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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. David, Tampa

    How on earth did all this trash come to be written under such a wonderful concept of Christainty in the USA. This man and his church are surely going in the right direction.

    December 24, 2010 at 4:37 am |
  2. anonym

    it's good that religious folks show some generosity.

    but you don't need religion to be a kind, generous person.

    December 24, 2010 at 4:26 am |
  3. ybs

    @Paulie
    No worries – every Vatican folk beats off! Wanna bet? 🙂

    Now, don't forget to touch yourself before hitting the sac tonight! Enjoy & happy holidays!

    Note: I don't give a fakk about your religious beliefs or god, or the lack thereof! 🙂

    December 24, 2010 at 4:13 am |
  4. stuff2ponder

    God bless! It's churches like these that make me proud to be Christian. I still think there's hope for us here yet!

    December 24, 2010 at 4:06 am |
  5. Vince

    I am a Jew. The Torah is a blueprint for an ethical life. Tzedakah, meaning righteousness, fairness or justice is an obligation to perform charity. Tikkun olam, meaning world repair, committing oneself to solving the world's problems. Maybe studying your Jewish roots, Tanakh and Talmud, would help with Christian indecisiveness on how to better serve G-d.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:59 am |
    • warrior63

      @ Vince – Did you know that Jesus was a Jew? Did you know that there are three hundred prophises about the coming King? One even describes his place of birth. Its in the Torah.

      December 24, 2010 at 5:22 am |
    • warrior63

      Jesus fulfilled all three hundred prophesies.

      December 24, 2010 at 5:23 am |
  6. taxpayinghorse

    I loved this article. It is a testimony to what our priorities should be. I am seeking a Church that is like this in Tallahassee, Florida. I have been looking for a long time. I still go to Church most every Sunday but the Church I go to sure doesn't have this fire for God going on. If anyone knows of a good Church like this one in Tallahassee I would love to hear about it at: taxpayinghorse@yahoo.com
    Imagine if the world worked together with the same goals mentioned in the article with everyone being totally obediate to God, it would be Heaven.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:52 am |
  7. Just an FYI

    Everytime you here someone of the faith say that God wishes you to live sacrifically, remember "the Vatican", "bulletproof limos", and "Washington lobbyists." There are exceptions to the general rule, but the greater organization of religion knows no limit to excesses.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:35 am |
  8. John

    I appreciate that socialism is being explored by the religious. I don't understand how the general population is so anti socialist and so pro Jesus. We have a responsibility to take care of the others in our community and these days the community is humanity. Please continue this an push for functioning social structures that have the funds to thrive so both of Rudedog's kids would have not just family support, but social support. When was the last time anyone heard of a school system with an excess budget of half a million dollars?

    December 24, 2010 at 3:35 am |
  9. Gene

    I find this article to be very dangerous and foolish. It is not selfish too put yourself and your family first. How can you help others if you do not help yourself? Am I the only person who has very taken a plane ride? What do they say if the airbags drop? Thats good advice not for just airplanes but for life. This nut job in his very first paragraph says:

    "A nice middle-class American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and would never call us to give away everything we have.
    – Thats right David Jesus would never call on ALL of us to give away everything we have. That honor is reserved for those who have the calling. They are the apostles of christ and it is a vow that is taken only when you are called and no we are not all called.

    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."

    – How many times in the bible is Jesus refered to as the shepard and we his flock? We are Lambs unto God and a good shepard would NEVER put his flock in danger and would at all costs have them avoid dangerous extremes. Have you never read this verse
    "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD"

    Yes if you have the abilty then you should give, but it is this sort of talk that cons those who can not afford to give to send in money that they really should keep for themselves.

    Jesus called for all of us to be believers and followers. He did not however call on all of us to be apostles. That calling is for a select few that God has deemed as worthy for a life of service. The rest of us are simply called to love each other and treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and be a lamb in his flock.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:27 am |
  10. MM

    If people read the Bible it does not say that God calls every person to be the same and to do the same. We are all individuals blessed with different talents and the ability to achieve. I don't know why so many Christians talk about they server the King and yet they feel they have to live in poverty. The Bible clearly stats that it is God who gives man the ability to gain wealth. So, should a Christian reject what God wants for them. If God calls you to live in poverty then so be it, but don't put it on all Christians that they too should live in poverty because that is a misguided representation of who God is.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:22 am |
  11. Sahari

    @ David Johnson and those who argue against him:

    Of course there is no 'God" if we believe that 'God' should be responsible for our choices and the ripple effects our choices make. How COULD one find or prove God if one cannot imagine that the very IDEA of 'innocent victim' is an illusion, or consider that God exists outside the paradigm that we insist upon.

