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. Dr Bill Toth

    Many of the Bible's 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 and we live in a very abundant world. Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    December 24, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  2. NonPCrealist

    "God is saying to us that real success is found in radical sacrifice."

    Where have we heard this and the other dangerous rhetoric in this article before.. hrm... oh, and 'thanks' for making sure as many of the vulnerable kids in your county as you can will be brainwashed minions! Moar soldiers for Jesus!

    December 24, 2010 at 7:43 am |
  3. John Q.

    I'm sorry. I lost all interest in the article when I read about how this church is sending thier money and charitable intentions to others in the world. What ever happened to take care of your own first? How about all the starving, homeless, abandoned children in THIS country. Why don't we focus on our own people first? When we clean up own backyard, perhaps we can concentrate better on the other yards in the neighborhood.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:42 am |
    • Josh Rabatin

      Well said.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  4. sean

    "And man created God in his own image." We use the Bible to validate believing what we WANT to believe. Want to kill? Feed the poor? Get rich? Give comfort to the afflicted? Start an Aryan nation? Love your fellow man? Have slaves? You can use the Bible to justify anything you want to.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:39 am |
  5. Joe

    Jews made Christianity to control non-Jews.
    It's main message is that Jews are the chosen.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:38 am |
  6. D. Bag

    I have an adopted sister who has grown up to be very successful and happy. I also have adopted cousins who were abused as children by their biological parents and seem to have never rebounded from this. My aunt was totally distraught for years about the lives a few of her children took but having said that they are adults and have made their own decisions. Regardless of what they chose to do as adults, they received a loving home and family in their adolescense and that is far better than they would have received from their biological parents or some state run home.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:37 am |
  7. Joe

    The writer of this article shows the danger of following the Jewish created Abrahamic religions. Christianity was a tool made by Jews to control non-Jews. It got out of control for hundreds of years and they tried to destroy their 'Frankenstein', but now they have it back under control. Hence the radical changes in official church doctrine in more recent years. The wolves control the sheeple with this tool. They took a bunch of much older proverbs, and interwove a tale that borrowed heavily from previous religions. They burned a trail across Europe killing and force converting. They destroyed the original religions of Europe, and later wreaked destruction across the globe. The Bible tells us the Jews are the chosen ones. Think about it for a minute sheeple...

    December 24, 2010 at 7:36 am |
  8. Spain

    @David Johnson... I myself have my problems with Christianity/Religion/Belief in God at times, but I have to say the your fallacies are abundant in your comments. Just a few things that made my blood boil...

    For one, you blame this God that you don't believe to exist for all the cruel things in the world, and point out how lousy he is for not performing a miracle. A belief in an all-powerful God would mean that this being has the possibility of saving every human from death and destruction, but it doesn't mean he is morally obligated. Especially if he gave us free will and designed the Earth the work as a mechanism. Cruel people kill people (hence the poverty and war) and mother nature kills people (hence the natural disasters mentioned). Maybe a true miracle, something much more significant than the physical realm is that this God would create us and make it possible for us to live with him in an eternal paradise (yeah, sounds out there, but a pretty interesting proposition). I think believers and Atheists are the same when it comes to this. Believers like to accredit the good things to their God and blame man for the bad things, and Atheists tend to accredit the good things to man and point out how the believer's supposed god is an a**hole for letting the bad happen.

    As far as your interpretation of the Bible... Just because Jesus didn't say something, doesn't mean he didn't believe it or think it. You can't debunk him because of what he didn't say. (Just like I can't say I believe in God because you can't disprove him). As far as the divinity of the book is concerned... It's written by man and God. It's obvious that the authors (and the authors are known very well, it's not like some bum off the street just decided to create a religion one day) had a divine understanding of concepts, but at the same time, they wrote in their cultural context. Just like a Christian from the USA and a Christian from China might have different philosophies, but their fundamental beliefs should be the same.

    But hey, there's so much we all don't know, and so much we would like to know. I guess that's human nature (or a God-given desire?).

    December 24, 2010 at 7:36 am |
  9. Marc Simone

    I do not believe that sacrifice is the key to anything. I do not accept that materialism is bad. I do not accept that our hard earned wealth should have to be shared with anyone, unless it is our wish to share it. And for which we get an emotional return. In short, I categorically disagree with the entire premise that readical self-sacrifice is a good thing or a desirable thing. I believe we do the most good by pursuing vigorous self-improvement. I believe greed is good. I believe rational self-interest drives the most people out of poverty as a result of its inherent goodness. I also find the anti-American tone of this article to be an evil thing. I reject the morality that proclaims it is wrong to enjoy the wonderful material progress that life in America makes possible.

