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December 23rd, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My take: Why my church rebelled against the American Dream

Editor’s Note: David Platt, Ph.D., is the author of the New York Times bestseller Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream and is senior pastor of the 4,000-member Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama.

By David Platt, Special to CNN

We American Christians have a way of taking the Jesus of the Bible and twisting him into a version of Jesus that we are more comfortable with.

A nice middle-class American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and would never call us to give away everything we have. A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that does not infringe on our comforts.

A Jesus who wants us to be balanced, who wants us to avoid dangerous extremes, and who for that matter wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings comfort and prosperity to us as we live out our Christian spin on the American Dream.

But lately I’ve begun to have hope that the situation is changing.

The 20th-century historian who coined the term “American Dream,” James Truslow Adams, defined it as “a dream… in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are.”

But many of us are realizing that Jesus has different priorities. Instead of congratulating us on our self-fulfillment, he confronts us with our inability to accomplish anything of value apart from God. Instead of wanting us to be recognized by others, he beckons us to die to ourselves and seek above all the glory of God.

In my own faith family, the Church at Brook Hills, we have tried to get out from under the American Dream mindset and start living and serving differently.

Like many other large American churches, we had a multimillion-dollar campus and plans to make it even larger to house programs that would cater to our own desires. But then we started looking at the world we live in.

It’s a world where 26,000 children die every day of starvation or a preventable disease. A world where billions live in situations of such grinding poverty that an American middle-class neighborhood looks like Beverly Hills by comparison. A world where more than a billion people have never even heard the name Jesus. So we asked ourselves, “What are we spending our time and money on that is less important than meeting these needs?” And that’s when things started to change.

First we gave away our entire surplus fund - $500,000 - through partnerships with churches in India, where 41 percent of the world’s poor live. Then we trimmed another $1.5 million from our budget and used the savings to build wells, improve education, provide medical care and share the gospel in impoverished places around the world. Literally hundreds of church members have gone overseas temporarily or permanently to serve in such places.

And it’s not just distant needs we’re trying to meet. It’s also needs near at hand.

One day I called up the Department of Human Resources in Shelby County, Alabama, where our church is located, and asked, “How many families would you need in order to take care of all the foster and adoption needs that we have in our county?”

The woman I was talking to laughed.

I said, “No, really, if a miracle were to take place, how many families would be sufficient to cover all the different needs you have?”

She replied, “It would be a miracle if we had 150 more families.”

When I shared this conversation with our church, over 160 families signed up to help with foster care and adoption. We don’t want even one child in our county to be without a loving home. It’s not the way of the American Dream. It doesn’t add to our comfort, prosperity, or ease. But we are discovering the indescribable joy of sacrificial love for others, and along the way we are learning more about the inexpressible wonder of God’s sacrificial love for us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my country and I couldn’t be more grateful for its hard-won freedoms. The challenge before we American Christians, as I see it, is to use the freedoms, resources, and opportunities at our disposal while making sure not to embrace values and assumptions that contradict what God has said in the Bible.

I believe God has a dream for people today. It’s just not the same as the American Dream.

I believe God is saying to us that real success is found in radical sacrifice. That ultimate satisfaction is found not in making much of ourselves but in making much of him. That the purpose of our lives transcends the country and culture in which we live. That meaning is found in community, not individualism. That joy is found in generosity, not materialism. And that Jesus is a reward worth risking everything for.

Indeed, the gospel compels us to live for the glory of God in a world of urgent spiritual and physical need, and this is a dream worth giving our lives to pursue.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Platt.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (556 Responses)
  1. Terrye Lucas

    David, my heart has cried out about the lost in our own country along with the world. Also the poverty issues. When I saw your book advertised I knew I would read it. I wish for every minister to have a copy. What a change in the world we would have. I know it has not hurt your church to give away the surplus and change direction with the budget but has probably produced more. God bless you for what you are doing. Just finished the 1st chapter and can't put it down.

    December 24, 2010 at 9:17 am |
  2. JT

    Hey y'all, Landover Baptist – http://landoverbaptist.org/ – is handing out free Playstations if you become a Christian at their church. Don't know about the rest of you hellbound, sinning infidels but that's where I'm going.

    December 24, 2010 at 9:12 am |
  3. Julibear

    I was raised Catholic and am now lapsed, but this article reminds me about what is right with Christianity–my grandmothers volunteered for years with Catholic Charities-they do so much good work, despite the evil that lurks in the Roman Catholic Church. I think this mindset that you describe-passing up the "American Dream" for a simple life of service- is not only good for the soul, but good for the country! In todays political environment it is so refreshing to see people doing good unto others for no reason other than that others need a helping hand and this group has the resources to help. That is something we can all do, no matter what Spaghetti Monster we believe in.

