Dean Inserra Interview | Preaching to Unsaved Christians

Preaching Magazine Articles, Interviews

Preaching to Unsaved Christians

An interview with Dean Inserra

Dean Inserra is the founding and lead pastor of City Church, which is located in his hometown of
Tallahassee, Florida. Dean is the author of a new book called The Unsaved Christian: Reaching
Cultural Christianity with the Gospel, published by Moody. He was interviewed by Preaching
editor Michael Duduit.

Michael Duduit:

Let’s start off with the title of your book. What do you mean by an unsaved
Christian?

Dean Inserra:

What we see a lot of across the United States of America is people that, if you ask them
“Are you a Christian?” they would say yes. Then if you had a follow-up question and asked
them, “What do you mean by that?” what they basically mean is that they’re not an atheist,
they’re not agnostic, they’re not Jewish or Muslim or one of the other world religions, so
therefore I guess they’re Christian. Notice what I didn’t give in that response. Not one of those
answers had to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ, so their reason for being a Christian is not
actually a saving space, so I refer to them as an unsaved Christian.

Michael Duduit:

What prompted you to write this book?

Dean Inserra:

Two things. One, my own upbringing, and two is my context. In terms of my
upbringing, we were in church every single Sunday, unless we were sick or out of town. I could
tell you basic stories about certain Bible characters such as David and Goliath, you know, Jonah
and the big fish, familiar with church lingo, I had no objection going to church. If you had asked
me if I was a Christian, I would have said absolutely, and by that I meant that we believed in
God and that we were good people, and we said a prayer before dinner.
I never had anyone in my entire life tell me I actually was a sinner and needed to trust in
Christ to be the one who would forgive my sins, that I was accountable to God for the sins that I
committed against him, and that God would not let sin go unpunished, that God in his love sent
Jesus to die on our behalf, in our place for our sins to reconcile us to himself. I’m not
exaggerating when I say I never had someone at church, at my mainline Protestant church where
I was raised, ever tell me that before.
I went on a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat when I was 13 years old, and at the
worship service they had at the retreat, I heard the true gospel, where the camp pastor just laid
out what the gospel was and called for a response. I gave my life to the Lord that day, and I joke
I’m the only person to ever come to Christ and actually be angry about it, and by that, I did have
joy, don’t get me wrong, but by that I really was thinking this as a 13 year old, walking down the
aisle, an old-fashioned invitation, I was thinking in my mind, “How has no one ever told me this
before and I’m in church every single Sunday?” I was actually pretty upset about it.
That led me to realize this was the reality of most of my friends, too, who all would claim
to be Christians, and by it they just meant their heritage or a generic theism. It didn’t actually
mean anything to do with the work of Christ, so it became a passion of mine, and as I got older, I
came to realize this wasn’t just a my church or my school or my friends or my family type of
thing, this was all across America, where the dominant religion is not atheism, it really is people
who identify as Christians, but their reason for doing that and meaning that has actually nothing
to do with Christianity.

Michael Duduit:

I suspect most pastors, if they were honest with themselves, would acknowledge that
their pews are filled with some of those unsaved Christians, those cultural Christians who really
have never had a personal experience with Jesus Christ. As you talk with other pastors, what
counsel would you give to other pastors who want to reach some of those cultural Christians that
are in their churches?

Dean Inserra:

I think we need to apply our own theology that we believe and not be in denial out of
pride or whatever the reason might be of the spiritual state of people right in front of us, many
who have been in our congregations for years. We need to make sure that they fully understand
that Jesus is not asking us “how good is your church attendance” or “how many righteous deeds
have you performed” or “what’s your Christian heritage? Was your grandmother a believer?” No,
Matthew chapter seven says, “Many will say to him on that day, Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy
in your name, cast our demons in your name, perform miracles in your name,” and he says, “I’ll
tell them plainly, away from me you evil doers, I never knew you.”
What that is saying is that these people were appealing to other means for their
righteousness rather than appealing to Christ. They’re saying, “Hey, we’ll look at u”s rather than
no, you need to look to Jesus. That’s a lot more common than we think. We oftentimes think of
self-righteousness as being reserved for a Pharisaical kind of attitude, but there’s a different kind
of self-righteousness, and that’s the belief that we’re just really good people, and these really
good people admire Jesus. They don’t think they actually need him, so we need to help people
realize is that they need to first have that examination of what actually sin is.
What happens in America in 2019 is we think sin is just a mistake, like “Oh, I messed up,
I’m sorry.” First and foremost, sin is against God; it’s treason against Him. I don’t think the
average church member or church attender really believes that. I think they want enough of Jesus
to be associated with Him, but not enough to be personally inconvenienced. It’s more of a Jesus
we’ve created than the Jesus of the Bible. Again, I don’t think I’m the authority on who’s a
Christian and who’s not, neither do I want to be, but the Bible makes it pretty clear that road is
narrow, and that our faith must be solely defined by Christ.
My advice to pastors is to make sure that we’re aware that if somebody is defining their
Christianity, why they are a Christian in a way that is not dependent on the work and person of
Jesus Christ, then they might not be. In our conversations, if it takes that apart, this upbringing …
Really I would say there are three main tenets for our church members who are cultural
Christians – they shouldn’t be church members; that’s another conversation for another time – but
for those who are familiar with our churches who are cultural Christians, there are three main
tenets of that belief.
The first thing is a generic or vague theism. Do they believe in God? Of course they do.
They’d be offended if you suggested otherwise. Is that God the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
from the Scriptures? Probably not. It’s a generic, vague big-guy-in-the-sky kind of God. The
second one is: they really do believe they’re good people. They have a lot of self pride in that.
They think “We’re the Smiths and we’re great people.” The third thing is really strange, but they
all believe they’re going to heaven when they die. They have an understanding in their minds of
what happens when they die, and they’re going to a better place. Every funeral I’ve ever been to,
there’s a prayer that’s said, there’s a psalm that’s read, and Uncle Steve is now playing 18 holes at
the golf course in the sky with Uncle Bill once again, and they’re reunited. Every single time,
that’s how it’s laid out, so I would say we need to have an awareness that those are the things they
know and think and believe, now how do we minister in that reality?

