Dr. Arnold interviews Dean Inserra about the topic of cultural Christianity and the importance of evangelism in addressing it.
Topics of conversation include:
- What are some characteristics of cultural Christianity?
- What does it mean to be saved?
- How can we engage “unsaved Christians” in gospel conversation?
- What are some ways for the church to address this issue of cultural Christianity?
- How do we know if our own faith is genuine?
Dean Inserra is the founding and lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida. He is the author of several books, including Without a Doubt: How to Know for Certain That You’re Good with God (Moody, 2020) and The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Moody, 2019). Dean is an advisory member of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Leadership Council, and is also a member of Baptist 21.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
In 2012, I became a pastor in Western Kentucky, and I’m so thankful to the Lord for that opportunity. I had some really awesome people in that church and the Lord really blessed our efforts there. But it wasn’t long before I realized how cultural Christianity could be so prevalent, especially in the South. Being born in America meant that you were a Christian. Everyone belonged to some church, and it didn’t even matter if they ever attended there. And I think the same could be true for anywhere in America. To be American is to be Christian, but that’s not what the Bible teaches. In fact, the Bible teaches something emphatically different. Every person needs to experience the second birth that comes in faith in Christ. Well, to help us understand the epidemic of cultural Christianity, we have with us today, Dean Inserra. Dean is the founding and lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida. He’s the author of several books, including Without a Doubt: How to Know for Certain That You’re Good with God, and the book that will be the focus of our conversation today—The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel. Dean, I’ve appreciated your ministry from afar for some time. Welcome to the podcast.
Dean Inserra (01:19):
Thanks. It’s great to be with you guys. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.
Brian Arnold (01:23):
So our big question for today is this—what is cultural Christianity? And before we dive into that question, I just wanted to ask—what raised your interest in this topic?
Dean Inserra (01:34):
Well, I believe that I really did…cultural Christianity is my story. I believe I was saved out of it. I grew up in a great home, very loving home, that went to church on Sunday and said a little prayer before dinner together as a family. But I was never actually told what you mentioned earlier—that I needed to be born again. And that I was a sinner in need, I needed to be saved. But I never actually had anyone tell me that at church. So not only is it my story that I was saved out of, it’s also the story of many of my friends, and my mission field where the Lord has me as a pastor. So that’s really where the passion about this whole conversation comes from for me.
Brian Arnold (02:07):
And I think it’s so needed, in your context, even, because you’re in Tallahassee, you’re in Florida, you’re in the deep South. And you see this—no doubt, regularly—in the church that you’re even trying to pastor.
Dean Inserra (02:21):
Oh, definitely. And especially where I live. Florida has people that come from all over to live here, but Tallahassee—I only live about 10 miles, as the crow flies, to the Georgia border. So it has a very Southern influence here and there’s churches everywhere. I mean, there’s several churches on some blocks. I mean, there’s…I would say there’s a couple of hundred churches, just in our county. I mean, churches all over the place.
Brian Arnold (02:42):
That’s right. And it’s kind of a holdover of a previous era. It’s going to be interesting to see how that looks going into the future. Well, as you talk about cultural Christianity, what are some of the characteristics that you see that make up what you would consider cultural Christianity?
Dean Inserra (02:56):
Yeah. So to answer the question, what is cultural Christianity? I think it’s two things. That’s going to help us understand more, are these two things. One, I believe that it is the largest mission field in America. And second, I believe that cultural Christianity is the most misunderstood aspect of the mission in America. So some aspects of cultural Christianity, and this is what makes it so complicated, is these people certainly are not atheists. And also they’re not part of another world religion. They’re not Jewish, they’re not Muslim, they’re not Buddhist. So they’re filling out a survey, or maybe a census, or any kind of form that asks you to indicate, you know, your name, your height, your weight, your date of birth—oftentimes, it asks you to indicate your religion. Well, they’re going to look at the different options.
