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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. philtration

    You can live a good life and be a decent person without the stupid invisible friend thing you know.
    Too many believers think that unless you follow this fantasy nonsense that was created when man was clueless and frightened of his own shadow then you have no reason to live.

    Religion is a cancer on mankind and it drags us down as a species.

    December 24, 2010 at 1:00 am |
    • You are breathing HIS air.

      I don't believe in Santa Claus, the Lochness Monster or Bigfoot, but I'd be a moron to argue with someone about their existence or to be angry because someone wanted to believe. You argue because you KNOW He exists and you hate HIM.

      January 6, 2011 at 2:56 am |
  2. Immigrant_Joey

    I like to tell everyone here who is brain washed to the max by their upbringing and the religion they were were brought up to know by their culture: Hey there is no god nor there is after life. If you want to feel guilty about the hungry children please go ahead. I on the other hand do not shed a tear.. Every one gets what luck and destiny handed them. Sure you can try to maneuver your way thru life but it is set for you. After all, none of us really matters in the sense that if any of the writers die tomorrow , the world will still turn. Cheers.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:54 am |
  3. Truthseeker

    This is a preposterous and dangerous notion. What is lost is meritocracy where wealth is a byproduct of individual achievement in the sciences and engineering. Innovation from this realm translates into technologi al breakthrough that can help the poor far more than this. India has poverty but very little hunger. What these slum dwellers want are clean homes and middle class accomodations. uhhh like what he is advocating americans shouldnt have? Europe and even India now have a far more vibrant and prosperous middle class than the US. What is this rubbish. Its like a marxist poster boy.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:52 am |
    • Josh Rabatin

      Like I always say, never preach with a hammer.
      That as well goes with opinions and or how You Yourself is feeling and truly believes.

      Bashing unto someones beliefes is exactly like telling them that You do not approve of their clothing choice or
      their dating life.

      Yet only My humble opinion.

      Thank You.

      – Josh Rabatin

      December 24, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  4. Corinthia

    This is nice, I was a foster parent for a while. Its hard, really hard, and the kids have behavior and medical problems because of neglect. If I had been part of a church were 160 families were going through the same nightmare together, it might have been easier to get the kids help, and work through their past - so they could have a future. The counciling and therapy the kids need - could have been on the church campus ...

    There are so many foster kids - the state of Alabama must have been truly happy when this event happened. I'd like to see a story on how this helps the kids.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  5. Mike Hammersmith

    I love how you all have like these big long debates over some book some dude wrote. hilarious

    December 24, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  6. Rev-Henry Bates

    I respect what David Platt is teaching. Yet, I believe that if we only give to people then we don't teach them to sustain themselves. I believe that All Is G-d as it is written in the scriptures and therefore I don't believe that material wealth, or the seeking of material wealth is wrong. After all, the 160 people in his church who signed up to adopt or be foster parents to a child, had to have the financial means to do so. I believe that we can benefit the world in a greater way through success and prosperity than by sacrifice. And I don't believe sacrifice in and of itself is necessarily spiritual. The Master Mind Jesus taught: "give and be given to" ... both must be effected in order for us to feel justice and be at peace with what we do.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  7. L

    Excellent opinion piece. Thank you.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  8. E. Honda

    This is what christianity should be, and really is. God smiles upon your operation and I am positive he is guiding you to further love and health around our pale blue dot.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  9. Brian

    I don't go to church so I don't have this guys problem.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  10. Joe

    Do atheist people love there family? If they do I demand scientific proof. If they can't it's all fake kinda like a fairy tale.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:27 am |
    • ybs

      Joe, you can barely make sense and you demand scientific proof? BTW, it's "love their" and not "love there."

      December 24, 2010 at 3:10 am |
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      January 5, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  11. ben

    cheers to david johnson!

    December 24, 2010 at 12:23 am |
  12. Spijder

    The only problems I have with what he says is the quote he gives defining the American Dream.. it doesn't mention materialism, it mentions innate capabilities and 'attaining the fullest stature' of those capabilities really sounds more like living up to your full potential, using one's talents to their full potential. Isn't there a parable that urges the same?

    Then there is the sentence where he says "That meaning is found in community, not individualism." This disregards the fact that communities need their individuals. It is the individual that comes up with the ideas and innovations that the community takes and runs with. Those things don't just occur simultaneously to the entire community. The community that discourages individuality discourages it's own growth and denies it's vitality. Of community and individualism, neither exists long without the other.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  13. Wiscofella

    I'm not religious, but I see the logic and the compassion in your article Pastor Platt. The American Dream is a selfish and empty goal. We need to care about our neighbors.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  14. WMesser58

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    It's sad that anyone would use a fairy tale to try and shame others. Although, I guess if you want to pretend to be better you have to let others know instead of just doing what you think is the right thing to do.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:14 am |
  15. Philly In The House

    @David Johnson,

    Wow, you really do prove verse Psalms 14:1 in the bible. Let me say this to you and everyone else that thinks as you do as coherently as I can. The almighty GOD is just as real as the nose on your face and the air you breath. Not because of what I believe or even by what I say. You know why? Very simple. Because of something I am absolutely sure you haven't had that myself and billions of other christians have had for centuries. What is that? A true personal experience with GOD. You are nobody more than another person as I am to have to prove anything to. And what if I did prove that GOD exists to you? Does that mean he NOW exists because your egotistical mind is now convinced? You can't be serious. It's not my job or any Christian's job to prove to you that GOD exists. It's my job as a christian to let my light shine by the life I live daily. And to plant a seed through witnessing.

