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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. Scott

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

    December 24, 2010 at 6:41 am |
  2. Josh R.

    I say faithfully not for the word or the term to be contaminated by personal judgement but by the inner being of
    all good people in which I still and forever will believe is alive today for as long as You and I breath the same level of air.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:34 am |
  3. Josh R.

    This article alone is questioning our maker and Your own beliefs of the true god...opinions are by all means neccessary for their different point
    of view from the mind of each individual which is always acceptable to corruption and or (Comfortably lazy) to allow a full census by the people.

    One flag We should all be united under, his flag.

    for those of You who ask who He is...You needn't but look into a mirror.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:21 am |
  4. Martin A. Smith

    To me, this is what church should be about. Collectively, we can accomplish much!

    December 24, 2010 at 6:19 am |
    • Josh R.

      Yes.

      December 24, 2010 at 6:22 am |
  5. ramtruck2500

    I have read thearticle and wow what a bag of crap! Pure and simple. This church is still exlcusionary as far as gays go. therefore only accepting of the pure and its charitable actions are with other groups of the same big box american calvinist vien. There is nothing in it at all except the surface that helps anyone except who they hand pick. man oh man and you wonder why people dont go to church??? And spare me the old testament quote slip backs for hand picked support. wow

    December 24, 2010 at 6:16 am |
    • S. Bonner

      They are trying to do something good - which is far more than what an be said of so many others out there, regardless of whether the organization is a church or not.

      It is NOT possible to help EVERYONE on Earth with 500k. You have to start somewhere. Baby steps.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:25 am |
  6. mark

    Well said David Platt – I stopped going to church because I could not find one that didn't make the building fund or sending a group of kids in the church to some wonderful place. It's great to know that there are Christian communities out there who "get it" – Christ couldn't care less about national boundaries for example. Expand your sphere of influence to the entire globe and anything is possible. Fewer kids go to bed hungry for instance...

    December 24, 2010 at 6:13 am |
    • mark

      should have read ... the building fund or sending kids... the #1 priority.

      December 24, 2010 at 6:14 am |
  7. dwighthuth

    That's all I ever hear coming from religion is how someone else wants a person to be. Why would someone want to be like someone else wants them to be. First off the practice is social engineering into a state of Communism. Secondly the goal of being like someone else wants you too be is making yourself out as a puppet. A puppet whose strings can be pulled for the enjoyment of puppet master who makes your legs dance up and down while the money comes dancing out of your pocket and into their hands.

    No thank you.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:12 am |
  8. Someone

    The American Dream is what ever you want it to be, materialistic or not. The thing I have against some parts of Christianity and this part of the reason I left is trying to to covert everyone to it and giving money to other countries. Hey guess what, people are having problems over here, why not donate the money to people in your own country to so they can have a nice holiday or be able to put food on the table in general. Stop giving money to other countries where the people are mostly poor due to ineffective governments and poor resources. If those people want out of there or have a better life, they need to work for it and earn it.

    While I think the adoption thing is respectable, not everyone is going to be adopted or can be adopted. The whole of idea of every child in adoption needs a home, is a sense not possible. It is like the concept of yin and yang one opposite and other. There are going to be those who can't or won't be adopted and it has to stay that way for the balance of opposites.

    If you work hard and buy stuff you like what so wrong about having things? I always feel good when I purchase something and I know I earned it. I don't feel so good when I get stuff and I know I didn't earn it.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:09 am |
  9. Sarah

    I'm glad to have read an opinion article like this. While I often get bombarded by news articles on how the Dems and Republicans are facing off, and how we're facing an economic crisis, and everything else going wrong in the world... I am glad to see that at least one church out there has gained the courage to take the first real steps to change. I feel ashamed sometimes when I see so many unjust and greedy decisions made in our country in the name of God and what gets labelled the "religious right".

    In order to fix this run-a-way train in which the average American thinks he's being a good red-blooded American Christian by telling the poor man he deserves to be where he is or that he isn't responsible for his community in any way, or that it's okay to destroy the gifts God has given us... change MUST start at the heart of it all - in the church.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:58 am |
  10. hal9thou

    I'm so glad I have other charitable alternatives to donate my time/money to that don't think the recipients need to hear that Jesus is doing it for them.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:57 am |
  11. Greg

    Why does god kill babies?

    December 24, 2010 at 5:41 am |
  12. B Reed

    I really hope those 150 or 160 families who originally registered were checked out carefully. Statistics tell us that, historically, less than 50% of persons who volunteer for foster care are actually qualified (socially, psychologically, and financially) to serve in the very important capacity. If this guy had 150 persons volunteer, I will be willing to bet that less than half would pass the tests. This whole article is just such a snow job!

    December 24, 2010 at 5:21 am |
  13. warrior63

    @David Platt,

    that was a great article. Thank you for that, its nice to hear a pastor really take the Bible to heart. In your quest to help the needy, please recognize the needy in the US. Dont forget the hatred of Saul before his conversion, lots of people hate what they don't understand. Most people don't understand Jesus Christ. They rebell against him because they resent what he represents. Death to sin. They cant imagine themselves without their sin and fight against a God who proclaims it to be very bad and the end of it is death. They see other "Christians" being hateful towards others and think that is what Christianity is all about; being judgemental and condeming.

