Are You a Christian?
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Dean Inserra contrasts the difference between those who say they are a Christian and actual followers of Jesus Christ. Inserra walks us through the list of cultural Christians, and why they are missing the mark.
Are You a Christian?
Bob: We often talk about the Bible Belt as the place in our country where Christianity is thriving. Pastor Dean Inserra says that may not be accurate.
Dean: Bible Belt is somebody who loves Jesus, but they’re loving Jesus as more of a country music Jesus than it is the actual Jesus of the Bible. This is somebody who wants enough of Jesus to be personally identified with, but not enough to be personally inconvenienced. I would say a lot of Bible Belt folks don’t really have a saving faith—Jesus is just kind of part of life.
They all claim a church, even though they don’t go to one. Usually that means that’s their grandmother’s church. They go on Mother’s Day, because it means a lot to her—is what they’re told by their mother—the kind of a pressure type of thing of, “It would mean so much to your Nana if you come to church on Sunday. Will you please come? It’s Mother’s Day.” “Of course! Yes, of course we’ll do that.” They’ll show up, see some friends, and never come back again until the next year.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, December 30th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Depending on how you use the word, “Christian,” Dean Inserra says there are some people, who are saved Christians, and some people who are unsaved Christians. We’ll talk more about what he means by that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You used a phrase—what did you call it?—a “Chreaster”?
Bob: A “Chreaster”?
Bob: I’d heard a C—
Dave: Come on, you’ve heard of Chreasters!
Bob: I’d heard a “CEO Christian.” You’d heard a CEO Christian?
Dave: Yes, same thing.
Bob: Yes, “Christmas and Easter Only”—
Ann: Oh, yes.
Bob: —that’s what CEO stands for. But that’s what you’re talking about—a Chreaster; right?
Bob: That’s also what Dean Inserra’s talking about, a little bit—that’s one of the categories—he talks about in his book, The Unsaved Christian. We’re going to continue our conversation that we’ve been having with Dean this week here in just a minute. But before we get to that, we’ve got a special announcement from the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins.
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Alright, let’s talk about what we mean when we talk about “unsaved” Christians. Dean Inserra is joining us, again, today. He’s the author of a book by that title. Dean, welcome back to FamilyLife Today. Good to have you here.
Dean: Thank you.
Bob: Dean is the pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida.
This book—again, a provocative title—but you’re trying to get to the heart of the fact that there’s a difference between a person, who says, “I’m a Christian,” and a person who really is a follower of Jesus.
Dean: Yes, and hopefully equipping the church to be able to reach these people, who I believe are part of the largest mission field in America—which are people that claim to be Christians, but the Christianity they claim is not the Christianity of the Bible—it’s sort of an American hobby or superstition type of approach.
Bob: In the mid-1970s, back before you were born, I remember the governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, who was running for President, who made a big deal about the fact that he was a born-again Christian. Well, it entered the vernacular. All of a sudden, people were like, “What does this mean? What is a born-again Christian?” There was a dividing line—do you remember this?—
Dave: Oh, I do.
Bob: —where people would say, “Are you one of those born-agains?”
Ann: That’s exactly how they would say it; it was almost heretical.
Bob: Yes, it’s like, “…one of those born-agains,”—like—“Are you one of those crackpots?”
In our day, I think there’s a little different phenomenon going on, which is like, “Are you an evangelical?” What that means to a lot of people is: “Are you a Republican?”
Bob: You talk a little bit about this in the book.
Dean: I do.
Bob: So how do we deal with that? When a friend says, “So are you one of the evangelicals?” how do you answer that in a way that gets through the clutter?
Ann: That’s a loaded question; isn’t it?
Dean: I’m ready to rock and roll on that one. [Laughter] The first response must be, “What do you mean by that?” That’s not a cop-out; we have to, because it’s so confusing now about: “What is evangelical; what is not?”
