October 19, 2017

IM Book Review: The “Radical” Approach: Missio Dei, or Wretched Urgency?

By Chaplain Mike

I both loved and was troubled by David Platt’s bold, clear book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. It’s an impressive first effort, but I have my concerns.

For starters, the author must be deemed a prodigy. I mean, the guy was in his mid-20’s when he was called to pastor The Church at Brook Hills, in Birmingham, AL, which now has over 4000 members! Platt has two undergraduate and three graduate degrees, has served as Dean of Chapel and Assistant Professor of Expository Preaching and Apologetics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and as Staff Evangelist at Edgewater Baptist Church in New Orleans. Now he pastors a wealthy suburban megachurch. He’s 31.

Michael Spencer expressed appreciation for Platt’s words to a national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention last year, calling him, “one of the young lions in the SBC who are changing the face of a denomination by dealing with the denominational idolatry that is our greatest problem.”

Then there is Platt’s church and the emphasis he is calling for among the people at Brook Hills, a congregation of over 4000 members and a multi-million dollar budget. Platt describes the church as, “a predominantly suburban congregation made up of middle-to-upper-class individuals and families trying to figure out how to forsake the American dream for the sake of Christ’s glory in all nations.” The Vision, Mission and Goal Statement of Brook Hills is a well-stated description of a church that desires to see itself more and more as a missionary organization, “a base of ministry, not a place of ministry.”

Platt seems ideally suited to lead such a congregation. He has traveled widely, ministering in some of the hard places around the world, including working with refugees in Sudan, the underground church in China, and serving in India and Indonesia. His book is filled with personal anecdotes from these global experiences, and it is obvious that he has been affected deeply by them. Platt and his wife have adopted orphaned children from overseas. He can speak credibly and with personal perspective to Americans about lifestyle issues, sacrifice, the persecuted church, and the world’s needs.

Platt is Bible-centered. He is passionate about preaching and teaching the Word of God. Listeners have been impressed with his grasp of the Scriptures and ability to communicate their message. In a 2009 CT interview, he stated his commitment: “God by his grace provided men in my life who poured the Word into me and taught me the supremacy of his Word, that any power in walking with Christ, even more so leading a church, is dependent on understanding God in his Word.” His chapter explaining the Gospel provides a clear (though simplistic) evangelical statement of the world’s need and Christ’s provision.

What’s not to like?

First of all, let me say wholeheartedly, there is a LOT to like. In my view, Platt should be commended for his commitment to the Bible, for his plain speaking about its implications for our (wealthy) American lifestyles, for his love for the world and enthusiastic call for the church to be a missionary people. He represents much that is right about evangelicalism.

I admire his courage in boldly challenging his comfortable suburban congregation to take clear, simple steps to help them break free from their attachment to the American Dream in order to make Christ known. “The Radical Experiment,” which originated in the Brook Hills church, and is outlined in the book, challenges us, over the course of a year, to:

  1. Pray for the entire world;
  2. Read through the entire Bible;
  3. Sacrifice your money for a particular purpose;
  4. Spend your time in another context;
  5. Commit your life to a multiplying community.

Stories throughout the book illustrate how individuals and families in the church have grasped the teaching and made significant changes, simplifying their lifestyles, practicing redemptive acts of service, going and sometimes moving overseas or into other needy areas to reach people with the gospel. Pastor Platt and his wife sold their house, downsized, adopted orphans, and by his own report are on a continuing journey to learn how to follow Jesus so that the world might be reached with his love and salvation.

Radical is a simple, clear, exhilarating, inspiring read with much to commend. However, I do have some thoughts on the concern side as well.

First, Platt’s book is characterized by the pure, kinetic zeal of radical youth. One almost hyperventilates reading it. He is so passionate, so earnest, so zealous and direct in making his points that Platt often comes close to Michael Spencer’s dreaded “Wretched Urgency,” an imbalanced enthusiasm lacking in perspective and nuance. It’s “saved to serve” for a new generation. But — how radical must I be to be truly radical? If the book is any indication, it’s pedal to the metal, 24/7. Not realistic, nor sustainable. I wish his vision was more specifically and deeply grounded in the Cross, grace, worship, contemplation, suffering, and spiritual formation, and his writing more tuned to the rhythm and pace of walking with Christ. Perhaps in time.

