I felt like a sellout. It was time to leave seminary and begin pastoral ministry, and I was taking the easy road by moving back to my hometown in Northern Florida. My seminary neighbor, I thought, was the true missionary, heading to plant churches in Northern California. I had “missional insecurity,” the way Christians feel when they plan a spring break trip to some resort before learning their friends are going on mission trip. All of this good education and knowledge about the urgency of the gospel . . . and I was going to be a pastor in the Bible Belt?
I tried to make myself feel better by letting my neighbor know how much I admired his boldness. I threw in some self-deprecating jokes about sweet tea, but he quickly interrupted my pity party. “Where I am going,” he said, “people know they’re not Christians. The starting point is clear, whether unbelief, secularism, or some sort of humanistic spirituality. But where you’re going, everyone thinks they’re a Christian. It’s like you have to get people lost so they can see they need to be saved.”
That was all I needed to hear, and he was right.
Nominal Christian Mission Field
My neighbor described the largest mission field where I live. It’s called cultural or nominal Christianity. This mission field is primarily made up of people who’d quickly answer “yes” if asked whether they are Christians. But ask any questions about their faith, and you’ll soon realize you’re hearing something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, if you asked a nominal Christian why he is a Christian, Jesus Christ himself would likely have little bearing on the answer. For many people, good standing with God is related to heritage, rites of passage, or general morality. Jesus just happens to be a nice mascot.
This disparity requires our attention, because it isn’t unique to the American South. Across the nation, the most dominant religion doesn’t show up on a census, poll, or survey—it’s impossible to detect by those methods. The most common practiced religion in America today is a generic theism that mingles biblical concepts with a hope that one is a good person—all while maintaining autonomy over personal decisions and lifestyle. In this religion, good people go to a “better place” when they die. Going to this better place doesn’t depend on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet somehow these beliefs still get classified as “Christian.”
The most common practiced religion in America today is a generic theism that mingles biblical concepts with a hope that one is a good person—all while maintaining autonomy over personal decisions and lifestyle.
In this way, thousands of people are overlooked in outreach efforts because they may already be sitting in pews. Yet their lives show no evidence of saving faith. Whether the disconnect is the result of poor gospel communication by churches, fear of telling the truth, or a general misunderstanding of what the Bible says, the need is there, and it’s urgent. It can be easy to conclude that cultural Christians just need to get more serious about their faith, and so problems with cultural Christianity are declared discipleship issues.
I don’t believe this to be the case.
Evangelism before Discipleship
I believe cultural Christians need evangelism before they need discipleship, since they may be unsaved altogether. In my new book, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel, I aim to equip churches to identify and minister to nominal Christians, since I believe they are many and have often been misidentified as wandering or immature believers. But while there are myriad ways to get it wrong, Jesus draws a line in the sand and declares himself the only way to God. If one’s answer to “Why are you a Christian?” rests in something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, chances are that person doesn’t know Jesus Christ. Religious accomplishments and church affiliation don’t save.
In Matthew 7:21–23, Jesus addressed the first-century version of cultural Christians:
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!”
These people didn’t need to grow in their faith; they needed to be saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
All around your community today, people are anchoring their assurance in religious heritage, good morals, or denominational rites of passage (such as asking Jesus into their hearts as kindergarteners or going through confirmation). These people may be well-acquainted with church, well-versed in biblical jargon, and well-intentioned when it comes to their personal faith in God. But I fear that if they stood before Jesus today, he would declare, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”
If we’re to bring the gospel to the nations, we must be sure we’re bringing it to those in our pews.
If we’re to bring the gospel to the nations, we must first bring it to those in our pews. Unsaved “Christians” need Christ. We must understand what they believe and know the areas of life and culture where the practice of nominal religion plays out. We must also be aware of the barriers to reaching those who need the gospel just as badly as the atheist, agnostic, or secularist does.
This mission field has become my passion, because I was saved out of cultural Christianity. Before I heard the gospel I prayed before every meal, went to my mainline denomination every Sunday, and could’ve told you Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I knew lots of Bible stories, but I’d never had someone tell me I was a sinner who needed the forgiveness and reconciliation only Christ can provide. When I finally did hear the gospel, I couldn’t fathom how I had been in church my entire life and had never heard this truth. I was an Unsaved “Christian” and didn’t even know it.
Taking the good news to Unsaved “Christians” in our communities will require understanding the urgency involved, the disparity between their beliefs and biblical truth, and an awareness of how to engage. I wrote this book as a missionary tool for the church, since I hope to see people like myself move from being a Christian by culture to a Christian by conviction. In every circumstance, the gospel is the remedy. So here, too, let’s dig in and bring it to those who think they’re fine without it.
To read more about unsaved Christians, check out Dean Inserra’s new book, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Moody Publishers, 2019). This article is published in partnership with Moody Publishers.