Somehow, over history, what has happened—when I read through it and look back, it seems like it’s a little bit of a—maybe during the Communist reign that this kind of became a thing, where we equated being an American with being a Christian. “Is that Christianity defined by the blood of Jesus on a cross and His resurrection?”—no; it more is a sort of a twist of marrying patriotism and this kind of idea of family values with this religious aspect that we call Christian.
It really is problematic—not problematic to love your country—I think that’s a wonderful thing. I think gratefulness is a Christian posture, so I think we should be grateful for the things that we have here in our country and for those who have fought to defend it for us. At the same time, for many I call “God and Country Christians,” if they move to Poland tomorrow, it would drastically affect their faith; because their faith is so wrapped up in this sort of nationalism/this sort of patriotism that is not a Christian faith. They forget that the Bible was written before Thomas Jefferson’s great-great-great-grandparents were even born/before America was even a concept—[Laughter]—not even sort of kind of a concept!
We just have to make sure we realize that this is a global faith. This is not some sort of—we use things like, “America being a city shining on a hill,”—but that’s/no, the church is a city shining on a hill; it’s not America!
Dave: Hey, I think it’d be fun—at the end of your book, you list eight different cultural Christians—I think it’d be helpful for people—I’ll read your title, and you define it. You already did one of them, but let’s just start at the top. The first one you say is the “Country Club Christian.”
Dean: Yes, some people think—“country club”—they think, “Snobby”; that’s not what I mean by that. I mean, the Country Club Christian is someone who is just a member of the organization; all they have to do is just pay their dues when it comes to the local church. They’re never challenged; their needs are catered to. The second their needs aren’t catered to, they’ll go move to another country club that lacks church membership, where joining the church doesn’t mean anything outside of just paying your dues. It has really impacted and allowed cultural Christianity to flourish, where being part of a church means nothing/demands nothing—nothing changes.
Bob: And if I pay my dues, I can use the facilities from time to time, when I have a wedding, or a funeral, or something like that comes up.
Dave: Yes, you’re part of the club.
Dave: I just realized this could be hard to do because you want to stop on each one of these and talk about them.
Ann: I know; yes!
Dave: Maybe let’s do them, and then let’s go back if there’s something, Bob or Ann, you guys want to talk about.
The second one, “Christmas and Easter Christian.”
Dean: Here’s what you have to understand about Christmas and Easter Christians—is that, for them, there’s nothing really spiritual about the holiday. It used to be that way; but now, going to church on Christmas and Easter is no different than wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, than eating turkey on Thanksgiving, than going trick-or-treating on Halloween, than giving mom a few flowers and a card on Mother’s Day. It’s just what you do as part of the celebration of that day; it has no religious significance whatsoever.
Dave: Next one, “God and Country Christian.”
Bob: That’s the one we were just talking about; right?
Dean: Yes, someone who marries their faith to their patriotism. That’s really troubling because that is so cultural; that would not work if you lived in another country. Your love for America should almost be a separate category, and it’s definitely also subordinate to your love for God. The problem is no one thinks they have an issue with that.
Go to a—this is going to poke the bear a little bit here—but go to an evangelical, very conservative church on a what I call the “high holy days of cultural Christianity,”—which are Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day, a lot of times the Sunday after September 11—and you will see a greater celebration than you saw on Easter Sunday. Oftentimes, I see uniformed military personnel get a louder ovation than returning missionaries from the mission field. That’s not to say we shouldn’t appreciate and care—again, gratefulness is a Christian posture—it’s really become problematic.
Alright, “Liberal Social Justice Christian.”
Dean: Yes, that is somebody who really believes the faith is simply a humanitarian effort and, also, just this generic idea of love—not the love of the Bible—just this generic love that makes everything okay/everything permissible. You think the answer is just to love, love, love, love. But what they mean by that is that: “Nothing is wrong.” You’re never going to hear them talk about any of the moral issues we have going on in our nation, or in the church, or anything like that: “Everything’s okay; everything’s fine. Let’s just love everybody.”