    But anyone that truly has a personal experience with GOD never forgets it, and knows that what they experienced is as true as the truth can get. Me arguing with you or anyone else about the existence of GOD would be as dumb as me debating with you for 3 hours that your name is David. Now who would look like the bigger fool; me saying your name is Jack for 3 hours, or you trying to convince me that your name is not Jack for 3 hours?

    And last let me say this, I PERSONALLY know people that have been COMPLETELY healed through the power of Jesus Christ from incurable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other terminal diseases, verified by board certified physicians. I've seen miracles. If you don't believe, fine, your opinion doesn't define what happened. But please don't think for a minute that science, philosophy, mathematics, and whatever else supercedes the reality of GOD's existence. There are plenty of christians around the world that are helping people daily in need, but of course that doesn't make for a good headline in the daily news like a scandal. And of course people such as yourself are salivating over any type of false defamatory gossip to support your personal bias towards GOD and the church anyway.

    You can't refute what you haven't experienced, unless you cherish being a complete idiot. If you've never had a true encounter with GOD, then just say you don't know. I even had a Vietnam Veteran once tell me "there aren't no atheists in a foxhole", and he told me he wasn't a Christian!

    Don't keep talking pure ignorance about something that billions of people have all experienced for themselves, but you think it's wrong just because you aren't one of those persons having the same experience. Trust me, you're the one that's completely wrong with this one, whether you like it or not, or accept it. GOD's existence has absolutely not an ounce to do with what you or I say or do. He's GOD just because he is. It's as simple as that.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:11 am |
    • ybs

      He's not GOD just because he is not. It's as simple as that.

      If you haven't drunk the kool-aid, you wouldn't have recited the same gibberish.

      Sheep are sheep! It's as simple as that. 🙂

      December 24, 2010 at 1:14 am |
    • Lily

      Plenty of people have had personal experiences of Allah, and Krishna, and any other god or goddess you'd care to name. Plenty of people believe those gods have healed them, or saved them in a crisis. So, why should I take your experience as being more valid than theirs? Or, that of someone who has never had what they see as a supernatural experience, and therefore doesn't believe in a deity or deities at all?

      December 24, 2010 at 8:46 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Philly In The House

      And last let me say this, I PERSONALLY know people that have been COMPLETELY healed through the power of Jesus Christ from incurable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other terminal diseases, verified by board certified physicians.

      Source: Some Thoughts About Faith Healing by Stephen Barrett, M.D.
      The notion that prayer, divine intervention or the ministrations of an individual healer can cure illness has been popular throughout history. Miraculous recoveries have been attributed to a myriad of techniques commonly lumped together as "faith healing. During the past forty years, several investigators have studied this subject closely and written about their findings.

      Louis Rose, a British psychiatrist, investigated hundreds of alleged faith-healing cures. As his interest became well known, he received communications from healers and patients throughout the world. He sent each correspondent a questionnaire and sought corroborating information from physicians. In Faith Healing [Penguin Books 1971], he concluded, "I have been unsuccessful. After nearly twenty years of work I have yet to find one 'miracle cure'; and without that (or, alternatively, massive statistics which others must provide) I cannot be convinced of the efficacy of what is commonly termed faith healing."

      Prayer does not work. There is no god.

      Love and Prayers!

      December 24, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  16. Faith

    I was so beyond disinterested when I clicked this article, almost clicked back out, but... you really said some good things. Amazing that your church leapt right into adoption/fostering to help the children, really wonderful..

    December 24, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  17. a

    Is there proof that jesus did/didn't exist? REAL answers, please no bible verses...

    December 24, 2010 at 12:07 am |
  18. a

    Is there proof that jesus did not exist? Is there proof that he did? REAL answers, here, no verses!

    December 24, 2010 at 12:07 am |
  19. Jenny

    I applaud you and your church's determination to do good works. But may I remind you that there are people doing good works and making sacrifices in every religion. Christians do not have a monopoly on doing good. Also, the American Dream was about working hard in order to make a good life for one's family. The current constant drive for materialistic things is not the American Dream. The American Dream and the act of doing good works to help other people are not mutually exclusive.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:06 am |
  20. States Right Republican

    As a Sam Kinison, David Iche Gene Scott Ashatar Command Christian. Church requires two essential truths. One you must become republican. No republican membership, no Jesus cookie. just the facts maam. 2nd you must speak in slogans and respond only to certain words. Four letter words such as effort, education, brains, math, heart, book except for the bible immediatly kick you into the world of Satan. and reading is a sin unless its the Bible or Rick Warren's books or Timothy La Hates Series. Just a fact as christians the economy or poverty or those people who have the audacity to stop us from gutting their public school education just need to be exposed to be Gawd Haters. Is worthy of the Baptist Inquisition and we need to form this group now to stop this heathen group of arrogant non right thinking people. Begin to make collars for your heathen brothers, cousins, ex wives, interfaith pastors. These people are a malignancy against Gawd and they deserve to meet Baptist horror.

    December 24, 2010 at 12:05 am |
    • von Stemwede

      Hmmm...Funny, the Christians I taught with in Afghanistan were the best educated, most well-read group of people I have ever met - and most of them were Baptist. Perhaps you are just prejudiced.

      December 24, 2010 at 12:40 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.