Dean Inserra (03:36):
And again, they’re not “no religion”, they’re going to leave that blank. They’re definitely not atheist. And they know for a fact they’re not Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. So as a result, they answer “Christian” and their reason for doing that is not so much what they are, but more what they are not. So I call it being an unsaved Christian, because if you ask someone if they’re a Christian, they’re going to tell you yes, but their reason for believing that has nothing to do with what the Bible declares is actually saving faith. It’s not a faith that’s dependent upon the cross of Christ, on the resurrection. It admires Jesus, and actually probably gets a little offended if you take his name in vain a little too much, or put a swear word in front of his name, but the actual need for Christ is not in the equation. There’s just basically an admiration and an awareness of the existence of Jesus.
Dean Inserra (04:26):
I mean, they believe that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem. They put on pastels and get dressed up for a picture before church on Easter. But the actual need for Christ, and to be saved by Christ isn’t on their radar. Because again, they’re theists, it’s a very generic, vague theism, but they’re theists, and they see themselves to be very good people. So when you put those two things together, in their eyes—theists and great people—then they’re fine. And they think they’re Christians, in terms of how they see themselves in their own eyes.
Brian Arnold (04:54):
Well, and it’s basically like an American civil religion kind of thing, where I want the 10 commandments posted at the courthouse. I can’t name them, I don’t know what they are, really, but that must be there because we are Christians. Because that’s what it means to be American, whether or not they’ve really surrendered their life to Christ or not. Well, as you identify this problem, I think a lot of us would say, it’s an issue of discipleship—we’re not discipling people well. We’re not teaching them what it means to follow in the paths of Jesus and the radical commands that he gives. But you actually say it’s an evangelism problem. Why is that?
Dean Inserra (05:27):
Yes. That’s why I believe it’s the most misunderstood mission field in America. Because for a long time, we just thought the answer to cultural Christianity is, you know, just to make sure we’re preaching more biblical sermons, and we’re calling more people to repentance. And I say yes and amen to all of those things for our preaching, but the issue is we’re mistaken when we think that the problem of cultural Christianity is one of discipleship. As in, let’s just get more serious about our faith, let’s start growing, let’s read the Bible more, let’s connect more to church. All of those aspects that can put us on a path to discipleship—cultural Christianity is an evangelism issue. It’s a different religion altogether. And these people don’t need discipleship, they need to be saved. And that’s why I call it the largest mission field in America. And it’s not just designated for the South.
Dean Inserra (06:09):
I looked…there’s different aspects of it, and it looks different in the South. It’s a little more church-connected in the South. But in most places in America, we can say, the largest amount of people are not atheists. The largest demographic is not agnostic. Again, the largest demographic isn’t Jesus-followers. But still, in most places in the United States—based on what I said earlier about the whole “I’m not Jewish, I’m not Buddhist, I’m not an atheist”—they would still call themselves Christian, even though there’s no fruit whatsoever. So these folks, again, they need the gospel, not discipleship. Yes, we want to see them be discipled, but they need to be saved first. We have to first see this as an evangelism conversation, not a discipleship conversation.
Brian Arnold (06:49):
Yeah, one of the places that it frustrates me the most—and not to take us too far outfield here—but when you start to see polls put out during election seasons, and how American Christians or evangelicals are thinking. And I always think—how many of them answering that way are actually evangelicals at all? Or Christians at all?
Dean Inserra (07:09):
Oh yeah. Not very…I would say not very many. I mean, Jesus wasn’t joking when he said that there’s a wide road that leads to destruction, and narrow road that leads to life. So just by those words alone, it’s not going to be everybody. And then again, that’s why there’s so much confusion. Is the cultural Christian—and I mean that in a unregenerate person who’s a theist and thinks they’re a great person, that comes from maybe a Christian grandmother, so they think they’re great in the eyes of God—this person only sees themselves as different than an actual Christian in the fact that they would just think the actual Christian is just really into their religion. That’s the language they might use. “They’re just, like, really into church.” Or the person that gets asked to pray before Thanksgiving dinner.