Second, Platt doesn’t say much about how this radical approach is affecting his church as an organization. In several places, he alludes to the disconnect readers may sense (and which he himself admits to having) between what he is saying and the fact that he pastors a rich suburban megachurch committed to impressive, comfortable facilities and a full program of activities. In the church’s vision statement, there is this goal: “We must become decreasingly dependent on ministries that require large budgets and large buildings,” but nowhere in Radical does he flesh that out. It is clear that Platt believes small groups are the “multiplying communities” out of which the radical mission is best lived, but beyond that, he says little about the actual community life of the congregation and how the church’s “lifestyle” may be changing because of this teaching. That would be especially helpful for other pastors reading this book.

Third, I can’t help but thinking that, to the American mind, Radical represents yet another form of spiritual technology designed to transform us as we apply it. It can come across as a program — One year + five practices = Result: transformation & impact. Platt is “methodistic” in his approach to faith and mission, Henry Ford-like in his pragmatism. The step-based motivational approach appeals to American practicality and love of the “how to” way of solving problems and “taking care of business.” He could do highly successful infomercials for missions. I felt a sense of dissonance at times reading about disengaging from the American Dream when the the alternative was being stated in such an “American Dream-like” style. Platt himself may be soaked in Scripture and have a broader world perspective, but one could see how followers might grab hold of the “program” and develop a gung-ho American type of zeal lacking depth or knowledge.

Conclusion
I recommend reading Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. It is invigorating and challenging.

If we accept this book as:

  1. the direct, passionate appeal of a gifted young Christ-follower
  2. who is on an ongoing journey of his own,
  3. who has God’s heart for the world,
  4. who has written these words specifically to American Christians,
  5. who need a strong introduction to the implications of the Gospel for their lifestyles,
  6. and who need to be challenged to deeper, more sacrificial involvement in God’s mission,

then it will serve a salutary purpose as one part of the move toward less churchianity and a more Jesus-shaped participation in the Missio Dei.

Comments

  1. There’s a pretty good chance that I’ll read it, applying if is another matter but that’s a problem between me and the Holy Spirit…..I’d have to say that RADICAL pushes the same buttons for me that ENGAGING THE CULTURE do for you. I’m pretty jaded on THIS IS THE METHOD for YOU !! I’m usually more hooked on folks that have very specific examples that chronicle an upsurge in the live of GOD for them, and then leave it for me to work out how that plays out in my context and life.

  2. This might be to your point about ‘spiritual technology’, at least it rang some kind of bell in me (maybne it’s my RC upbringing tho…. 🙂

    At our church, we recently went through a very intensive sermon series based on “Hope Lives” an excellent book by Amber Van Schooneveld outling her (and potentially our) path to global awareness and compassion. A worthy goal, timely topic, etc. etc…… and our church responded with over 60 “adoptions” thru Compassion International (my wife and I are now part of that to a young man in Ecuador)

    All that is great, and those kids/young adults will get very tangible help, but I cant’ help but feel that all is not as well as we pretend it is: specifically, I’m not sure there are more than a few dozen people that could give a solid explanation of , AND OUTLINE A SUSTAINABLE PLAN FOR, SPIRITUAL FORMATION. I don’t mean long, impressive quotes of Dallas Willard (though that’s cool in its own way) but the content of what he , and others , have written for the last 2000 yrs.
    I cant’ help but feel we are some kind of “compassion fad” that will wither in a yr or two…. to be replaced by the next big thing…..

    anyone else feel this way ???

  3. Hello Mike,
    Thank you for the review. I have several people in my life who’ve read this book and raved about it. I appreciate your insights. I look forward to reading it myself.
    Thanks,
    Jamie

  4. Quality review…It is always interesting to consider the writing of theologians in light of their stage in life and ministry. It is beautiful to remember that we are all on this “walk with Christ” and express that differently through our lives. It’d be fun to fast-forward a few years and interview Mr. Platt about this book.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” which he wrote at age 32. Do you sense a similar unsustainable unrealistic youthful zeal there?

