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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. DeeDee

    Sorry about the typing in the last line – my arthritis makes typing hard for me at times and I hit post before I checked it. I am just suggesting we give one another, beleiver and non-beleiver alike, fair play and the benefit of the doubt.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:20 pm |
  2. oh please

    religions are all fake

    Its NOT called FACT its called FAITH

    its NOT called TRUTH its called BELIEF

    ITS ALL FAKE.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:19 pm |
  3. Joyce

    I quite like the American Dream as described by James Adams. What could be wrong with fulfilling ones unique potential, and enjoying recognition from others of ones individuality? It almost seems like something even Jesus would approve of. The problem is that the American Dream is now thought of in terms of material acquisitions. It's really appalling that "Christians" are so willing to align themselves with a political party that has as its primary interest multi-national corporations and the wealthy.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:18 pm |
  4. Rich Ressel

    i am overwhelmed at the core truth of this article. I pray every single Christian in America read this. In heaven we are not measured by our success, prosperity, or comfort; but by our devotion and adoration of Jesus. In that place of worship He will guide us in our giving and the reward of our wholehearted obedience is the truest reward – knowing our Creator, personally, intimately, and eternally!

    December 23, 2010 at 11:18 pm |
  5. wilson

    I like this guy's thinking. I'm an atheist, but if more churches were like his, I'd be more inclined to hang around them and lend a helping hand. But most churches out there are busy greedily building wealth and separating themselves from everyone else. They kind of freak me out.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:17 pm |
  6. Lois

    I have a friend who was adopted by a "christian" family who adopted her because they felt that it was their "christian duty." Their treatment of her was nothing short of abuse. She is so messed up psychologically that she has never know how to be happy. She would have been much better off if an athiest family, who loved her, had adopted her because they wanted to and raised her in a loving home. Athiests do things because they are the right thing to do, not because they waht to be "rewarded in the afterlife."

    December 23, 2010 at 11:16 pm |
    • von Stemwede

      LOL...Atheists never have ulterior motives? Wow.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:10 am |
    • Homeschool Mom in AZ

      I have heard of a few of these cases. Our agency actually screens parents for this very problem. It's absolutely wrong for anyone to adopt a child for any reason other than wanting to grow their family in a permanent loving parent/child relationship. I'm a believer and I'm appalled that this happens occasionally. There are plenty of reputable organizations believers who want to help give children homes can donate to. Adoption is for people who want to be parents. I have biological children and an adopted child. Every child regardless of how they entered a family should be loved and wanted exactly the same.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:55 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Homeschool Mom in AZ

      You said: "I have heard of a few of these cases. Our agency actually screens parents for this very problem. It's absolutely wrong for anyone to adopt a child for any reason other than wanting to grow their family in a permanent loving parent/child relationship."

      The article says: "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. "

      Given your statement, would you not agree that some of the 160 families are doing it for a bad reason?

      I think Evangelicals would make poor adoptive parents. Especially if the child were Catholic or Mormon, or even Muslim.

      Love and Prayers!

      December 24, 2010 at 10:18 am |
  7. Doc

    The first comment on this board – about adopted kids potentially being "damaged goods" – is ludicrous. There are two biological kids in my extended family that had fantastic parents and siblings but turned out themselves to be cruddy people. So, same gene pool, different outcomes.

    Please do not let someone's illogical comments keep you from adopting if you are considering doing so. No one can be guaranteed a child that is free of severe physical or mental illness or one that will not make bad choices whether borne of your body or adopted. But those instances are not the norm and should not prevent kids that need a home from getting one.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
    • Homeschool Mom in AZ

      Yes, most adoptions have great outcomes. The problem is that some people look at the bad experiences and ignore the good ones. Others will look at only the good experiences and ignore the bad ones. Both are bad ways to look at it.

      Parents have to go in knowing that either is a real possibility. Are they willing to do it even if they fall into the "bad experience" category? Our adoption agency (the attachment therapist specifically) was very up front about it, "Most adoptees are bonded within a year. A few never bond. Are you willing to adopt even if you are the exception to the rule? If not, this isn't for you."

      December 24, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  8. rh

    His church of "we American Christians" gave its money away to INDIA? There is so much need in the US, he should have started in his own backyard.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:05 pm |
    • varmint

      The reason he didn't start in his own backyard? It's simply not as fertile for spreading "The Word." Unfortunately, many of the world's poorest citizens are also under-educated. A mind without education is a breeding ground for brainwashing of all sorts. If people truly want to feed the hungry, they should start by writing, profusely, to their congressional representatives to reform patent law so that corporations like Mo-ns-an-to cannot control the food system. Now, THAT is immoral.

