunned. He must have sensed my confusion because he explained further. As he did, I had a serious epiphany. I believe the Lord knew what I needed to hear in that moment, and it changed my perspective forever on my role as a pastor in the part of the country where I live and minister. “In California,” Matt said, “there is rarely confusion. Either you’re a Christian or you’re not. In the Bible Belt, many people think they’re Christians but have no concept of the severity of sin, necessity of repentance, message of grace, or the overall message of the gospel. They think they’re just fine with God and God is fine with them because they aren’t atheists and have been to church before as a kid. It’s almost like you have to help them get lost so they can actually be saved. They believe in God but do not believe their sin has done anything to separate them from him or to need the Jesus they claim to believe in.”
People are too quick to claim something is “life-changing.” I’ve done that myself about a new flavor of Blue Bell Ice Cream or some Kansas City BBQ. But from a ministry perspective, this really was the moment for me. The reality of Matt’s description of my hometown created a missional urgency rather than missional insecurity. Since that parking lot conversation, I moved back home just south of the Georgia line to plant a church among people who never missed Vacation Bible School as kids and now drop their own kids off several weeks of the summer to different VBS programs across town. Whereas church familiarity is rare where Matt is, people where I pastor dress up to go to church on Easter Sunday with no concept of why that holiday even matters.
The people who practice cultural Christianity are not atheists or agnostics. In fact, cultural Christians would be offended if described with such labels. They believe in God. They take seriously their “Christian” traditions, prayer in schools, nativity scenes, and Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ during A Charlie Brown Christmas.
What is wrong with being a monotheist who loves Charlie Brown and believes Jesus was born in a manger? Nothing, if it leads to gospel belief and practice. But the difficulty comes when we examine exactly who their God is and question why the coming of Jesus matters. Cultural Christianity admires Jesus, but doesn’t think he is needed, except to “take the wheel” in a moment of crisis.
The God of cultural Christianity is the “big man upstairs,” and whether or not he is holy and people have sinned against him is irrelevant. Words such as hope, faith, and believe hang on the walls of living rooms as decorations, but the actual words of God only come around when Psalm 23 is read at a loved one’s funeral.
Religious but Not Saved
It is well documented that those who claim no religious affiliation are on the rise. Between 2007 and 2014, this group jumped from 16.1 to 22.8 percent of the American population. This coincides with a decline in people identifying as Christian, although there is reason to believe this is really just a refinement process and not a sign of bleeding in the actual Christian demographic. As the social costs of Christianity increase, those with only nominal belief are falling away. According to a study of US adults, 80 percent of those polled believe in God, but only 56 percent believe in God as described in the Bible.
Considering the fact that approximately 70 percent of the US population still identifies as Christian, we have a large group of people that would likely be overlooked in outreach or missions. With this in mind, I believe cultural Christianity is the most underrated mission field in America. While there is evidence that nominal Christianity is declining on its own, it is of utmost importance that we minister to those on the fence, in hopes that they may end up within the fold and not without.
The words my friend Matt used to challenge me in that parking lot have been confirmed since I moved back home to pastor in a city saturated with cultural Christianity. Indeed, there is familiarity with church and Christian lingo, but a familiarity with the gospel is hard to find. To add to the problem, the church often assumes people have heard the gospel. As a result, people can camp out in churches for years and never hear what the Bible actually says. What an opportunity to make a Great Commission impact!
But Matt was right when he said it was difficult. Reaching people who think they are fine is a seldom-discussed starting point for evangelism and local church ministry.
Getting people who think they’re Christians to see that they actually are not is a delicate and sensitive endeavor, but not unique to our time. The Sermon on the Mount is our starting point for understanding cultural Christianity, where Jesus addressed the distant cousins of the modern day over-churched, under-reached: those who were religious, but not repentant.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matt. 7:21–23)
Jesus wasn’t speaking about atheists, agnostics, pluralists, or secular humanists. He was describing moral people doing good religious acts in the name of God. Religion was deeply embedded in their routines, which gave them full confidence that their acts of righteousness set them up for a big payoff in heaven.
Consider the petitions Jesus gave as an example in Matthew 7:21–23 in our modern context. I believe his examples would translate to our era like this:
Didn’t we say grace before dinner?
Didn’t we vote our values?
Didn’t we believe prayer should be allowed in school?
Didn’t we go to church?
Didn’t we believe in God?
Didn’t we get misty eyes when we heard “God Bless America” at a baseball game?
Didn’t we give money to the church?
Didn’t we own Bibles?
Didn’t we want America to return to its Christian roots?
Didn’t we stay married and faithful?
The term self-righteousness often comes with a connotation of superiority or rigid legalism. And while those might be results of self-righteousness, the root of self-righteousness is the belief that your works justify you before God. Many people function as if they don’t need saving, but that doesn’t change the reality that God has given only one mediator and one atonement with no exception clause.
Conversing with Cultural Christians
Here are some tips to remember when establishing a starting point in a spiritual conversation with a cultural Christian.
• Many cultural Christians claim to revere the Bible. So feel free to refer to it as the authority on all things sooner than you might if talking to someone of another faith. You have a wide open door to use the Bible as your point of reasoning with people who already claim to believe it is a sacred text. Many of them have church affiliations that don’t use the Bible much, so it is likely that they have no idea what the Bible they claim to believe actually says.
• Lovingly ask frustrating questions. “What is the standard for good?” “How good is good enough?” “How many more good deeds do you need to have than bad?” “Who doesn’t make it to heaven?” Ask these questions to uncover their source of authority for their stated beliefs. Most cultural Christians won’t be able to answer these questions. The point of this is not to mock them or embarrass them. It’s to establish a starting point of what God has told us about himself, our sin, and the solution found in Jesus Christ.
• Ask about the Ten Commandments. There’s a good chance they can name some of them. Ask how they’ve done in keeping them and if there is any consequence for breaking them. If not, why did God give them to us?
• Cultural Christians claim a belief in Jesus Christ. They also believe he died on the cross. If good people go to heaven, why did Jesus die? Is anything more confusing than a Savior dying for people who really didn’t need saving?
Many people I have baptized were former cultural Christians who could not answer these types of questions. In their frustration, they began to realize something was dissonant. The Christian faith they claimed to have held had little to do with anything the Bible said, outside of trying to be a good neighbor. Once their eyes were opened to the reality of God’s holiness and their personal sin, a need for a Savior was understood. A starting point was established and a need for the gospel believed.
I have a friend who is a salt-of-the-earth coach and has served as a father figure to dozens and dozens of kids in town. He has had great impact on young men for several decades. In terms of “religion,” he didn’t have a connection to a local church but would watch well-known televangelists on TV from time to time.
Then he heard the gospel. The message of God’s holiness, our rebellion, our need for salvation, Jesus’ fulfillment of the requirements of the law in our place, and the eternal security that we find in Jesus alone woke him up to the reality that belief in this gospel changes everything in our lives. He realized that his well-intentioned good deeds didn’t change the fact that he was a sinner and needed forgiveness.
Remember that we’re looking for a starting point, not a one-stop-shop to full gospel understanding. Don’t enter these conversations as debates, but rather feel confident in simply expressing what the gospel is. Pray that God would provide the wisdom you need to then walk someone through their resulting questions. My friend’s realization that he needed Jesus eventually led to saving faith, baptism, deep commitment to a local church, and spiritual growth. But that began with a starting point: hearing the gospel and understanding it was good news.
Dean Inserra is the founding and lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida.
Adapted fromThe Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospelby Dean Inserra (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.