Bob: I saw a pastor on Twitter® recently, who said, “I heard someone recently say, ‘The message of the gospel is that God cares for the disenfranchised and for the marginalized people in our society.’” The pastor said to his Twitter audience, “What do you all think about that?” How would you—what do you think about that? Is that the message of the gospel?
Dean: No! Those are implications of the gospel; [Laughter] that’s where they get confused. They think that is the gospel. What happens, also, is they get what I think is really ungodly bitterness and angst, and attack towards people who might have some affluence, or they become very envious. They attack people—like the one percent—rather than going, “Well, maybe God’s blessed these people,” and “Maybe they’re being generous with their money,” and “Maybe it’s been earned honestly.”
It really becomes/it can become an ungodly effort, but it’s all done in the name of Christianity. It just becomes very problematic, because it’s just as political as the right-wing people they criticize. It’s just as political.
Bob: Can I ask about the next one? Because I’ve used this phrase—
Dave: Go for it!
Bob: —a dozen times, maybe more than that, in our church.
Dave: —not in your sermon?
Bob: Yes,I have in my sermon.
Bob: I’ve talked about—
Dave: —talked about what it means.
Bob: —the moralistic therapeutic deist approach—and this is from Christian Smith, the sociologist at Notre Dame, who did this study. Explain what a person, who’s a “Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic Christian” is.
Dean: I think this is probably the most prominent—
Bob: I think you’re right.
Dean: —and one that extends outside the South. It’s easy to think cultural Christianity is a Bible Belt issue; but really, it’s a nationwide issue when you understand this. It’s/again, it’s a God, who is very vague: He’s very generic; He’s not really involved in the affairs of men and women; there’s no sovereignty; there’s really no sin; there’s no punishment for sin/no judgment. Again, this generic “Big-guy-upstairs” kind of God, who wants us to be good people and who wants us/we can go to Him for superstitious reasons. It’s, again, that “Jesus take the wheel” idea; there’s more to it than that. That’s kind of the big snapshot picture.
Again, we make sure, as Christians, we’re clear in these conversations that our God is not vague; He’s not generic. He has made Himself known. The Book of Hebrews, Chapter 1, starts out the letter by saying that: “In the past, He has spoken to us by the prophets through the law. Now He has spoken to us by His Son,” so there’s no understanding of God apart from an understanding of Jesus Christ.
Bob: Yes, the shorthand I’ve used is: “There’s a really nice God, who made everything. He wants you to have a really good life. If you’ll just keep some rules that He’s laid down, everything will be cool.” A lot of people think that’s the gospel. That’s not the gospel; that’s the moralistic therapeutic deistic gospel, and it’s not a saving gospel.
Ann: We had that conversation with my dad for years, of him saying, “I am a good man.”
Ann: And he was; he was a good guy. When we would explain the gospel of: “There is no one that’s righteous. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” he would say, “But I am so much better than that guy over there that says he’s a Christian! He’s not moral in the least.” It was this back and forth.
I think so many people think that, “I’m a good person. Yes, I believe.”
Bob: When you’re having that conversation—because I’ve had this conversation, as well, and I’ve failed at this in the past—we have to keep in mind that, when we talk about the gospel and the need for Jesus, the other person is often hearing us say, “I’m better than you.”
Bob: So when they say, “I’m a good person,” they’re trying to say, “You’re good; I’m good too.”
We have to go into this, saying, “Look, this is not—I’m no better than you.
Bob: "In a lot of ways, I’m worse than you. I just recognize I need Jesus, and I think we all need Jesus.”
Because it’s really easy for them to get defensive and go, “Are you saying I’m not a good person?”
Ann: —and “And are you judging me?”
Bob: Right, right.
What’s the next one, Dave?
Dave: Next one is the “Generational Catholic.”
Dean: That is part of my story. I was not raised a generational Catholic, but my whole entire dad’s side of the family is generational Catholic. These are very difficult people to reach, because being Catholic is the goal—not the gospel, not God, not the Bible, not Christianity—just being Catholic.