    December 24, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  4. Patrick Mitchell

    David Johnson, when Jesus saw all the kingdoms of the world, are you suggesting he saw every piece of land in existence? If so, that's some poor exegesis. And you are spot on noting that God used men of a particular era, with their own personal experiences, to record the overarching narrative of redemption. That's the only way to explain the Bible's continued influence in the world...I don't think you can point to another writing that has done such. Nor can you point to another person who's had the impact on societies the world over as Jesus. You'll never be "convinced" of anything by arguments of reason...that's the difficulty of having these conversations. Have a great holiday and thank you for responding with kindness in your posts.

    December 24, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  5. Daniel

    Christians just can't win with some. They criticize when your church builds and brings in money, then they turn around and kill you when you give it all the way to the hungry, poor, or homeless...Awesome....

    December 24, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  6. Sean Wilson

    Brilliant. The Jesus we need is not necessarily the Jesus we want.

    December 24, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  7. daddy0

    We adopted an 18 year old this year from our church. It was an adult adoption and not complicated legally. s he perfect? Nope. But our birth children aren't perfect either. And, for that matter my wife and I aren't perfect.
    Outcomes is a combination of genetic and environment factors. Outside of organic problems, it'd be impossible to attribute good or bad to one specific cause. I know a die-hard Christian family with 3 kids, two have been ok and one died from drugs and car accident. All raised the same way and birthed from the same gene pool.
    Has it been hard to adopt and 18 year old? At times, absolutely. But, what would have been harder was to let him go back into the home and life he was in. Sometimes when we get frustrated, we have to remind ourselves of that: would he be fed? would he have transportation? Would he have insurance? l have a bed to sleep in? and UNCONDITIONALLY?
    Adoption, and even parenting for that matter, is not for everyone.
    For those considering adoption, talk, research, consult help from trusted sources.
    I'm not sure about the outcomes for the children in a church wide solicitation for adoption, I know one thing:
    Life is short and at the end you have to do what you will look back on, rest your head and know that indeed you did the right thing....
    Have a Merry Christmas!

    December 24, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  8. Robert Tobin

    "American Dream". Jesus. You know what is wrong with you Americans? You swallow all the crap spewed out from the Pulpits about a Jesus who never existed and listen to these preachers put their spin on the fables of the Bible, the worst book of fiction ever written. I wonder about the sanity of 46% of Americans who "believe the World was "created" by some "sky-daddy" in the year 4004 BCE on the 3rd October at 9:00 am.

    I just read about this: "Senator Plans Bill to Address Evolution in Public Schools". State Senator Josh Brecheen (Rep, Oaklahoma) want to poison students minds with "Creation". He is not fit to hold public office anywhere.

    America should have a change of name to the UNITED CHRISTIAN STATES OF AMERICA.
    The Poison of Christianity is turning America into a Third Word Nation. .

    December 24, 2010 at 8:29 am |
    • Patrick Mitchell

      Those are some sweeping statements. Sorry to hear what seems to be a personal hurt in your tone (as much as can be inferred from a blog comment). I know many Christians bear the name in vain, and for that too I am sorry.

      December 24, 2010 at 8:58 am |
    • mrcomment

      Robert Tobin
      The Bible says that you can only find true happiness if you die to your selfish way of living. If there is no God, then there is no such thing as good,evil or purpose to life. If you try to set what is good and evil by yourself you are trying to make yourself 'God'. If that was working out you would be at peace and not have so much bitterness. God is love whether you realize it or not. True Christians do realize this and are striving to live into this but they are not perfect but they have peace inside.

      December 24, 2010 at 11:44 am |
  9. Bill

    the key to renewal in America is revival – not in churches, because so many are whitewashed tombs, dead man's haunts, where there is no life, nor faith, nor belief... many are just the country clubs described in the article... but when those of faith, the Followers of Jesus, begin taking care of the widows and orphans and being channels of God's love (romans 5.5), no one will doubt that Jesus is alive... but the dead churches in our nation, focused on building the beast... and loving the dollar ... are doing exactly the opposite they were intended to do...

    December 24, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  10. Mike H.

    Dave, If there is no God,
    why is the not more freaks of nature, such as people should have more than two eyes, more than two hands, more than two feet, .... or are we made in someone's image and likeness to fulfill the book of Geneis,
    if there is no God why can't birds swim, and fish fly, >>>> you can't answer some things and we can't answer some things, we all understand in parts, see parts, know parts, ... but there is a day coming when we will know the truth and then for some of you it will be too late, Faith is a substance, that must be applied.
    Cheers,
    In the Name of Jesus

    December 24, 2010 at 8:13 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Mike H.

