Generic Jesus can’t do anything for helpless sinners
How do we reach people who identify as Christians, but aren’t?
“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 (CSB)
Every person in the city of Cincinnati is a Christian.
That’s at least how it felt when I went to the Great American Ballpark to see the Reds play on a hot summer afternoon. The stadium was full of fans who had shown up to watch the Reds take on the Chicago Cubs. There was loud applause after the national anthem was sung, and a fifth-inning home run brought the hometown fans to their feet as the Reds took the lead against their division rivals. But the cheers after that towering home run to center field were nothing compared to the crowd’s reaction in the middle of the seventh inning.
One of my favorite parts of any Major League Baseball game is called the “seventh-inning stretch.” This is where the fans from both teams stand up and stretch their arms and legs while singing the classic song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It is a great tradition that brings families and friends together to sing loudly, without a care in the world. For just a moment, all fans are supporting the same thing—the great game of baseball. Legend claims the song first played at a ballpark at a high school in Los Angeles in 1934. The song became synonymous with the seventh inning stretch when broadcaster Harry Caray would lead the fans in singing the song during Chicago White Sox games (and later in his career, with the crosstown rival, Chicago Cubs).
But this particular day at the Reds game, the seventh inning stretch did not deliver quite the nostalgia I was hoping for from my past experiences. This happened to be a Sunday, and ever since the terror attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001, Major League ballparks have a new seventh inning tradition. On Sundays, singing about peanuts and crackerjacks gets set aside for a more somber display. During the middle of the seventh inning on any Sunday game, every Major League ballpark pauses, brings out the players from each team to stand in a line with their hats removed, and plays the song “God Bless America” for all to sing. (The New York Yankees practice this tradition at each home game, but the other Major League teams observe this as a Sunday tradition.) This Sunday in Cincinnati, 45,000 people stood and sang at the top of their lungs, asking God to bless America.
I’ve been to Christian conferences that filled arenas and nobody sang about God this loudly and cheered so passionately at the conclusion. I stood there and wondered if the ovation after the final note was louder than when the Reds upset the Oakland A’s by sweeping them in the 1990 World Series. As soon as the song was over, we went into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and I felt my favorite part of being a fan had the thunder stolen in the name of God blessing our nation.
After the game, I had plans to meet up with some local church planters from my denomination, as is customary for me when I travel. I find that connecting with other church planters is always inspiring, and it is probably nice for them to have someone treat them to a meal or dessert, as church planting can be very difficult. These particular church planters came to Cincinnati because the North American Mission Board (NAMB) had identified it as a “Send City.”
NAMB’s church planting strategy emphasizes highly populated areas with a low number of evangelical churches per capita. Knowing this, I had been so caught off guard by the crowd’s enthusiasm during the seventh inning festivities. I actually paused during the game to “research” NAMB’s evaluation of Cincinnati. Apparently, I thought, there wasn’t a need for church planting in this city because nothing got the crowd more excited than singing about God and asking Him to bless America.
To my surprise, the “Send Cincinnati” information revealed that just 13.7 percent of metro Cincinnati residents were affiliated with an evangelical church. 13.7 percent. That rate is bad even when we’re talking tips at a cheap diner. But as a percentage of people affiliated with a local evangelical church? No wonder NAMB had identified this as a mission field.
So, then, who were all of these people singing so loudly?
That day in Ohio, I was reminded that Cultural Christianity isn’t just an epidemic of the American South. I had just witnessed thousands of people worshiping enthusiastically in the church of civic religion.
The reality of civic religion
Civic religion is practiced from the high school football locker room, where teams incorporate a prayer before the game, to the grand stages of Hollywood, where you can find a celebrity thanking God during an acceptance speech. It is rampant in American politics and is expected from national leaders, though the reasoning for that falls somewhere between tradition and sentimentality. Of course, there are those who go bananas over “God language” in the name of separation of church and state, but that hasn’t yet been able to kill the American practice of sprinkling in sentimental religious language when needed. Has a modern-day sitting president of the United States ever failed to say “God Bless America” as the closing in a major address to the nation? While it is certainly a nice gesture (and I’m sure some have had sincere Christian faith), these small nods to God keep civic religion and Cultural Christianity alive.
Civic religion promotes a god without any definition and a generic faith that means, demands, and asks nothing of its followers. Participants stretch across the cultural spectrum in terms of geography and socioeconomic status. In some areas, civic religion is even proudly theistic and likes the idea of Jesus. Selective words spoken by Jesus in the New Testament will be used and cited when the political cause of the day needs a rally cry. Whether it is government-run healthcare, the death penalty, same-sex marriage, or immigration, Jesus is positioned as having an opinion that can suit one’s side, regardless of one’s adherence to the authority of Scripture as a whole.
A religion of “good people”
When asked to indicate their religion on an application or form, many Americans, without hesitation, would check “Christian.” By this, they mean to say that they are “good people” who believe in God but aren’t Jewish or Muslim. Many people who are comfortable with the idea of God and familiar with some image of Jesus have no concept of what the gospel of Christ actually is.
There is a perception among Cultural Christians that the gospel is for more extreme, perhaps “born again” people. Mainstream cultural Christians aren’t wrapped up in promoting some kind of gospel message. They are simply trying to be nice to others, pursue their idea of personal happiness, pray when something bad happens, and rest in the belief that they are going to heaven after they die. What is missing from their perceived Christianity is the actual gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let’s unmask the generic Jesus
The question that must be answered is how do we reach people who identify as Christians, and simply are not? Perhaps this is the largest mission field in America, but we don’t even realize it because we don’t have a category for a generic theist with a sentimental faith that has nothing to do with the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I have written The Unsaved Christian to help the church understand that this is not a discipleship issue. It is not that people need to get more serious about their faith. I argue, rather, that this is an evangelism issue, and cultural Christians need to be reached with the good news of the gospel. My prayer is we will awaken ourselves to the need, realize this is the state of people in our own families, neighborhoods, and even churches, and get to work pointing people away from a Christianity by culture and toward a Christianity of conviction.
Editors’ note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Dean Inserra’s book, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Moody).