Dean Inserra (07:50):
You know, not that, “oh, he’s a Christian and I’m not,” but it’s “oh, we’re both Christians, but he’s just really into it.” That’s how they view it, which makes it very complicated and hard for a gospel conversation with somebody who thinks they’re fine, because there’s no clear starting point. With an atheist, I have a clear starting point—it’s unbelief. With maybe someone of a different religion, like a world religion, I have a clear starting point, to be what the Bible teaches compared to what their holy book teaches. With a cultural Christian, you have to almost get someone to see they’re lost, before they can ever, even for a remote case, finally understand that they need to be saved. It’s really complicated.
Brian Arnold (08:25):
So let’s dive in there a little bit, because I can imagine people listening right now who would say, “absolutely, I’ve got people in my family who I think would identify as Christians, but I don’t see any fruit of the gospel in their lives at all. How can I engage them in a conversation?” You said you’ve got to work hard to kind of get them lost first. What are some ways that you have found useful in doing that?
Dean Inserra (08:47):
Yeah, I think it first begins with the whole fact that they identify as Christians. We have to get in conversation to the root of why they identify that way. Like what in their eyes would make them see themselves as that? Oftentimes it will be…it’s nothing more than just some sort of heritage again. Or some morals/kind of values/kind of idea. Or the most generic, not Christ-belief, but just god (lowercase g, god) belief. And people listening to this need to realize, that’s going to be a hard conversation in terms of sensitivity. And when you suggest to somebody who thinks they’re a Christian, they might not be, that is a tough conversation. So prepare just in advance for it to be hard. And it might cause some discord for a little while, and also keep in mind, just posture-wise, we’re not the judge of who’s a Christian, nor do we want to be.
Dean Inserra (09:30):
But the Bible is. And the Bible makes it clear that unless one actually has their faith in Christ, if their Christianity is defined by something else other than Jesus, they might not be one. But I think at first it’s a belief issue before it’s anything else. So I think with cultural Christians, you’ve got to get to the core in conversation. And everybody knows their own, just approach they need to take with their friend or with their family member, you know them, you know their personality, you know how to engage that conversation. But I think first we’ve got to see what they believe, and you’ll be shocked to see their beliefs, actually, aren’t very Christian at all. And you could start there, is what I always recommend. Let’s go to the core, what they actually think about what it means to be a Christian.
Brian Arnold (10:06):
I think there’s some good precedent for that, even in Scripture. I think about Jesus and Paul, how often they would say,”you’re a Jew, but you’re not really a Jew—if you did, you would’ve been anticipating the Messiah. You would see that I have come.” For us to be able to say to people in our day, “you say you’re a Christian, but you’re not yet. Let’s look at what the Bible says about this.” I think one of the doctrines that gets in the way the most—and it’s one of the most precious doctrines in all of Scripture—it goes by many different names. It could be once saved, always saved, eternal security, perseverance of the saints. The idea that once a person is a believer in Christ, they have passed over from death to life. They’ve been born again, and that Christ holds them until the end. So how have you seen this doctrine kind of hijacked by cultural Christianity?
Dean Inserra (10:53):
Yeah, I believe it’s one of the most sacred doctrines of our faith. So important, right? It’s what allows me to sleep at night, is that reality that we’re in Christ and it’s for all eternity, and nothing can take that away. And I think the key is that our faith, our eternal security is actually in Christ. Those are the important words to remember. It’s not in my resume, or my background, or my good decisions, or my efforts—it’s actually in Christ. And I think what happens for children a lot of times, especially in the tradition where I come from, is that we often make the gospel—”who wants to go to heaven when you die?” Like, just like a question. It’s like, well, who the heck isn’t going to say, “hey me, you know, sign me up for that,” right? The atheists just raised their hands.
Dean Inserra (11:35):
So…and then we say, “okay, if you want to go to heaven when you die, repeat this prayer after me.” And I’m not, you know, being dramatic or exaggerating. That’s really how it happens in a lot of our churches. And then basically you just say this quick, repeat-after-me-prayer, and they declare you to be a Christian forever. And it hurts our evangelism efforts down the road, because oftentimes mom and dad and grandma and grandpa will insist their 35 year-old now son or daughter is a believer, because they’ll point back to repeating a prayer when they were five, when there’s been no signs of faith, or of following Jesus at all. They have no interest in it whatsoever at this present moment. And so I think this beautiful doctrine of perseverance, or once saved, always saved, eternal security…I really worry that we kind of butcher it sometimes by simply tracing it back to a moment and an event or a prayer, more than actually to the work of Christ on our behalf. So my hope for my eternal security is based on a cross and resurrection. More than anything else.