      You said: "why is the not more freaks of nature, such as people should have more than two eyes, more than two hands, more than two feet, .... or are we made in someone's image and likeness to fulfill the book of Geneis,
      if there is no God why can't birds swim, and fish fly"

      I did not see your post until today. Since there is a good chance you will not come back to read my comments, I will not spend the time to explain why your statement comes from ignorance.

      You won't, but if you are truly interested in the answers to your questions, I suggest you read "The Greatest Show On Earth" by Richard Dawkins. It will show you why a god is not needed for the diversity of organisms on our planet.

      Also note the following:

      Whales have the genes for making legs.
      Chickens have the genes for teeth.

      These genes are simply not activated.

      Yep, we evolved. We have genes that are vestiges from previous more primitive organisms.

      If god created organisms, once, the way they look today, they would not have these vestiges.

      You don’t even need to go to a natural history museum or library to see evidence for evolution; our own bodies have many signs of our evolutionary heritage. When we get goose bumps, our bodies are trying to keep warm by raising hairs that are no longer dense enough to help.
      The muscles that allow us to wiggle our ears are of no use for us, but they did help some distant ancestors. Humans also have many other useless, vestigial organs such as nip_ples and mammary glands on males (like all mammals)
      and the tailbone, which is just a holdover from when our primate ancestors actually had tails millions of years ago.
      Many other species also have obvious useless, vestigial organs:
      • Flightless birds such as kiwis and ostriches have vestigial wings.
      • Some whales still have vestigial legs and pelvic bones, as noted above.
      • Some fish which live in caves are blind but still have vestigial eyes.
      • Dandelions reproduce without fertilization and basically clone themselves; altho they have the proper organs necessary for $exual reproduction, they do not use them.

      Intelligent Design completely fails to explain these vestigial organs on embryos, adults, and plants — which are obviously suboptimal. The Theory of Evolution explains them perfectly. If a perfect god designed us and all life, He certainly didn't do a perfect job.

      Stephen J. Gould stated it well; “Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution — paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.”

      I know it stings like salt is a wound, Mike. But, the creation story is a myth.

      Happy Trails!

      December 27, 2010 at 9:59 am |
  11. Oliver

    Love mankind. Todays Christians seem to know so much about God. We are not Christiian simply because we say we are...
    Perhaps rather than spending our lives in selfish strife for salvation, God would rather we spend our lives loving and caring for one another. It may just be that in the end, one good deed for another living creature has more meaning than an entire bloodline of divout church attendance. God has Blessed you David for you have found the core of Christianity and its meaning.

    December 24, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  12. Kay

    Materialism and Spirituality mix like oil and water. I agree with the article. To really practice any religion in its true essence, we need to go beyond our own needs, comforts and desires. That is to go beyond Materialism. Nice, thought provoking article.

    December 24, 2010 at 8:05 am |
  13. someoneelse

    Both capitalism and religion are archaic, unevolved ideas. They will both eventually disappear as we become a more evolved society (though not yet, as the average person is still pretty stupid, let alone the 50% below them).

    December 24, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  14. Josh R.

    My last words are as follows: I believe it to be very warming and almost devine when ones self can reach across the world
    to and unknown place and spark hope or even wisdom within one they have not even met...I believe what I have said
    in some peoples minds and hearts as self explanatory even to the illiterate in which even they are allowed all the
    graces and happiness within.

    Thank You.

    – Josh Rabatin

    December 24, 2010 at 7:55 am |
  15. adam

    This author is either very confused ro a very deliberate liar. The American Dream is about everyone having a chance; he even admits agreement with this by quoting Adams. What his church was practicing before they had a change of heart was not the American Dream; it was outright dogmatic, self-righteous selfishness.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:52 am |
  16. steve

    Since when did the "American Dream" become one of materialism? Maybe in your world, since you base your thesis with that assumption.
    The American Dream originated in FREEDOM.
    Americans are FREE to pursue their own dreams.
    It's when this warped sense of the "American Dream" as materialism is used to pervert our sense of worth and ambition,
    that the flames of class warfare are futher stoked by those who wish for more goverment intervention and redistribution of wealth. Give freely, as you WISH. That's what makes giving charitable, not a requirement. Freedom.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:52 am |
  17. LJB

    How is this NEWS???

    December 24, 2010 at 7:51 am |
  18. Dr Bill Toth

    Many of the Bibles greatest heroes were men of great wealth; Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob, David, Solomon. It is much easier to Serve others from a place of abundance. We live in a super abundant world. Live With Intention, DrBilllToth.com/blog

    December 24, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  19. Dr Bill Toth

    Many of the Bibles greatest heroes were men of great wealth; Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob, David, Solomon. It is much easier to Serve others from a place of abundance. Live With Intention, DrBilllToth.com/blog

    December 24, 2010 at 7:47 am |
  20. Baby JBaby

    I hope you keep the feeding and well building and education to a maximum.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:44 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.