What Is Cultural Christianity?


I heard a pastor on the radio talk about cultural Christianity, but I thought his answer was fairly incomplete. Basically he said that in the US many years ago most people knew about Jesus, and a lot of people were saved, even people you thought maybe you could share the gospel with.

Well, that was only partly right, I think. I think Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus explained cultural Christianity more correctly.

Growing up as a Muslim and as a second generation American, Nabeel understood Christianity more from what he learned at home than he did from any personal encounter with Christians.

Eastern teachers have taught the Muslims that the West is Christian, that its culture is promiscuous, and that the people oppose Islam… I remember pointing out to [my parents] that the people dressed provocatively on television might not be Christian, and their response was, “What do you mean? Don’t they call themselves ‘Christian’? Don’t you see them wearing crosses?” If I argued that some of them may be Christian in name only and might not even believe in God, they responded that this simply meant they were Christians who don’t believe in God. They did not categorize religion with belief but with cultural identity. (pp 80-81, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus)

Those who are culturally Christian do things that Christians do such as celebrate Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving. They might even go to church from time to time. They might pray at meals, like the Reagan family does in the TV program Blue Bloods. They might wear crosses and even send their children to a parochial school. These are traditions they keep because they’ve been raised in tradition, but they have no personal understanding or belief in Jesus and His saving power over sin. Their “Christianity” is only culturally deep. It doesn’t reach their heart or change their life.

The radio pastor is an evangelist and I respect him a lot, but he was talking about cultural Christianity as if those who have the Christian tradition were in a better place than people who have no familiarity with who Jesus is.

I think the opposite is true. People who think they know about Jesus, who picture Him perpetually as a baby in a manger or as a bloody figure on a cross, don’t understand the gospel. But they think they do. So they don’t have a grasp of the fact that they need to listen to someone who teaches what the Bible really says.

Many cultural Christians actually deny Christ and turn their back on Him. Oh, I’ve tried that, they’ll say, and it doesn’t work.

Doesn’t work? What did they think a relationship with God was supposed to “do for them”? They are behaving like consumers. They went out shopping for religion, bought the one that seemed to promise the most, then found it wanting.

Christianity isn’t like that, but cultural Christianity is.

That’s the problem. Too many people, and not just Muslims, but atheists, too, think they know what Christianity is when they only have a nodding acquaintance with cultural Christianity. I like to refer to cultural Christianity as pretend Christianity, though the latter term also includes false teachers and cults and “progressives” who say they believe, but who deny Jesus in one way or another.

Christianity has become a kind of catch-all term and it breaks my heart that one aspect of it is culture that is permissive, greedy, immoral. Those things have nothing to do with God’s holiness and goodness and righteousness. It’s as Nabeel said: a great travesty that Muslims—and I would not be surprised if other people groups made the same mistake—associate Christianity with the American culture they see on TV.

The thing is, I think we in the Church need to make an effort to “come out from among them.” We need to be different, not by being weird, but by being more like Christ. No one should be surprised to learn that someone is a Christian. By our good works, by our speech, by our love, people should recognize that we not only have been with Jesus but that He lives in us.

FYI, you can pre-order Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, 3rd edition, from now until Aug. 20 and receive some bonus material at the website set up for Nabeel, who died of cancer a year or so ago.

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