My grandfather—Italian Catholic—we went to the Notre Dame/Miami football game in 1990 in South Bend, Indiana. It was the grandest trip. It was really neat/really special. My grandfather and I had never had a spiritual conversation, ever. We go to South Bend. Right when we get there, we go into the cathedral—it’s so beautiful—we go into the cathedral. He’s wanting to say a prayer. I’d never heard my papa talk about prayer in my life. He knelt down and said a prayer.
We’re walking back out on the way to the stadium, and I said, “What did you pray for?” He said, “Well, I prayed for the game today.” We’re driving back; and I asked him—I said, “Papa,”—that’s what I called him—“why do we like Notre Dame?” He said, “Because we’re Catholic!” I went, “Oh, okay!” That was the end of the conversation.
Years go by. I’ve come to faith in this time; I’m an adult by this time. We’re sitting down, years later. He’s almost 90 years old at this time. We’re watching Notre Dame Football. To this day, when they come on, I remember him—he died about ten years ago—it brings memories, instantly, of my grandfather—again, great man—World War II veteran. He randomly, in the middle of the game, asked me a question. He goes, “Why aren’t you Catholic? I’m Catholic. Your dad’s Catholic. Your uncles are Catholic.”
I said, “Papa, my dad’s not Catholic; go across the room and ask him. My uncles aren’t Catholic. One is a professing atheist;”—like he has Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins books on his bookshelf; he’s a proud atheist—my other uncle’s agnostic!”
He said, “No, they’re not. They’re Catholic.” I said, “Okay, I’m not going to get in a fight with my 89-year-old grandfather.
Dean: “But Papa, they are not Catholic. You can go call them right now, and they will tell you.” He insisted, and the conversation went nowhere; so I just ended it.
But here’s what I learned that day: for a generational, nominal Catholic, being Catholic is more important than believing Catholic.
Bob: Let me ask you—with some folks, who are listening to us right now, who say, “I am a born-again Catholic.”—you’re a Baptist preacher—is that an authentic category? Are there born-again Catholics?
Dean: Yes, I believe so. But I believe a true born-again faith would eventually have to lead themselves away from the Catholic Church—not to the Baptist church—I’m not saying that’s the right way. I believe that, eventually, someone who refuses to leave the Catholic Church is either doing so—one of two reasons—one, the heritage of being a Catholic is more important to them than they realize it is/maybe even towards idol; or they think they’re being a remnant and staying in it as an evangelist—I’m just saying that’s probably not the best method.
Dave: Interesting. We have a lot of people at our church that go to our service on Saturday night and mass on Sunday; because they really still feel, “I have to continue to do both.”
Ann: —and also to please family.
Dean: That’s the main thing.
Bob: You know, this kind of conversation brings to mind conversations I’ve had with people in our church, who say, “I’m going home this weekend to be with my mom and dad. Dad’s sick; we don’t know how long he’s got. We’ve had conversations about faith before, and my parents insist that they’re Christians. I have questions; I wonder if they are. Yet, the conversations we’ve had have seemed to go nowhere.” We pray for them and pray for what those conversations should look like.
If you’re coaching somebody, who’s headed into that situation, what’s your coaching for them?
Dean: One, I want them to have some confidence that faith the size of a mustard seed is faith that’s acceptable to God. What gets us to Jesus is not a huge faith—but our huge Savior—that’s really important to remember. It could be where they really do believe that Jesus is the only way, and have repented of their sins, and believe the gospel—that we need to trust God with that—again, mustard-seed faith. They might be/they might not have been discipled; but at least, a conviction of who Jesus is—the criminal on the cross, “Please remember me in paradise”—right?
Dean: He appealed to Christ, not to himself; that’s what happened there.
But for the one that truly is concerned, going, “I’m telling you—they think they know—they don’t know,” I get that—I came from that—I have lived that life. This is urgent. Don’t be afraid to sit there and plead/like, “Dad, that’s not what this is. You keep going back to the fact that you’re a good person. You keep going back to the fact that you’ve done good deeds. I need you to understand that those things are rubbish compared to knowing Christ. Those things do not get you into heaven.”