Michael Duduit:

Did any of this book come out of sermons or sermon series?

Dean Inserra:

Yes, it did. I did a series just looking at the landscape of where I live. Tallahassee is in
the state of Florida, which is not a Bible belt state, even though it’s in a southern location. Places
like Tampa, Orlando, Miami, they’re not southern at all, they’re just located in the south, but
Tallahassee’s a little different because we’re very close to the Georgia border, very close to the
Alabama border, the panhandle’s really rural. Since we’re the capital and have state universities,
we’re a mix of everybody, but there’s definitely a Bible belt element here.
These people find comfort within all the things that southern people take pride in, like
their manners, their heritage, church affiliation, God-and-country kind of stuff. Sadly. those
comforts often blind people from their actual need to be saved, their actual need for Christ, so we
did a sermon series called Southern Comfort, where I actually presented kind of a manifesto on
Bible belt religion and how it’s not actually compatible with Biblical Christianity if it is only
defined by heritage and values and tradition rather than by the work of Christ – our following of
Him and being His disciples. We did about a month on that.
It was a topical series. I worked through texts every week, but it was a topical series, and
that just really resonated with a lot of people, because they never really had been confronted with
that before. In their minds they’re Christians, because again, “We’re the Smiths, we’re great
people. We say a prayer before dinner. Our nana is the matron saint at the downtown church.”
You know, those type of things. That led to eventually writing a book about it that extends way
beyond the south.

Michael Duduit:

We were just talking about sermon series. Do you primarily preach in series?

Dean Inserra:

I’m about half and half. We’ll kind of package it and present it to the church as a series,
but during the summer we’re going through the book of Psalms. We’re just doing eight psalms for
the summer, so we just call it Summer in Psalms. When I do topical messages and topical series,
I usually have a primary text I’m preaching through in that sermon series.

Michael Duduit: How long would a typical series be for you?

Dean Inserra:

We’re in a four to six week range. When I get to a book of the Bible, that’s different.

Michael Duduit: If we were to come visit a service at City Church, what would we expect to see?
What would it be like and how long would a typical sermon be for you?

Dean Inserra:

I preach around 30 minutes. You would see definitely a modern style of music with a
band-driven service; you’d see a very rock kind of music style, but you’re going to see some
hymns mixed in, the Lord’s supper almost every single week, a congregational prayer that is led
by a different individual every week that is independent from me praying at the beginning. It’s an
actual time dedicated to prayer.
You’ll see some responsive reading, some corporate confessions during the service, but
there are also lights on stage, graphics on the screen and branded sermon series, so it really is
kind of an interesting mix of two different worlds of doing church. We really kind of like it that
way. It’s not confusing. It flows and it all fits together and we work hard to do that.
Then again, I’m a very to-the-point preacher. I’m not one to kind of beat around the bush
a lot. I’m very direct. I also keep in mind that I’m talkong to someone who’s been a Christian for
50 years and someone who’s attending for the very first time. I have both those people in my
mind the entire time as I’m writing the sermon and as I’m preaching.

Michael Duduit: You’re in a city that has two major state universities. What percentage of your
attendance would be drawn from college students?

Dean Inserra:

I would say about 30%, which we’re pretty excited about. I always believe I’d like it to
be more, but when we first started the church was primarily college students, just because they
walked in the door first. What’s happened since then is either folks were reached as students and
stayed in Tallahassee as a part of our church, or folks who were not in college saw the mission
field that is in our city, and they said I want to be a part of that church, because that excites me as
a 55 year old that they’re reaching college students. Also another category is they saw their
college age children who had wandered from the faith get back involved in a local church when
they got to college, and they want to be a part of it.