Brian Arnold (12:30):
And it makes me shudder to think of those people who…they’ve never challenged their kids. Pastors who’ve never challenged those who have drifted from the flock, because well, once saved, always saved, and I don’t need to call that into question. Instead of confronting them and warning them that they may not have a genuine relationship with Christ.
Dean Inserra (12:48):
Yeah, no same here. And it’s tragic really. It should first cause us, you know, to truly be sad, and then to have an urgency to go, okay, look, we’re not the police trying to go…you know, we’re not the who’s saved and who’s not saved police. But instead, we have an urgent message—what it actually means to be saved. So we want people to not be misled by their heritage. I mean, praise God for a heritage of faith, and a church, and all of those things. You can definitely pass down the faith, but you can’t inherit it. Like, you must be born again yourself. And that comes through faith and repentance, not a repeat-after-me-prayer. They almost make it like, you know, Dorothy clicking her red slippers together and saying, “there’s no place like home,” in the Wizard of Oz. Almost like it’s some sort of superstitious kind of thing you say. And it’s like—no, we have to pull people away from any kind of superstition, or rite of passage, or ritual, and actually point them to Christ. And he being the one where our security lies. This is really important for our churches and for our ministries.
Brian Arnold (13:43):
Well, this even lies behind the book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, right? Where we have this simplistic thing, where we’re pushing kids to say, “yeah, I don’t want to go to hell. I want to go to heaven.” And I love what you said there, that we can pass down the faith, but the faith can’t be inherited. Because I think a lot of people say, “well, my dad was a Christian, so therefore, somehow I’m brought into this relationship with Jesus.” But it’s for every person, like Martin Luther said, every person must do their own living and dying. And that’s going to determine even what you’ve done with Christ. Well, one of the things you point to, even in your book too, is lax church membership, and saying one of the problems that’s led to cultural Christianity is that we don’t take our ecclesiology, our doctrine of the church, very seriously. And this could be one of the places where we could even talk about some solution here. So how can the church do a better job of thinking through ecclesiology that could help on the question of cultural Christianity?
Dean Inserra (14:34):
Well, as much as I thank God for the megachurch and for church growth strategies that have helped us get more urgent about getting out there and creating church services that, you know, people will at least have a good experience in the parking lot, when they get in the lobby, you know, those types of things that I love and I’m thankful for. If we’re not really careful, cultural Christianity can thrive in a megachurch. I mean, it can really, I mean, just have its best day. Because you can just go unchecked. And not just megachurches, but churches in general, where joining the church just simply means filling out a form or just indicating you want to do so, rather than actually seeing what people believe. It allows this really, this kind of cultural Christian to go unchecked, and be able to declare themselves a church member, where they’re joining the church—never had anything to do about a statement of faith, never had anything to do with regeneration.
Dean Inserra (15:22):
And that’s just really dangerous, because that allows these people to claim a church they go to maybe 10 times a year, eight times a year, and think they’re fine because of it. So without meaning to—I don’t think they do it intentionally—they just suffer the consequences of what this lax church membership can do. So we at our church, we want, when you join our church, it to mean something. But we want there to be something different on Monday in your life than there was on Sunday when you joined. Like what were you actually signing up for, what does it mean to be a part of a church? What is our statement of faith? Do you affirm it? Have you been baptized? Are you living your life in the community like you actually belong to a church? And this actually, these conversations…we have an interview process for membership.