    • Wow. I had forgotten that. No, I would call Bonhoeffer wise well beyond his years in “Life Together.” In fact, one of the primary points of the book is to squash an unhealthy idealism about church and Christian relationships.

  5. JoanieD says:

    Chaplain Mike…just seeing the words “Wretched Urgency” in your title made me feel anxious. I remember how Michael Spencer expressed the sense of wretched urgency that many Christians have. It is such a balance to figure out, sometimes, what we as Christian are supposed to do to be “witnesses” of Jesus and of the Kingdom of God. BUT…I think if we DO feel anxious, then that is an indication that it is NOT what God would want. Jesus told his disciples to not be afraid and that he was giving them his peace. So, I will rest in that knowledge.

    Thanks for your book review.

  6. I appreciate how much you emphasize the positives of this review as well as some cautionary notes. I’ve never heard of this guy but it sounds like his heart is on fire for Jesus and the Spirit is truly working in strengths and weaknesses. I’ve been in the disillusioned camp of most mega-church, commercialized, formulaic… Christianity for a long time. I also sense, tho I could be wrong, that God, in his severe mercy is not “showing up” in a lot of these endeavors to discipline his people.

    Yet, I also believe that the “radical” devotion some of these churches and leaders have for Christ is moving in and thru their methodologies or “formulas”. Perhaps, the Spirit is birthing and blessing both the means and the ends in this case. What gets many off track is when they now think they can market what God is doing there somewhere else, And even when this is not their intention (they are only sharing what God is doing in their midst), our market mindset gets other churches thinking they can somehow clone what can only be birthed from above.

  7. Sounds like it’s worth the read. There’s a lot that is attractive about fresh young and radical voices, and much that the church needs to hear. I also enjoyed “under the overpass” about a young believer who lived homeless intentionally for a year or more, I think. But I do agree about the question of sustainability and the church as an organization. Those things may come in time and with more maturity.

    Another thought that occurs to me is that it is really only the middle and upper middle class belivers who are beginning to worry, and rightly so, about the pitfalls of the American dream. That is a positive development for sure. At the same time, there is a whole other segment of believers in the lower middle class or poor strata of society who I think have realized for some time that the American dream is not in their future, and so is not really as important as it’s been made out to be.

  8. Mike,

    Good fair review. I am biased toward David’s book (not Andy’s – as you noted in paragraph 1), given that I understand the context he is dealing with in the SBC world we both emerged from and have seen for most of our lives. Evangelicalism on the popular level is immersed in the American dream (especially in the South and in Birmingham, AL) and it needs a good kick in the throat (the butt isn’t “radical” enough to illicit a response from most folks) that a young, idealistic guy like David brings.

    Secondly, I think Platt hasn’t been at his church long enough to see this movement trickle down to the full culture of the Church enough to give good hearty examples (the Church was already 4000 strong when he got there and its culture already firmly established), though he did provide one recently at his breakout session during Together For the Gospel. There he recounted how his staff is working step-by-step through the budget to cut out excess in order to use those funds for missions. The story was humorous in that one area he cut out was a third “snack-time” for preschoolers, which didn’t go over so well with his own preschool son (audio here: http://tiny.cc/pd8ph).

    Additionally, recently he asked his congregation to consider selling their homes and moving to a poor neighborhood nearby the Church in order to help revitalize and bring the Gospel to it (link here: http://tiny.cc/ug8q6).

    So, undoubtedly, I believe you are right in saying that it would be interesting to see how this viewpoint will transform his church in a few years and perhaps he is waiting to publish “Radical 2: The Sequel – How One Church Ditched the American Dream to Fulfil The Great Commission.” Who knows? Still, great review. Hopefully, this will lead to a more diverse group of people being interested in the book.

    • In case you’re interested, The Radical Experiment on Facebook ( http://ow.ly/1UpWg ) will sponsor a Q&A session w/ David Platt this Thursday, June 10,12pm CT. I’m sure he’d enjoy responding to your speculations.