      December 24, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  9. LiberateUs

    The "American Dream" is DEAD. Irish Immigrants came to this country in the 19th century hoping to escape from the British Oppression. They were massacred by Protestants just for the fact that they were Catholic. Lets not forget to mention that our country denied entry for Polish Jews who were trying to escape Nazi persecution. They were sent home into the waiting arms of their oppressors.

    December 23, 2010 at 11:04 pm |
    • von Stemwede

      Massacred? Really? Where are the mass graves? The Irish were not treated well in the beginning, but being white quickly intermingled and became Americans. They didn't suffer for long, to be sure.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:06 am |
  10. flatcopilot

    What your church did is AWESOME! Very inspiring. 🙂

    December 23, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
  11. Kaorigaoka

    Why not sell the church?

    December 23, 2010 at 10:59 pm |
  12. jordygordy

    Great article! And some above comment about how the they rejected gods blessing thats BS (excuse my french) if anything, they used it properly! Church bodies like this make me proud to be christian and see how people are doing so much good in His name 🙂

    December 23, 2010 at 10:38 pm |
  13. Justina

    Why aren't Christians revolting in a nation that is increasingly becoming a Sodom?

    December 23, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
    • von Stemwede

      In case you hadn't noticed, the reason this nation is looking more like Sodom is that the people of this country have decided that they don't need God or his salvation.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:03 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Justina

      You asked: "Why aren't Christians revolting in a nation that is increasingly becoming a Sodom?"

      Christians and all other believers are revolting. Very revolting!

      LOL! LOL 'till my sides ache!

      Cheers!

      December 24, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  14. Believer

    D.J. is safe behind a computer screen, a coward. His arguments, as I've noticed reading this thread, went from emotional to now something akin to sounding like a toast-master by using Bible quotations. I ask Dj, how can you argue from the Holy Word when you obviously have not studied it and all its intricacies in entirety (and do not feign that you have)?

    Please remove that thread hijacker from the board. It does not progress the conversation about the article.

    Merry Christmas everyone!

    December 23, 2010 at 8:42 pm |
    • Bopper

      Study what believer, a bunch of disparate books, writtne by numerous people of hindreds, if not, thousands of years. Not to mention, it was a bunch a priests who decided which of the gosepls, books and other "words of god" were to be included. You can believe what you want, that is your right but please remember, God did not create religion, man created religion. And religion was created to control man and ultimately is responsible for killing more people than any other thing in history – now that is a fact.

      December 23, 2010 at 11:13 pm |
    • Kolby Gwingoir

      Believer: No ad hominem attacks. Be a big boy and ackowledge David Johnson as a good CNN.com poster.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:13 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Believer

      You said: "D.J. is safe behind a computer screen, a coward. His arguments, as I've noticed reading this thread, went from emotional to now something akin to sounding like a toast-master by using Bible quotations. I ask Dj, how can you argue from the Holy Word when you obviously have not studied it and all its intricacies in entirety (and do not feign that you have)?"

      OMG! If my arguments are so poor, it should be easy for you to refute them. Go for it!

      If by arguing from the holy word, you mean writing bible passages back and forth, I'll pass.

      You need to first establish that there is a god, and then that the bible is that god's word. Until then, you are just a guy who has a holy book and a warm feeling in his heart.

      There is no god Sparky. Whether I'm a coward or the bravest man on the planet is immaterial.

      Love and Prayers!

      December 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  15. AnnieL

    Charity should never take the place of economic justice. It should be only for those who are unable to work or care for their families, either temporarily or permanently. This pastor and congregation would do better to ask, "What kind of economic system would Jesus want?" I think he would want one where every job pays a living wage and there is no such thing as "unemployment." Furthermore, where it is economically possible for the majority to be self-employed and not dependent on paychecks for their livelihoods because paycheck-dependency is just as bad as welfare dependency.

    December 23, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
    • Pastor.Josh

      You may or may not be right about the need to find a better economic system. However, this is probably not the place for his church to be working. Such a task is a long, drawn out process. In the time that it would take to turn over and restructure the US economic system, how many starving children in other countries would die? How many children in need of adoption locally would be without loving homes? I think Platt's church is doing just what it should be doing right now–asking the question, "What need is there right now that I can fulfill?"