Dean Inserra (16:02):
That’s actually…we’ve seen more baptisms, we’ve seen conversions, actually, come out of these meetings. Because somebody, just because they’re from the South, or because they’ve always gone to a church, or they think it’s a good thing because they have kids now, or whatever it might be…or they just want to meet friends and they’ve moved to a new city. They come to a church membership meeting, because that’s not strange to them. Because they’ve done that before. But then in the meeting they start asking, being asked about what they believe about Christ, what is the gospel? And they have no idea. We’ve seen actual conversions come out of taking church membership seriously, which is pretty neat.
Brian Arnold (16:34):
Yeah. That’s incredible. What are some other things that you’ve done? Obviously, this is something that’s been on the forefront of your mind, having written this book. What are some practices that pastors who are listening, besides kind of a membership class where you’re talking about these issues, what are some other ways that you’ve built into the culture of your church that cultural Christianity is not okay?
Dean Inserra (16:53):
Two main things. One, in a sermon, I address them every single week, cultural Christians, without them even realizing I’m doing it. I don’t…like, I don’t call them that in the sermon, but I will point out to the things, not only what is the gospel, but what the gospel is not. I mean, how often did Jesus say, “you have heard it said, but I say to you”? So I have to really, almost like deeply, almost like take apart, like deconstruct the cultural Christianity they were brought up in all the time during messages. So I’m writing sermons with them in mind. Of course, I’m trying to edify the believer as well, but I always have those people in mind, because I do believe they’re our largest mission field. And the whole idea of an unsaved Christian is part of the terminology of our church family. So our church family knows that it’s not…it’s easy to think that all of our missions efforts…because I realized a long time ago, just kind of early in ministry, was that most of our evangelistic training efforts in churches are designed around strangers who are atheists and skeptics.
Dean Inserra (17:50):
And I thank God for any kind of evangelism training, but how often are most of our evangelism opportunities people we already know? And people who are already in our neighborhoods, and at work, and in our lives, who aren’t skeptics, who aren’t atheists, they’re just kind of indifferent, or again, they think they’re Christians because they’re theists? So we really try to equip people to have conversations with people they already know, who are cultural Christians. How to talk to their very nominal Catholic friends, I mean, their mainline Protestant friends, like I was, who had never heard the gospel growing up. So that’s really the focus of our evangelism strategy. It’s not atheists and skeptics, even though in our college ministry we spent some time on that, because that’s their context on campus, for sure. But in just our residential, suburban Tallahassee, where we live, that’s not the norm.
Dean Inserra (18:32):
So why are we going to spend the majority of our energy training people to answer skeptics, when instead we need to teach them how to have conversations with people who are lost and think they’re fine. I think it’s both/and, but oftentimes the people we already know who are cultural Catholics, or mainliners, or just kind of a, you know, just a nice guy from a Christian background, how often are we not even talking about the need to reach those people? So it’s really just a part of our DNA, and a part of our missional conversation.
Brian Arnold (18:58):
Yeah. I know when I was learning to share the gospel, it felt like the person on the other end of the conversation was going to be a Harvard professor every time. Where you had to know all the complexities of doctrine and worldview in order to engage. And I think that keeps a lot of people from sharing the gospel, because they say, “I don’t know enough.” But they know that their neighbors and friends, who are at the same kind of level as they are, they don’t have those conversations, because they didn’t really learn how to share the faith. And when they did, it was how to share it with the atheist. I think that’s a really strong word of application—of learning how to share the gospel. Like we said before, how do we get people to realize that they’re in cultural Christianity, we’ve got to get them lost so that they can see the beauty of the gospel. So let’s kind of move there as time is winding down. You have a chapter entitled, How Do I Know I’m Not a Cultural Christian? I can imagine some people listening right now with some concern in their own heart. Maybe I’m just a cultural Christian? How do I know if it’s genuine or not? What would you say to them?
Dean Inserra (19:58):
I first and foremost want to know…and I’m thankful someone asked the question, and again, we’re not trying to make you sit up and doubt your faith all night. Instead, you know, Paul wrote “examine yourselves, to see if you’re in the faith.” Like, that is a Christian practice, to examine…let’s say a Scriptural practice. One, I want to know—what do you think about Jesus? Like, what is your need for Christ? Do you think that you contribute to your own salvation? I mean, do you think that you’re fine? Do you think you’re a good person on your own? Do you just believe in Jesus, but don’t depend on him for what it means to be saved? And that’s the first thing I want to know. Like, what do you actually believe about Christ? And then after that, what are you doing about that? How have you responded to that good news, to the grace of God in your life?
