At a recent workgroup meeting, the phrase “cultural Christianity” and “cultural Christians” was used frequently, in a negative sense. This is not the first time I’ve heard the phrase used, and nearly always to mean “people who aren’t acting like Christians” or “people who aren’t real Christians” or some other connotation.
While I don’t necessarily disagree with this meaning or its application, my thinker hat kicked in and I began asking myself – “is ‘cultural Christianity’ a bad thing? Why?”
“Cultural Christian” is a “shorthand” way of referring to something that we intuitively know. There have been some statistical definitions promoted before which get to the same concept (see “data on nominal Christians“). These measures of the unaffiliated and disaffiliated correlate to but do not directly measure the idea of cultural Christianity. The “cultural Christian” encompasses both the idea of the nominal or unaffiliated believer as well as the inactive believer who is a member of a church (“pew-warmers”). Barna has attempted to measure some of this idea.
Measuring Cultural Christianity doesn’t get to the question of whether it’s a bad thing, and why.
If “cultural Christian” means someone who claims to be a Christian but does not actively live out their faith, then it’s obviously a bad thing.
If “cultural Christian” means someone who professes to be a Christian, does “the basics,” but is not missional (evangelizing, disciple-making, church planting, etc), then it might be a bad thing.
Is non-missional Christianity ever acceptable? This may seem like a strange question for a person like me who is focused on missions, but it’s important to bear in mind. Because the answer is yes.
When is non-missional Christianity acceptable?

  1. Christianity (=follower of Christ, member of the Kingdom, etc) will endure past the end of the earth. When we are in the new Kingdom, there will be no need for missional outreach (maybe).
  2. Is it possible to have the Kingdom “now” in a place? To have a particular place/population be 100% Christian? If so, in such a place, there is no need for a local missional outreach. This may not in fact be the situation anywhere, but it is theoretically possible, and the endgame of all mission efforts. (Depending on how you feel about the Roman Catholic tradition, Vatican City would be the one place on Earth you could count as 100% Christian).
  3. Is it possible to have the Kingdom “largely now” in a place? To have a particular place “so Christian” as to not need a missional outreach from everyone? A place that is over 80% or 90% Christian would likely qualify, and there are many of those (although some would make the argument that in such places, a high percentage of the Christians are ‘cultural Christians’ and thus in need of missional outreach).

The point I’m making is this: it’s possible (but uncommon) for Christ-following to steep a culture in a particular place and a particular people such that “cultural Christianity” simply means “a Christian living within this Christian culture, raising up our children to follow Christ, living in peace and tranquility.”
In this place the Kingdom is now to the extent that it can be without the physical manifest presence of the King.
(Of course, while I’m speaking of cultural Christianity in a particular place, obviously one of the elements of Christianity is the need for missionary outreach to Samaria and the Uttermost even if Judea is reached.)
We may say this is rare on Earth, and it’s true, it is. Part of the job of mission is to make it less rare, knowing that the ultimate fulfillment won’t come until the end of the book.
Indeed, the problem with “Cultural Christians” depends on the definition, and if we use the non-missional definition, the problem is largely that they are trying to be cultural Christians too soon.