America is known as a Christian nation, but the Christianity practiced by American adherents is looking less and less like the teachings of Jesus.
In his new book, Radical, megachurch pastor David Platt of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., examines the American Dream and the gospel. He spoke to The Christian Post this week about why the American Dream is undermining the gospel. Platt calls on Christians to take back their faith.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
CP: Why don’t Christians in America look like the disciples in the Bible?
Platt: There is obviously a cultural and historical disconnect between us, 21st century America, and the disciples in the first century. As a result of that, there are a lot of things that we tend to cloud our Christianity with that unknowingly, in many cases, miss the entire point of the gospel.
I think with the way we have unprecedented material blessing, with the way we have a culture built on self, self-esteem, self-confidence. All of these things we begin to twist the gospel into something that it is not. We make it look like us and fit into our lifestyle instead of adjusting our lifestyle to the gospel. In the process we make following Jesus more American than it is biblical. As a result there seems to be a major disconnect between what it means to follow Christ in the first century and what it means to follow Christ in our definition in the 21st century America.
CP: The Jesus that conforms to the American dream sounds safe. But you talk about a dangerous Jesus in the book. What makes believing in this Jesus risky?
Platt: Believing in the Jesus of the Bible makes life risky on a lot of levels because it is absolute surrender of every decision we make, every dollar we spend, our lives belong to another. And so that is relinquishing control in a culture that prioritizes control and doing what you need to do in order to advance yourself.
The call of Christ is to deny ourselves and to let go of our lives. To relinquish control of our lives, to surrender everything we are, everything that we do, our direction our safety our security is no longer found in the things of this world. It is found in Christ. And that is great risk when it comes to the things of this world. But in the end it is not really risky at all because we are relinquishing control to the one who has supreme love for us, cares for us, has created us, knows what is best for us, and will lead us and guide us in what is best for us not just now but for all of eternity.
So when we get down to it it’s not really risky but it’s great reward. But initially it certainly seems risky because we are letting go of the things that we are most familiar, most comfortable, most safe and secure with.
It is like Jesus’ call to the rich young man when he said to go sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven. He wasn’t calling him away from treasures but he was calling him to treasures. He was calling him to let go of short-term treasures that he can’t keep in order to gain long term treasures that he can’t lose.
This is the picture when Christ calls us to himself. It is the forsaking of short term treasures that we can’t keep but it is the gaining of long term treasures that we can’t lose.
CP: How does the American dream clash with God’s teaching?
Platt: I believe that the gospel and the American Dream have fundamentally different starting points. The American Dream begins with self, exalts self, says you are inherently good and you have in you what it takes to be successful so do all you can, work with everything you have to make much of yourself.
The gospel’s starting point is completely different. The gospel begins with God, the reality that we were created to exalt his name to the ends of the earth. I am not inherently good. The gospel tells me that I am inherently evil and I need someone else to save me. The self is crucified from the start in the gospel. So from that starting point everything changes. Now it is not what I have in me but about what God provides in me. It is not about my life but the life of Christ. It is not about me making much of myself, it is about me making much of God.
And from those starting points flow two different trajectories for how life looks, how success looks like, what satisfaction in life looks like. And if we miss the starting point – either self and the American Dream or God and the gospel – then that changes everything from then on out.
CP: You talk about the popular measure of church success using the number of people who attend services. What is a better measure if a church is successful in your opinion?
Platt: Success is determined not by how many people are coming into our building, but how many people are leaving our buildings to take on the world with the gospel. What defines success is certainly not just the crowd. Jesus himself in many ways spurned the crowd. You can get crowds to do anything and crowds are not a measure of success as much as Jesus shows us men and women are multiplying the gospel with their lives and risking their lives to taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. This is the success of the church.
We have tried in the context of the faith family at Brook Hills to say, “Ok, how can we live and do church not just to draw as many people as we can to an event. But how can we do church in a way that we can mobilize, encourage one another to go out in this city and to all nations leading people to Christ and multiplying the gospel and spending our lives for his sake.” That is what we want success to be defined by.
CP: What is the Secret Church and has it been replicated by any other church in America?
Platt: Secret Church is something we do a couple times a year. We come alongside house churches where they gather together risking their lives and hours on end just study the word in secret locations. So we said what if we set aside some periodic time where we push aside everything else and just have plain studying the word for hours at a time. At the same time we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
We did it a couple of weeks ago from 6 [p.m.] till – we’re supposed to end at midnight but we usually go until 1 o’clock in the morning. So it is about six or seven hours of intensive studying the Bible. There are no frills or any other entertainment value so to speak. It is just study the word and praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters.
We have to take reservations because we have standing room only. People come from all over the place really. They come from various states and places. But we sold out those reservations in three hours this last time.
We have tried to design it so it can be replicated in context here in the United States and around the world. There are some churches that will take the teachings – everything is provided online for free –and adjust it and work with it and do a similar thing at their church where the pastors are teaching the material.
There are some churches that have taken the DVD’s that we offer for free and they will gather together and will lead the prayer time for the persecuted church but they will listen or watch the teachings from Secret Church at Brook Hills.
So this last time while we were meeting, there was a church in Tennessee doing the exact same thing with a previous Secret Church teaching that they watched on the video.
We are trying to make it so it’s reproducible in any context. It is the teaching of the word and prayer and that can be done in any context. Beyond that, we have taken the teachings and translated them into the top six languages in the world. And we have tried to put those in the hands of our brothers and sisters in the world. We are still in the process of working out how all this look.
For example, we have Secret Church translated into Mandarin. So there are house churches in China who are using Secret Church teachings.
The goal is really to provide solid, biblical, theological education in the context of the local church here and our brother and sisters around the world.
CP: What is the Radical Experiment?
Platt: Radical experiment is something we are in the middle of here at Brook Hills. We initiated it at the end of last year. We challenged everybody in our faith family to walk through five commitments: pray for the entire world. We are using a prayer manual called Operation World to really pray for every country in the world this year. Two, to read through the entire word, where we are walking through God’s revelation through his word. We are walking through it chronologically. There are obviously many ways to read through the Bible in a year.
Third is to sacrifice our money for a specific purpose. We have challenged the members of our faith family to make sacrifices, to set a cap so to speak on their lifestyle during this year so they free up as much as possible to give away to urgent spiritual and physical needs around the world. We have done the same thing on the church, where we have tried to cut our budget as much as we could to free up money to give to urgent spiritual, physical needs around the world.
The fourth component is to spend your time in another context. We challenged everybody to spend two percent of their life this year, which works out to about one week, in some other context around the world sharing the gospel. In particular, contexts that are great and urgent in their needs.
Then the fifth component is committing our lives to a multiplying community. Being part of a local church, but even deeper than that walking with God alongside brothers and sisters who are making disciples and who desire to multiply disciples together.
The Radical experiment is basically saying, “Alright, for a year I’m going to commit my life in those five ways and ask God to transform me in the process.”
CP: Is there anything else you want to add?
Platt: This book, this whole picture of the context of our church, is the overflow of things that the Lord has been teaching me as a person, as a pastor, teaching us as a church. My prayer is that this book would encourage others. I have a long way to go in this journey. My wife and I do and the church that I have the privilege of leading has a long journey.
But we want our lives to count for the glory of God and the spreading of the gospel among the nations. There is an urgency here when it comes to the reality of the gospel and the reality of the world we live in. We want good, gospel theology. But when we have good, gospel theology that necessitates urgent missiology. It necessitates us to give our lives to making the gospel known around the world. It doesn’t add up to say we believe in the gospel and not giving our lives to make it known.