I’m not trying to give an extreme answer there. But those kinds of situations, where it really is literally life or death, don’t be afraid to go in there and say, “Look, I don’t want to talk about anything else. I’m here because I love you. I’m here because I need to make sure that you are clear on who Jesus is and what He’s done for you.”
Bob: Do that humbly.
Bob: Do it full of grace, and full of love and respect. Don’t come in, thinking that you’ve got to wield the Bible and preach at him;—
Bob: —but it is urgent.
Dave: It’s truth and grace.
Dean: Yes, it’s truth and grace.
Dave: It’s that balance.
Alright, the last two are big categories. Maybe hit them both real quick: “Mainline Protestant” and “Bible Belt.”
Dean: Yes; Mainline Protestant I call the “Watered-Down Word.” Many mainline Protestants just don’t have the Bible, so we need to reach those people. It’s not sheep swapping; it’s evangelism. They have a cross above the choir, but they don’t preach it.
Bob: —and Bible Belt?
Dean: Bible Belt is somebody who loves Jesus—let me tell you what—but they’re loving Jesus as more of a country music Jesus than it is the actual Jesus of the Bible. This is somebody, who wants enough of Jesus to be personally identified with, but not enough to be personally inconvenienced. I would say a lot of Bible Belt folks don’t really have a saving faith. Jesus is just kind of part of life; it’s like America, and their favorite college football team, and their job. It’s just like another—if you had a jersey that had patches on it for different things of life/maybe like a Boy Scout uniform that has different patches—being a Christian is just a patch on it. It doesn’t really mean very much at all.
Those are people that we reach a lot of. What happens—there is the light goes on when they’re actually exposed to gospel preaching—because they go, “Oh, that’s not what I’ve been doing my entire life.” But it’s someone who—again, very vague God/very vague Jesus—but very pro those things. They all claim a church, even though they don’t go to one. Usually, that means that’s their grandmother’s church. They go on Mother’s Day, because it means a lot to her—is what they’re told by their mother—a kind of a pressure type of thing of, “It would mean so much to your Nana if you came to church on Sunday. Will you please come? It’s Mother’s Day.” “Of course! Yes, of course, we’ll do that.” They’ll show up, see some friends; never come back again until the next year.
Bob: Are you getting pushback on this book/on this message?
Dean: You know, not as much as I thought I would. I’m getting a lot of, “As I read your book, I had all these people come to mind.” I’ve been told by others: the book has done/is it’s helped them create a category that didn’t exist before.
Dave: That’s what I was going to say. You know, reading it makes me think there’s a whole mission field that you often don’t think about that is huge. You sort of get excited—like, “Man, I can be an evangelist to love people that need to be loved.”
Ann: I’m imagining that some listeners are thinking, “Wow, am I an unsaved Christian?” What would you say to those listeners, right now, that are maybe doubting and wondering?
Dean: I would ask them, “What do you base your idea of being a Christian upon? If you are claiming to be a Christian, what is the basis for that? If your basis for that are answers other than the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, you might not be.” I don’t say that to make someone doubt, but just to be clear. What cultural Christianity is—it could be defined in just a sentence or two—it is a Christianity that is not dependent on Jesus Christ.
Bob: You’re not saying, “Memorize the right answer and then you’re okay.”
Bob: You’re saying that’s got to be the basis for everything you think, believe, and live.
Dean: Yes; am I appealing to myself, and my heritage, and my actions, and my background, and my resume—we’ll call it my religious resume—or am I appealing to Christ?
Bob: I would say, “You might want to get a copy of the book,”—right?—“and read a little bit more.”
Bob: We appreciate you writing the book, being here, talking with us about it. Thanks for your time.
Dean: Thank you for having me.
Bob: Again, I want to encourage listeners—go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy of the book, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel, by Dean Inserra. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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