    The beauty part of all this is that everyone has a RIGHT to their own truth, for their own truth is who they are, and the path they walk. The fact that all roads lead to the same place is comforting, even, because it says that it ALL works WITH OR WITHOUT our agreement. The fact that we share the Earth at this time, and are in painful disagreement must mean something, and everyone is free to draw their own conclusions, and choose actions accordingly.

    Whether you believe in God or not, it the saying "seek and ye shall find" seems true anyway. If you want drugs, you'll find them. If you want God, you'll find Him. If you want love, you'll find it. If you want to help someone else, you'll find someone to help. If you want to be someone great and don't understand why you're not (in others' eyes) then perhaps you need to take a deeper look at what you want so your search can be more on point, more truthful.

    It's all here, we've just forgotten how to connect.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:11 am |
    • MM

      Clearly, you don't belong here.

      December 24, 2010 at 3:25 am |
  12. Mark

    @ David Johnson

    You must believe in Reincarnation. You sound like an old angry man so if I make that assumption there is a good chance you will die before me. I hope you come back as a dog or cat which would make for a good pet with a lot of spunk.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:10 am |
    • ybs

      You sound more angry & venomous than DJ! Worse, your logic sucks! Get back to reading your bible and, if you get bored, beating off! 🙂

      December 24, 2010 at 3:52 am |
  13. Kevin

    Churches give them aid in exchange for a new following, right? Look up the terms Neocolonialism or neoimperialism. Then look at exactly which countries these churches are "helping." They are usually so poor directly due to the imperialism of "Christian" nations throughout history. You want to do real good work? Help them rebuild their own cultures. Stop encouraging them to forget where they came from. Stop doing it in the name of your god and do it because it's right.

    December 24, 2010 at 3:01 am |
  14. Andrew D

    I would give my life for him unconditionally, I have been given such inner peace that I never could get from any other , seen or unseen, I am the proof of his existance , love , and wisdom. From the darkness I have been brought out anew. May you nay sayers be so blessed.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:59 am |
  15. steve

    Stv2k@
    Whyohwhy

    "Hey, I was adopted and so was my sister and we are bother very thankful; I will be completing my PhD in epidemiology soon to hopefully do the same sorts of things described in this article... so BITE ME! it's not our fault you are lousy parents'

    how does a PhD = good morals, good person , success, happy, complete?....enjoy your rude awakening.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:52 am |
  16. Timburr

    If you were to see a man today turning water into wine, would you consider him to be the rebirth of christ, or just some guy doing a magic trick?

    December 24, 2010 at 2:51 am |
    • ybs

      David Copperfield could do it! So, chances are it's a trick! 🙂

      Though, nowadays we could turn hydrogen into helium. What would you consider him/her to be?

      December 24, 2010 at 3:47 am |
  17. Dr RatstaR

    Did your church also preach birth control to these people, who, like the old woman who lived in a shoe, had so many children she did not know what to do?
    Planned Parenthood helps prevent abortion.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:50 am |
  18. Brainy Yak

    Good job, buddy! But good luck getting other Christians to realize that message. I quit going to church when I realized that, just like at school, I was an outcast there because my family was poor. That was 25 years ago, and I haven't looked back. If there is a god, he's doing a poor job of managing his followers to let some of the church related stuff that I've seen happen – not to mention the big stuff that makes the papers.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:34 am |
  19. notsurprised

    If you are a believer in God, are grateful to God for the life you have, and you are kind to others & help people, I don't see any problem with materialism. Buying things for yourself, which you earned for yourself – isn't anyone else's business and whether your keep these things or gift them to other people is your choice.. and there's no obligation to give. On the other hand, the churches that preach this materialism speech are the same ones that go on TV begging for money, build the 8M$ mansions for the head of the church, pay for their escorts and nights on the town – all at the church-goers expense. "Don't live in shame – send us your money instead! Oh yeah, god says thanks in advance." Some sort of mental illness enriches the lot of these people and their followers – none of them deserve any pity.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:24 am |
  20. walt

    Until we all start talking about what is going on in physical reality, vast amounts of time and resources are being wasted on debates about whose mythology (reality, beliefs, mindset, world view, customs, religion, upbringing, etc) is superior and must be defended and fought for. God god god, Jesus jesus jesus, Mohammed, mohammed, mohammed, Jew jew jew, Atheist, atheist, atheist. Shut up!! 80,000 years ago we were all crawling from cave to cave. 700 years ago it didn't look like we as a race were going to survive at all (see medieval history). We all need to love and appreciate all those that came before each one of us. And that means treating each other in the here and now like we're true brothers and sisters, not enemies and antagonists in some hypothetical fight for who's right and wrong. Since we all occupy the same space and time, let's get along and help each other. It's really that simple.... -isms be damned.

    December 24, 2010 at 2:24 am |
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About this blog

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.