      December 23, 2010 at 11:31 pm |
  16. ghorwood

    you are ALL wrong.

    December 23, 2010 at 8:20 pm |
  17. Evolved DNA

    David Johnson.
    Well said. Maybe the churches will demand they lose their tax free status so that the money will be available for other purposes. Some of the mega churches in the US are a testament to excess and the "pastors" of these places look poor to me. Religions are are a hash of ancient myths and even Christmas was stolen from the winter solstice celebrations of the vikings.. Know god, no peace!!

    December 23, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
  18. jay

    I am so grateful that it seems there is a huge movement of pastors and churches who finally get it. we ALL need to forget a little more about ourselves i think and learn to serve those who so desparately need some hope and for someone to care. people don't come to understand Jesus because of words but because they see Him through actions.

    December 23, 2010 at 8:03 pm |
  19. ralph

    DAVID JOHNSON????

    WITH A NAME LIKE DAVID, WHICH IS FROM THE BIBLE BY THE WAY, IT APPEARS THAT YOUR MOMMY AND DADDY MUST HAVE FAILED YOU.

    FOLKS THIS MAN/PERSON IS A WASTE OF OUR TIME AND EFFORT,

    DO NOT POST REPLIES AND HE WILL GO AWAY.

    WATCH HOW MANY POSTS THIS FOOL PUTS OUT.

    THAT WILL TELL YOU THAT HE HAS NOTHING BETTER TO DO WITH HIS LIFE..

    WHEN HIS DAY COMES AND HE STANDS BEFORE GOD, GOD WILL OPEN THE BOOK AND HIS NAME WON'T BE THERE.
    GUESS WERE HIS NEXT STOP WILL BE???
    IF YOU CHOOSE TO GO TO HELL, DON'T LET ME STOP YOU.

    DON'T FORGET TO TAKE WATER,,,,,IT GETS WARM THERE

    AND PLEASE D.J. DON'T RESPOND TO MY WORDS BECAUSE I WON'T READ YOUR POST

    BYE FOOL

    December 23, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
    • tom

      Ralph, you believe in Santa too? LOL. David seems to be the only rational poster here.

      December 23, 2010 at 11:34 pm |
    • Kolby Gwingoir

      1. Don't use all caps
      2. That looks like the reply from a desperate Nigerian scammer who wants your money today. All the all caps show a mental meltdown and/or desperation

      A good reply uses proper capitalization and tells the world "this man is confident, rational, has his stuff together, and has informed, well-thought out opinions! Listen to him!" – An all caps reply says otherwise.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:12 am |
    • David Johnson

      @ralph

      You said: "WITH A NAME LIKE DAVID, WHICH IS FROM THE BIBLE BY THE WAY, IT APPEARS THAT YOUR MOMMY AND DADDY MUST HAVE FAILED YOU."

      Don't you talk about my momma!

      Heres a riddle for you ralph: Does religion make you crazy or are crazy people attracted to religion?

      I sort of thought you would know...

      Love you like a brother! Cheers!

      December 24, 2010 at 10:04 am |
    • Smite Me

      @Ralph,

      "WITH A NAME LIKE DAVID, WHICH IS FROM THE BIBLE BY THE WAY, IT APPEARS THAT YOUR MOMMY AND DADDY MUST HAVE FAILED YOU."

      Ha! And Ralph is another word for 'vomit'... what were your Mommy and Daddy thinking?

      December 24, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  20. ralph

    Why do some of you continue to make comments directed at David Johnson??
    Don't waste your time.
    It is a fact that he is a Liberal, knee jerk reactionist who takes on all believers as if we are stupid.
    I beleive when his day comes and the Lord turns his back on him at the Heaven's Gate, he will then fall on his knees and cry for mercey...That I am sure of.
    If he does not want to believe in Jesus/God/Holyghost then so be it.

    AND PLEASE DAVID,

    December 23, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @Ralph

      You said: "It is a fact that he is a Liberal, knee jerk reactionist who takes on all believers as if we are stupid."

      There is no "as if" to it. Believers are stupid!

      Happy Holidays!

      December 23, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
    • Kolby Gwingoir

      Ralph: Do not use ad hominem attacks

      Do your work, and work to disprove David Johnson. Be a big boy and respect David Johnson as a good contributor.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:10 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.