  9. Where does the “radical” come in?

    Everybody ought to pray for the entire world and read the whole Bible. That’s not radical.

    Many property owners are downsizing now just because the housing market is slack and they can earn higher dividends elsewhere. Can we really call it radical Christian action if Edward Jones is recommending the same thing? It is admirable if he gave all the money from the sale of the house to some good cause (did he?) But if he gave it knowing there was a book deal in the works on top of his salary he wasn’t really giving until it hurt, was he?

    As to the adopted children, I know a full-time Christian worker who keeps several foster children and admits he does it for the stipend the State of California send along with each one. Adopting kids is not radical, either.

    I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m mean-spiritedly ascribing impure motives for every thing Platt did. I don’t know his motives and don’t mean to do that.

    What I’m saying is that his To do List is rather ordinary. People are doing those same things all the time. There is nothing on his list that would truly standout as an amazing testimony or sacrifice. What he’s really doing is handing out gold stars for participation and lowering the bar for self-contentment.

    The real radical Christians are people like Sarah Smith of Golders Green — people we’ll never hear of on this Earth.

    .

    • cermak_rd says:

      Well, I’ve never heard a reverend suggest to his flocks to sell their house and move closer to the church. I suspect because very few of the flock actually would in most cases unless it made sense to them for additional reasons other than because the reverend told us to.

      And while some may take in foster children for the stipend many more take them in to love them and bind up their wounds. It may not be radical, but it is an amazing display of love for humanity.

      If this reverend can get some of his members to downsize their housing, that might not be a bad thing. Even if they don’t give all the profits (if any) to a cause, they still may learn about living in less space and with less stuff. That could be immensely good for their families during these economically uncertain times. If these families get on a stabler financial footing (less debt) they may give more down the line as time goes on.

      Of course you can ask if having all the church members move into an area might cause gentrification, but the studies are unclear on whether gentrification hurts or helps the original inhabitants of the neighborhood.

  10. Interesting. I’m not an evangelical, so these discussions are interesting to me from the outside. One thing that occurs to me: Chaplain Mike or anybody else, have you ever read anything from St Francis of Assisi or St Anthony of Padua? They addressed all the issues you mentioned, from radical commitment to Christ, applications in the world in a celibate and family life and how to deal with the rest of the world while nurturing your own relationship with Christ. Their teachings have been practiced and refined for centuries and are pretty well understood in all their aspects. They are also still being followed today and are certainly not subject to the “newest thing.” What do you think?

    • Anne, where David Platt serves and what he’s writing about is about as far from St. Francis or St. Anthony as I could imagine. My positive comments about the book should be taken strictly in the context of where American evangelicalism is today and where it needs to go. This book is a small baby step in the right direction.

      If I were you, I’d stick with St. Francis.

    • AnneG,

      Since you are outside the evangelical world, you are probably not aware of some strands of thought within them. One is a lack of knowledge of Church History, which includes even basic knowledge of those who have gone before; another is a history of anti-Catholicism. This can be quite powerful. One more is that they are not comfortable with anything that resembles mysticism, whether orthodox as in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, or the Eastern religions.

      One of the things that helped me in my journey is discovering history, and the richness of Christian writers from all time.

      • Anna,
        I’ve not been involved with evangelicals for a long time and was surprised by some of the things you mentioned. What completely perplexes me is when people, especially Americans, seem to think they have to reinvent a way to follow Our Lord and that they can come up with something new. I studied Genesis for a year and was constantly impressed that people are the same now as they were in Abraham’s day.
        It’s a shame we can’t learn from those who have gone before. I appreciate your comments about history and Catholicism. But, St Francis lived in the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. There was only the Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches at that time. Luther and the others were centuries away. Why would evangelicals reject history? St Francis was from a family that would have looked very much llike an affluent, upper class American family, successful businessmen involved in international trade, well-educated and travelled, well-connected politically. Francis was supposed to take over the family business and, instead, chose to serve the Lord radically by serving the poor and infirm.
        I guess my question is, why does David Platt need to write a book when the example of St Francis and others is there to see, work from and learn from?