    In short, the philosophy of sacrifice is an evil philosophy that needs to be exposed for what it truly is: an instrument of power that some men use to dominate others.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:35 am |
    • S. Bonner

      I believe you are a spoilt brat who was hasn't walked in many different shoes, and has no concept of the advancement of human culture, nor the respect for quality of life. I believe you belong in Feudal Europe.

      December 24, 2010 at 9:31 am |
    • Josh Rabatin

      For that is why opinions as many other things are a luxory bequthed unto us for us all to realize that it takes 3 legs for the
      tripod to stand.

      Yet again only My humble opinion.

      Thank You.

      – Josh Rabatin

      December 24, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  10. Mike M

    Excellent article! It's always an inspiration to see those who do their best, sacrificing their own comfort and self indulgence at times, to help others in need. An example we all should follow!

    December 24, 2010 at 7:35 am |
  11. Bill

    There's NOTHING refreshing about a church in Texas.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:33 am |
  12. Josh R.

    Anyone who may notice a spelling error or so, it is every early if You will please excuse Me.

    Thank You.

    – Josh Rabatin

    December 24, 2010 at 7:30 am |
  13. JennyTX

    This news story is refreshing. Here in Texas, churches spend lots and lots of their people's money remodeling and expanding their own church buildings. Wouldn't that money be better spent on charity??

    December 24, 2010 at 7:19 am |
  14. Gary

    It is a beautiful thing when spirituality and religion can come together, so often that is not the case. Religion can and does provide Good Orderly Direction (GOD) to millions of people. Striving to be a better human, doing the next right thing and being of service to others is spirituality and is not exclusive to religion. Religion at its best provides a beautiful blue print for living. At its worst religion it can be controlling, self-rightous and judgemental. This story gives me hope and shows me that religion can rise to the occasion and live up to its creed. One does not have to be religious to believe in a loving God.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:16 am |
    • Josh R.

      Thank You.

      December 24, 2010 at 7:23 am |
  15. Katie

    I'm an atheist, but if more Christians were like you and your church, the world would be a much better place.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:02 am |
    • Josh R.

      I do not have a church for Mine is not for this earth.

      Thank You Katie, if so allowed by themselves more people could undertake the same understanding as to allow hope to surface
      unto true inner happiness.

      December 24, 2010 at 7:10 am |
    • Josh R.

      I do not have a church for Mine is not of this earth.

      I meant of this earth...it is very early I apologize.

      December 24, 2010 at 7:11 am |
    • Gary

      One does not need to be Christian nor do they need subscribe to any religious belief system to be spiritual and to have a loving God in their lives. Most atheists just think their atheists. When actually they really do believe in something.

      December 24, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  16. Josh R.

    Anyone who should speak of such things as "beating off" shall also undertake the knowing that this is and for You Yourself
    could very will be one of the many pleasure as well as food and air that has been bestowed upon Us.

    December 24, 2010 at 7:00 am |
  17. Josh R.

    The Bible is not to be preached with a hammer...It should be read by one.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:55 am |
  18. Adoptive Mom

    This is the very first instance I have seen of any church or pro-life group stepping up and actually doing something for kids rather than just sitting back and judging. Bravo! This is fantastic.

    Adoption is advanced citizenship. All too many families get into without being spiritually developed enough to truly accept someone different from themselves. If more people could really get there, it could save the world. Really.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:48 am |
    • Josh R.

      The church should not have to stand up...God stands up for them.

      I humbly believe in Your inner means of true happiness however, You are good hearted by all means.

      December 24, 2010 at 7:17 am |
  19. Josh R.

    I'd like to know if anyone here has ever went to school?

    I have and I sure remember it My first day as being something completely out of scedule.
    I mean by this that I did not know what I was getting into but by our just beliefs in our parent We went.
    Amazing I think, that We had know idea what We were getting into but our makers our parent said it was safe and We
    went with a stranger on to wherever...in saying that I will with an utmost certainty call that devine by all means.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:48 am |
  20. Josh R.

    I will say this for the non-believers not putting You into a sub category of lessar mortals because that is not My right
    all because I am allowed to it...anyone who ever taught anything to anyone has always had to
    in a their own kind way explain with Your heart what You believe and feel, I do not however believe in harsh heavy handed words
    being placed upon them as if to deserve such punishment for their own beliefs.

    I will say that at least it is such a beautiful thing that out of all the great pieces of literature that has flourished through
    the ages, the bible is the most renowned...I am not meaning that as a way of saying this is a popularity contest because
    those who are once beautiful and what might seem like an ageless miracle grow old as well and so does their knowledge.

    December 24, 2010 at 6:42 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.