The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel

Have you ever read a book that so disrupted your settled categories that you couldn’t stop thinking about it? Dean Iserra’s book The Unsaved Christian has done that to my head since I read it a few months ago.

He opens with a story of the days following seminary graduation. He knew that his friend Matt was headed to northern California, a part of the country well-known for its secularized society and unfriendliness to Christianity. Iserra was headed back home to the South, where there is a church on every corner.

Knowing how difficult it would be to do church planting in such a secularized setting, Iserra tried to console his friend. But Matt had an entirely different take on the matter; it was Iserra who was headed to the difficult territory. “The Bible Belt is the most difficult place in America to pastor a local church,” Matt said. Iserra 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 caused them to need the Jesus they claim to believe in.”

People have a lot of inadequate reasons for identifying themselves as Christians, even though nothing about their life is actually shaped by the teachings of Christ.

  • because they know something about the Bible

  • because they believe in God

  • because they admire Jesus

  • because they go to church

These are Iserra’s Cultural Christians, and they wouldn’t like to hear what he’s saying:

The people who practice cultural Christianity are not atheists or agnostics. In fact, Cultural Christians would be offended if described with such labels. These are not the urban academics living in loft apartments who could articulate their opposition to Christian beliefs. These are the suburban, cul-de-sac folks hosting a cookout to watch the game. 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 percentage of Americans – especially here in the Midwest – would identify themselves as “Christians” in this way?

Iserra is sounding a prophetic alarm here. Just look at some of his chapter titles:
“False Assurance: Once Saved, Always Saved” (where he attacks not the doctrine of eternal salvation but the false idea that a properly performed ritual is what makes us right with God.)
“The Country Club Church: How Lax Church Membership Fosters Cultural Christianity”
“Christmas and Easter: Moving Beyond Cultural Observance to the Life-Changing Implications”
“Making Decisions vs. Making Disciples: Why Raised Hands and Sinner’s Prayers Don’t Guarantee Salvation”
“God Shed His Grace on Thee: Partisans, Politics, and Prosperity”
“The Moral Theist: Reaching the Good Person Who Believes in God”
“Hail Mary, Notre Dame Wins: Reaching Generational Catholics”
“Faith, Family, and Football: Ministering to the Bible Belt”

You can see why I’ve been thinking about this book since I finished it a few months ago. I have found myself thinking about so many things:

  • why biblical literacy alone doesn’t create disciples of Jesus

  • the effects of Christian media: radio, TV, internet, where people can have access to a wide variety and varying quality of Christian teaching and therefore consider themselves “Christians” in some sense of the word

  • our national politics: where the word “evangelical” has lost its essential meaning

  • even popular music: the many popular musical genres that are Jesus-friendly (for instance, country and gospel music)

  • how we explain what it means to follow Jesus: evangelism (telling the Good News to people who don’t know it) and discipleship (how we grow in our faith)

Most importantly, I think of people in our own fellowship. I wondered how many people who call our fellowship their church home think that identifying with PPC is what makes them right with God.
I remember when the Doobie Brothers’ 1970s hit “Jesus Is Just All Right with Me” dominated the airwaves. (Our younger readers will remember that DC Talk did their own cover.) I remember thinking at the time that this was terrific, Jesus getting that kind of attention. After reading Unsaved Christian, I have a different idea. That kind of easy-going accommodation may actually be toxic.
But Jesus never called us to be “all right with him.” He called us to

  • tell ourselves “no” when we’d much rather say “yes” and tell ourselves “yes” when we want to say “no” (“deny yourself”),

  • prepare to pay a price for our identification with him (“take up your cross”),

  • re-align our life priorities with his (“follow me”)

The Unsaved Christian left me asking myself two specific questions:
1. How can I know if I’m a Cultural Christian? Iserra repeatedly refers to Matthew 7:21-23, where Jesus shocks his followers by announcing that there would be many who assumed they were part of the Kingdom but would be shut out:
“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. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

The fatal error of these would-be Kingdom citizens is that they begin by pointing to what they’ve done (“Did we not…?”). That fact alone indicates that they have never understood the Gospel, which is not about what we’ve done but about what Christ has done for us.

It’s a fearsome thing to contemplate: that people could be practitioners of cultural Christianity, could circulate in Christian circles, even participate in ministry, and yet have no part in the Kingdom Jesus came to announce. How awful to hear those words from the lips of the Master, “I never knew you.”

Which brings me to my second question…

2. How many of my friends in my circles think they’re Christians when they’re not really following Jesus at all? More to the point, what can I do to help them see this crucial question for themselves? How can I gently provoke the people I love to ask the question I’ve asked of myself?

There’s been a lot of heartburn over the past few years about the rise in the percentage of people who self-identify as “nones” (“no religious preference,” up to 20% in a recent national poll). For a few days after that story broke, there was a lot of worry and fretting about what looked like people turning away from the faith in droves.
But Christian thought leaders began to realize those numbers might not indicate that people were turning away from the faith; the rise of the “nones” might only indicate that Cultural Christians were no longer identifying themselves as “Christian.” And that might actually be a good thing; the increasing number of “nones” were people who had finally given up the pretense and now called themselves what they actually were all along, people with a secular outlook on life. That kind of clarity is good.

How about us? How about our fellowship? How about you and your set of friends? If we had to choose between two identities: “committed followers of Jesus” or “Cultural Christians,” where would we land?

These are sobering questions, but they are questions we need to think about not just for ourselves but also for our Christian friends.

Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pasto