Michael Duduit:

What would a typical week of sermon preparation look like for you?

Dean Inserra:

Monday I’m kind of just thinking through it. I plan out way in advance in terms of what
I’m doing, and by that, either like the sermon topic or the text or whatever we’re in. I do that
months in advance, but I haven’t written it months in advance. I’ve known I’ll be in Psalm five
this coming Sunday for a very long time. In the meantime, any time I see anything that might be
helpful towards that sermon and that text, I just file it away. I might just put a note on my phone,
something along those lines.
Monday is a heavy staff meeting day, a recovery day – I preach three services on a
Sunday — so I’m just around staff that afternoon, Monday afternoon, I’ll go sit down at a
Starbucks and I’ll put my feet up and just read through the text and really think through it for the
first time.
Then I’ll take Tuesday and actually sit down with my notes, my commentaries, anything
that I’ve pulled and that I have as a tool, and I’ll start to write. What I write out is not quite a
manuscript. I would call it kind of heavy bullet paragraphs, and then I will actually sit down with
my assistant and I read it to her. Then we will make changes, because I’m actually saying it out
loud for the first time, and that sounds different than just writing it. From there I’ll make
changes. I’ll add something. Let’s put this there, that there, I don’t like that, take that away, those
type of things. Then she’ll send back all the edits to me, and then I close it on Thursday, just
because of the way my mind works. I don’t need to dwell on it all week. I’ve done it, I know it,
don’t over think it. I won’t open it again until Saturday night before I go to bed. I’ll just read it
one more time.

Michael Duduit:

Are there particular preachers who have been a significant influence in your life, in
your ministry?

Dean Inserra:

Yes, certainly. James Merritt is kind of my father in the ministry. He grabbed me when
I was a college student and knew that I wanted to go into ministry and be a pastor, and just gave
me basically full access to his life. I have spent more time in his library and just talking about
these things with him, about preaching, about ministry, and also being raised mainline Protestant.
I do think there are some great mainline Protestant churches out there, don’t get me wrong, but
the one I was raised in was very just gospel-less, we’ll call it that. I had never truly heard real
preaching before, like expository preaching or just passionate preaching, gospel-driven
preaching. I had no category for that, so when I heard James Merritt preach for the first time, I
legitimately sat in the chair and said, “That’s what I want to do.” He, praise God for him, has
opened his entire life, so we usually talk at some point every week to this day, but he’s the
primary person who has also influenced me.
Another pastor who is out of ministry now, sadly, is former PCA pastor Skip Ryan. Skip
pastored Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas for a very long time, was involved in Redeemer
Seminary there. My uncle was a good friend of his, and I had never really been introduced to
Biblical theology before. This is back in cassette tape days, and my uncle sent me every single
sermon that Skip Ryan has preached during his tenure at Park Cities Presbyterian on a cassette
tape. Skip also was the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, Virginia, another great
PCA church. That, at a very young age, helped me understand Biblical theology, and I think an
understanding of Biblical theology is absolutely critical for faithful preaching.
I would have had no context for that. Where I went to college, we didn’t really learn a lot
of that in our Bible classes. In seminary I did, but I even heard Skip Ryan before that, so I’m 18,
19 years old hearing Biblical theology preached faithfully, and that was really shaping for me as
well. I would say those two people are the ones that have shaped my preaching the most.

Michael Duduit:

One last question: is there any one thing you’ve learned about preaching that you
would love to be able to share with young pastors who are in the very earliest stages of their own
ministry?

Dean Inserra:

We have a lot of college students who want to be pastors, something like 10 or so right
now in our college ministry, which is pretty neat. What I tell them regularly is do not preach to
impress. That is such a temptation, and we’re blind to it often, because no one actually believes
they’re doing that, or will admit they’re doing that, but don’t preach to impress. I tell folks that
unless you are pastoring right next to a seminary campus, there’s a 99.9% chance that a seminary
professor is not sitting in your congregation, so stop preaching to him. He’s not evaluating you
right now.
Preach to be understood and heard, to be received and to connect the truths of Scripture
to the hearer in all different kinds of lives. You need to realize that the person in the pew is not
reading who you’re reading, they don’t know these terms, these words, these people, so we need
to take it and explain it. I don’t mean dumb it down. We’re not insulting people’s intelligence.
These are professionals working in high intensity environments, so we’re not talking about
unintelligent people here, just someone in a different field of study and understanding, so we
have to take what we know and make it to be received and heard. So I would say don’t preach to
impress. Preach to magnify Christ and to be understood. I think we can’t say that enough to a
younger group of preachers right now.