By Dean Inserra
It is well documented that those who claim no religious affiliation (called “the nones”) are on the rise. Between 2007 and 2014, the group of people self-identifying as having no religious affiliation 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 U.S. 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 U.S. population still identifies as Christian, we have a large group of people that would likely be overlooked in outreach or missions, yet don’t know that they believe what the Bible says.
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.
I 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 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 reaching people who think they are fine is a seldom-discussed starting point for evangelism and local church ministry.
Getting someone who thinks he’s a Christian to see that he is actually not is a delicate and sensitive endeavor, but not unique to our time. Jesus Himself, in the greatest sermon ever preached, reminds us that being religious but not saved is not unique to our day.
The Sermon on the Mount is our starting point for understanding Cultural Christianity, where Jesus addresses 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 directly describing moral and religious people doing good religious acts in the name of God.
These were the Tom Bradys of religious observance. They had a collection of lanyards from conferences that would make any worship leader jealous.
Religion was deeply embedded into the routine of their lives, which gave them full confidence that their acts of righteousness built an impressive résumé setting them up for a big payoff in heaven.
The old adage that “it isn’t what you know but who you know” rings true for these religious all-stars and their impressive accomplishments. They might have known religion, but they didn’t know the Redeemer standing right in front of them.
And therefore “what” they knew didn’t really matter all that much. 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 whenever we heard “God Bless America” sung at a baseball game?
Didn’t we give money to the church?
Didn’t we treat women with respect?
Didn’t we own Bibles?
Didn’t we get the baby christened by the priest?
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 own personal works justify you before God.
Self-righteousness believes that you are good enough or can be if you try hard. 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 and that there is no exception clause.
DEAN INSERRA (@deaninserra) is lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, and author of The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (©2019), from which this post was excerpted. Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.