        • AnneG, Anna,

          I too am perplexed by the supposed “newness” of these Christian practices. My return to faith a few years ago was in part due to the willingness to engage in the lessons and practices from the Church’s history. To wit: I am currently reviewing elements of eastern orthodox and western Catholic monasticism, which are a far cry from the intense, revivalist, “shake n’ bake” methodology of current American evangelicalism. Chaplain Mike is right: stick with St. Francis. Or the holy elders on Mt. Athos. Or St. Benedict, or St. Ignatius.

          It’s not really what Platt is saying, it’s the disconnect from the past. Do we still believe in the “communion of saints”?

  11. Okay, I’ll say it. What’s so bad about the American Dream. I don’t mean the consumerism and pro-football antics. I mean the defined American Dream. Work hard, raise your family, own you own home. You know, the things George Baily fought for!

    Is this not the “vine and fig tree” promise of Micah where we will each person can sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree? Is this not a blessing given by God? One apparently we are to despise.

    I don’t read Paul and hear commands for everyone to go out and become so urgent and missionary oriented. For Paul, that was HIS JOB. He encouraged his churches to sink in roots, worship their God, and be obedient in their everyday lives. Yet we seem to belittle those who have made the foundations and the zealotry possible.

    As Paul admitted, with some trepidation to the Corinthians, the contributions of other congregations in his support made his missionary/apostolic mission possible.

    • Caine, Is it maybe a problem of consumerism rather than what you have? In other words, looking carefully at where you heart is? not so much what you have. I don’t feel guilty for the material goods and blessings we have, nor for being born an American. False guilt is really bad. Just a thought.

    • George Bailey spent his life working so other people could own their own home, not to grasp that goal himself.

      I guess you just don’t want to be your brother’s keeper, eh, Caine?

      • I guess I am not my “brother’s keeper,” whatever that means. (Someday I shall have to write an article on the misuse of that scripture..) Nor am I his murderer. (Context, context, context)

        My point is that the “American Dream,” as classically understood in the days of at least my parents, is not a bad thing; not the pariah that modern Christianity seems to make of it. (Perhaps a holdover from the sixties, that despised all things normative and mundane).

        If it was a bad thing, then it would not matter if my goal was to own my own home (which Bailey did, by the way) or help others own their own home. I would have as a goal, for others or myself, an evil.

        I cannot concede to that. Some may turn it into a consumerist idol, wanting more and bigger and better all the time to the exclusion of all else, but the American Dream of owning your own home, raising a family in a stable neighborhood, of working hard to support them, is not an evil or even something to be sneered at. Even if it may take up time and money that the pastor or whoever thinks should be used elsewhere.

        In this case, the pastor is NOT my keeper. He has not the authority or the right.

  12. Christopher Lake says:

    The description of Platt’s church, in this review, “feels” very familiar to me (in mostly good ways). For about two and a half years, I was a member of a Reformed Baptist church that has much the same spirit and atmosphere that Platt seems to be aiming for in The Church at Brook Hills. Capitol Hill Baptist Church is at once a traditional and quite radical church. Five-point Calvinist theology and the warmest, most joyous fellowship between brothers and sisters that I’ve ever encountered. A congregation which is, overall, fairly well-off (with many of the members on their way to *being* quite well-off), and which is also regularly challenged from the pulpit not to live for material gain and to make radical sacrifices for Christ.

    The major difference between Mark Dever’s and David Platt’s “styles” of church may be that Dever is adamant about *not* having almost any formal programs for Capitol Hill Baptist. There are two different Sunday services (morning and evening), members are expected to attend both of them (unless serious need intervenes), and the services are expositional Bible preaching, prayer, and fellowship-SOAKED. This is Dever’s “program” for building a healthy church– a full Sunday of hearing from God’s word, praying to God, and sharing God’s goodness with each other, and then going out into our communities, and for the rest of the week, living out of, and speaking from, the joy of knowing God. Overwhelmingly, I I truly loved my time in that church.