Dean Inserra (20:36):
Like the fact that Jesus died in your place for you, like, died a death that you deserve, rose from the grave three days later, you know, God showing his mercy and compassion on your life. Now it’s like, what’s the, “so what?” factor in that? Now what? Have you seen a change happen in your life by God’s grace? Are you living for the Lord? Are you a part of a local church? Not that going to church makes you a Christian, I just want to see the evidence that you have understood the gospel by the things that are happening in your life. So I want to know, what do you believe about Christ, about your need for him, about sin and how it’s forgiven and dealt with, but also—now what are you doing about the fact that you’ve been redeemed, if you have? So those are the two main things I look for, is the faith and then the fruit.
Brian Arnold (21:15):
And that’s straight up out of the tradition of the Christian faith. I think back about the Reformation, or the Puritans, really driving at those issues of, you know, have you believed the gospel rightly? And then, is your life producing that fruit? That Jesus says, if the seed is landed in the good soil, it’s going to produce fruit 30, 60, a hundred fold. And like you said, examine your life, test to see whether or not you are in the faith. I think that’s really helpful, Dean, for giving people some real questions to ask themselves as they wrestle through this. What is maybe another resource or two you might point somebody to, to maybe even understand those parts of the faith and the gospel better? And then maybe even to see what it looks like to examine fruit in their life?
Dean Inserra (22:01):
Yeah. I think it’s really important to talk to people who have come out of this. You know, it’s just a great resource there, and that’s not me trying to skirt around the question. I really do think that the people that seem to be the most white-hot, in a good way, towards wanting to reach cultural Christians, are people who have been saved from cultural Christianity. A lot of times it’s folks with kind of mainline, non-gospel-preaching backgrounds, converted Catholics, those types of things. I mean, those conversations are just fantastic. Because they just know. It’s almost like when they heard the gospel the first time, that their eyes just opened, you know? And then the light went off. And then I would just really encourage you to engage in any kind of like gospel-centered preaching
Dean Inserra (22:39):
you’re listening to…like make your local church, the fact that it preaches the gospel, the actual work of Christ on your behalf, every week, as the lifeblood of Christian faith. And so make that, I think top-notch for you, in terms of where you get fed the most. And then after that, I really would want to encourage you just to read the Gospels and see how Jesus dealt with people. I read a book when I was in college called The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur. I don’t agree with John MacArthur on everything, but that book, when I was 19 years old, had a profound impact on my life, about what it really meant to trust in Christ. Also R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. I was given that when I was in high school and it really rocked my world, because when you just kind of have a generic or vague view of God, it’s hard to really understand that your sin before him is a big deal.
Dean Inserra (23:29):
Maybe you just see yourself as having messed up or made a mistake or, oops, I’m sorry. But when we get a large view of God, that Sproul presents so well in that book, it allows you to see, “oh wow—when I sin, it’s not just that I messed up. I’ve sinned against the Holy God. Like the one true God. What does that for me?” Well, it means that I need Jesus. I’m going to either stand before God based on my own life, or stand before God based on the life of Christ. And that book, just so, in an amazing way, helped me change my view of how I see God. And I’m so thankful for that.
Brian Arnold (23:59):
Well, those are excellent recommendations. I also read Holiness of God in college. And like you said, it is a transformational kind of book. Well, cultural Christianity is a dangerous counterfeit to the Christian faith, and Dean, I appreciate you opening up our eyes to see that this is the richest harvest field in front of us today, and encouraging people listening, who might just be cultural Christians, to examine the faith and the fruit in your life. And for churches to take things about cultural Christianity seriously, and membership seriously, and asking these kinds of questions, so that we can see people into a genuine relationship with Christ. Dean, thanks so much for joining us today to talk about this.
Dean Inserra (24:36):
Definitely. Thanks for having me.
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