    It is the Holy Spirit that convicts the world of their sin, its not the job of Christians to do that.

    Christians are supposed to express their joy in their forgiveness and by that joy other people are drawn to them. American Christians are failing God by being harsh and vindictive. If American Christians instead kept expressing their joy in their forgiviness, the general public wouldn't think they are 'holier than thou' but just forgiven of their sins, that they are sinners like everybody else.

    That is the real message of the cross, that even though we are sinners we can be forgiven. Even though we are forgiven, we will sin again and seek forgiveness again and again and again.

    American Christians think if we have money, then we are blessed by God. If any Christian is broke and poor, then God is unhappy with them and they are very big sinners. Nothing could be further from the truth. American Christians act as if money is a stamp of approval from God. i Timothy 6:10 "For the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves wtih many a pang." Jesus said, "You can not serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches." Matthew 6:24

    I believe American Christians need to recognize how far they have wandered away from the truth and draw back into the fold of the Savior. Its almost as if they need to be born again. I hope you reach them.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:13 am |
  14. B Reed

    So, Dr. Platt, exactly how did you arrive at the conclusion that you - and you alone, apparently - have all the answers? I certainly approve of some of your ideas (anti-materialism, for instance), but, on the other hand, I question your specific ability to extract the certain truths from all Jesus' teachings. To me, you are just like all the other one-hit wonders. The odds are in favor of standing with the ideas as proposed by those long ago that have survived during the years. I am Episcopalian.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:13 am |
  15. guestspeaker

    As a non-American, I was always confused by the rampant consumerism and anti-socialism in the US, a country where 40% of people believe that the earth is only 6000 years old.

    Free health care for everyone: (like Canada, UK, Denmark, Australia....) "No way! I want that extra tax money to buy a big screen TV! The poor can pray to be healed if they can't afford a doctor!"

    However, Americans are very generous: they donate a LOT of money each year. Nobody doubts their good intentions. Unfortunately, it seems to go to mega churches rather than into investing in the things that really matter.

    Strange contradiction I just can't figure out.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:12 am |
  16. remymarco

    You are truly an enlightened christian. Unlike so many christians that are more interested in bending others to their own self serving ideology than to the philosophy of Jesus Christ. The christian community as it stands in American today is corrrupt, twisted and hypocrtical to its core. I am not a religious person but people like you give me hope that there are honest, righteous people of goodwill who are less interested in controlling others than they are of helping relieve the pain and suffering of those less fortunate.

    December 24, 2010 at 5:02 am |
  17. Sriram

    Hi Everyone, I agree with everything in the article about giving up materialism, the futility of the 'American Dream', having better priorities and so on. What is worrying however, is the entire focus on Jesus. This could easily become fanatical and lead to the exceses that Christianity in the past is so famous for. There are more people in this world who do not believe in Jesus (or even know about him) than those who believe in him. I think the focus should be on the Inner Spirit rather than on personalities like Jesus or Mohammad. That would be more appropriate and also more acceptable across the world.

    December 24, 2010 at 4:54 am |
  18. God's child

    Most of what is being said is very judgemantal. God decides what is forgivable. I have good news for you. The only thing not forgivable is failing to believe that Christ is the son of God and then to committing to serve Him. Christians are people. And every person is different than the one sitting next to him. So to group us all under the "Religion" is inaccurate. I hate hipocracy and I think I know it when I see it. Giving of your money and having it end there is not of God. I feel like the purpose of this article has been lost in the comments. This church stepped out beyond just throwing money at problems. They went into the world and worked. God knows the heart of men and will judge them accordingly. But what God wants for us is to live for him from where we are, too. Are we wrong if we don't go to a forign country or make a vow of poverty? No, but if we neglect our fellow man by keeping our money and time only for ourselves, we are wrong. Don't mistake me for someone who wants to keep what I have and not feel guilty. I'm losing my home and have difficulty feeding my family properly. But does this mean I am exempt from giving? No. Jesus had the clothes on his back, but God also gave Soloman his riches. We are a diverse little planet. Where you live does not determine how God loves you. Each of us should share our riches in Christ. That means giving of yourself, not just of your money, if you are blessed enough to have any. : )

    December 24, 2010 at 4:49 am |
    • Josh R.

      Wisdom from words such as those are what has kept The bible and hope alive through all these dark riddled times.

      Thank You.

      December 24, 2010 at 7:39 am |
  19. Sriram

    Hi Everyone, I agree with everything in the article about giving up materialism, the futility of the 'American Dream', having better priorities and so on. The only thing that is a little worrying is the entire focus on Jesus. This could easily become fanatical and lead to the excesses that Christianity in the past is famous for. There are more people in the world who do not believe in Jesus than those who do. All these people are not godless people. I think it would be wiser to focus on the Inner Spirit than on a person like Jesus or Mohammad. That would be more appropriate and also more acceptable.

    December 24, 2010 at 4:47 am |
  20. Jane

    Wow, another victim of mass delustion thinking HE knows exactly what Jesus really had in mind. Hope it makes you feel better about yourself because isn't that really the point?

    December 24, 2010 at 4:40 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.