    Having said all of the above, it was quite heady and intense, with a somewhat “youngish” congregation (mostly early 20s to late 30s), and sometimes, looking around affectionately at the older saints in the church, I would wonder if the larger membership would be able to sustain the same intensity over many years. Perhaps they would, as much as they could, and as younger members came in, they would take up the mantle, and the older members would slow down a bit.

    Sometimes, I feel sad that I’m no longer part of such an “alive, enthusiastic” body of believers. After much study and prayer, I am probably on my way to returning to the Catholic Church, which does not always have the warmest fellowship or the best homilies (I know, it’s different from parish to parish, hehe!).

    However, there are four things that I will be happy to have, as a Catholic, that I was lacking, even at such a wonderful church as CHBC: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the comfort of the living communion of saints, here on earth *and* in Heaven, the reality of being a member of a 2,000-year-old church with (I believe) apostolic ties to Christ and the apostles, and a deep understanding that silence and solitude are just as important, in the Christian life, as fellowship with other Christians. (For a stirring example of one expression of the former, see the largely “silent” film, “Into Great Silence”: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/videocatalog/product_info.php?products_id=130)

    There are so many different ways of being “radical” for Christ. I am truly blessed that I saw so many of those ways living out, truly and happily, at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It sounds as though the same is true in David Platt’s church. As a no-longer-Protestant, I will miss what I learned and experienced, on a weekly basis, in such a church. In the Catholic Church though, I do think that there will be a bit more calmness, and more of a sense of *all* the different ways of being radical for Christ, from which evangelicals (Reformed, Arminian, and all variations, can learn. I have been, and still am, learning these truths, and it’s a humbling and healthily “grounding” experience for my soul.

  13. JoanieD says:

    I wish you well, Christopher Lake, as you embark upon your Catholic journey. There is so much beauty, holiness, love within the Roman Catholic Church. It is not perfect, for sure, but for me, it is family. I so wish I could attend mass more often, but my home situation makes that difficult.

    I wish you peace, love, joy of Jesus!

    • Christopher Lake says:

      Thank you so much, Joanie! In some ways, this change will not be easy for me. Though I do think it is the right choice (or I wouldn’t be making it!), I may be about to lose many of my strongly Reformed Protestant friends. The Catholic Church tends to be vilified in Reformed circles. However, I must go with what God has shown me, through my studies and through my conscience. Thank you again for the encouragement! I will be praying that God opens a way for you to attend Mass more often!

  14. Chaplain Mike – thanks for this. I haven’t read Platt’s book but I did just read Chan’s book “Crazy Love,” which sounds much like this. One of the things I came away with from Chan’s book is that it, if you filter it through the law-gospel lens, it is almost exclusively law. I wonder if that is what you get from Platt. The law speaks of God’s demands, the gospel speaks of Christ’s provision. It seems to me that when you read something like Crazy Love, or Platt’s book, and maybe even the Harris boys book on doing hard things, that what you are getting is a very intense exposition of law. Again, I’m only familiar with Chan, I just think he is representative of this genre, but for Chan the gospel only came in by means of disclaimers and qualifiers. In other words, “of course we know we can’t do this perfectly and thankfully God judges us based on Christ.” The gospel seems to be put in as a token qualifier and as a motivator, so that the purpose of the gospel is to impel us to greater law-keeping, but we hear nothing of the law as a tutor to lead us to Christ. Don’t know if I’m making any sense here but the bottom line is that I wonder if the gospel is obscured by an over-emphasis on radical law-keeping.

    • I’ve not read Chan’s book, but my wife has (and we own it). She read it with her small group and initially liked it, but as she got deeper in the book she started to resent it. She commented to me that she felt like Chan was trying to make his readers feel guilty for not be a gung-ho as he is. And I’ve certainly gotten that impression from hearing Chan speak. He can be a great motivator and even be inspiring, but he can also be exhausting.

      I find that for myself, this is something I really struggle with. I do believe that as Christians we are supposed to live the teachings of Christ. I believe we should challenge ourselves. I believe we should sacrifice. But I also believe that I’m forgiven not only for my failures, but my inadequacies. Maybe the problem with Chan and Platt is that they emphasize the freedom of Christ enough and only the law.