When we talk about areas in need of gospel-centered churches, American church leaders usually focus on secularized areas where Christianity is uncommon, unpopular, or unheard of altogether. We think of places where churches are not found on every corner, and where high school football games do not begin with the local youth minister saying an opening prayer. When we think of the American “mission field,” we think of areas where demographic surveys have revealed minimal church attendance and claims of no religious affiliation. And yes, we certainly need gospel-centered churches in these places. But I believe we are overlooking a vast mission field found amongst American churchgoers.
If someone was moving to Saudi Arabia as a missionary, the primary focus would be reaching Muslims for Christ, requiring an understanding of what Muslims believe to be true about God. Similarly, as we live on mission in the United States, we must be aware that there is a large “religious” population in America that needs to be reached with the gospel: people living by a vague and biblically-nuanced theism on its way to becoming the majority religion in America. No category exists for this religion, so throughout recent history, it somehow shows up as a checked box next to the word “Christian.”
I’m speaking of Cultural Christianity – a generic theism accompanied by the personal assurance that one is a good person on good terms with God. While this religion may be identifiable by those outside of it, its own members believe themselves to simply be Christians. Cultural Christianity is a belief system acknowledging God, but not dependent on Jesus Christ, His life, death, or resurrection. Its members don’t actually believe they have sin needing to be forgiven, and while they believe that Jesus was born in a manger and died on the cross, they do not believe they personally have sin requiring the punishment of God.
I refer to the followers of this religion as “Unsaved Christians,” and have written a book with an urgent call to reach them. This call includes descriptions of who they are, what they typically believe, and ways to engage them in gospel conversations that identify the differences between their held beliefs and the truth of Scripture. In my experience, Unsaved Christians are often the people who frustrate pastors because they just don’t seem to care much about following Jesus. The result is that Cultural (or Unsaved) Christians are wrongly assumed to need more discipleship, or to get more serious about their faith, when they actually might need evangelism. In many cases, the problem isn’t a lack of sincerity but a lack of saving faith. They might know some tenets of Christian culture, but do not know Christ. They do not need to become more serious about following Jesus; they need to come to actually know Jesus through His gospel and redemptive work.
I believe The Unsaved Christian needed to be written because our largest mission field can sit under our very noses undetected. Jesus said, “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…” (Matthew 7:21-23). The people to which Jesus was referring are difficult to reach because they believe themselves to be in the flock. And there are still people in this camp today. Consider ideas such as “good people go to heaven” as the 21st century version of “didn’t we prophecy in Your name and do many miracles in Your name?” But Jesus is uninterested in any faith that appeals to other means of righteousness beside Himself, including our modern, Western concepts of what makes a good person.
If the answer one gives to why he is a Christian finds its reasoning in anything other than the person and work of Jesus Christ, there is a chance that person is an Unsaved Christian in need of a missionary to take the gospel to him. We must not forget there are people who believe in God, admire Jesus, and don’t know the gospel. As long as this general theism shows up on polls and surveys as “Christian,” we may be tempted to think that we have a discipleship issue instead of seeing a mission field full of people who aren’t hostile to the Christian faith because they think they are part of it. Unsaved Christians are all around us, unaware of their need for the God they already claim to believe in. May we be equipped to have conversations leading to an understanding of their need for Christ, who can meet their greatest need by truly, permanently reconciling them to God forever.
DEAN INSERRA is a graduate of Liberty University and holds a M.A. in Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is pursuing a D. Min. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the founding pastor of City Church. He is passionate about reaching the city of Tallahassee with the Gospel, to see a worldwide impact made for Jesus. Dean is married to Krissie and they have two sons, Tommy and Ty, and one daughter, Sally Ashlyn.