What is success when it comes to the church? Maybe not what you think

By Ronald E. Keener

David Platt defines church differently than bigger crowds, budgets and buildings.

David Platt admits that his own congregation is “wrestling” with the way they look at what the Gospel demands of them. “We certainly have a long way to go, but this is a journey worth taking for the sake of God’s people accomplishing God’s purpose for God’s glory,” Platt, senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills, Birmingham, AL, says.

He shares his hopes and misgivings for ministry in Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Multnomah Books/Random House, 2010). Church Executive asked him a few questions and he responded with some provocative answers:

“Soon I realized I was on a collision course with an American church culture where success is defined by bigger crowds, bigger budgets, and bigger buildings.” What do you mean by this? Isn’t this the American way?

It may be the American way, but it’s not necessarily the Gospel way. Jesus never defined success by these things, so where do we get the idea that we should use these measures for success in his church?

Yours is a church of 4,000 (“bigger crowds”), with a supporting program (“bigger budgets”) and probably – though I haven’t seen the campus – some fancy infrastructure (“bigger buildings”). How do you square your comments and the thesis of the book to what you practice in your own ministry?

This entire book is a picture of the wrestling our faith family is experiencing as we look at the truths of God’s Word and the needs of the world around us. We find ourselves in a process where we are re-examining how we can most effectively make disciples of all nations through small groups of believers that aren’t dependent on big budgets and big buildings to advance the Gospel.

We have to figure out wiser ways to use our resources for the sake of billions who are starving spiritually and physically around the world, which means we have to change the way we’re doing things in churches like the one I lead. We certainly have a long way to go, but this is a journey worth taking for the sake of God’s people accomplishing God’s purpose for God’s glory.

“I am on a journey,” you say, and you feel that “we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the Gospel we claim to believe.” What are you getting at, what is it that you are unhappy about for yourself and other Christians?

We have created Jesus in our image, conforming him to our lives, and in the process we have undercut the core truths of the Gospel, and in some senses, the core realities of who he is. We have taken a God-centered Gospel and manipulated it into a man-centered message. Along the way, we have confined our understanding of God’s purpose in our lives to the country and culture we live in, all the while dangerously prone to turn a deaf ear to the needs of the world around us.

We – myself included – need to see that our lives were created for far more than a nice comfortable Christian spin on the American dream. We have been created and crafted to be a part of the spread of God’s glory to the ends of the earth, and our lives are worth spending and sacrificing all that we have and all that we are to fulfill that dream.

More is being said recently by pastors that we have converts but not disciples, that too many Christians are nominal in their faith, that they love the label of being Christian but don’t want to live out the life of being a Christian. Does any of this resonate with your concerns?

Sure. The commands of Christ that we deem “radical” are in reality normal for any follower of his.

What does it mean to be radical about our faith and replace it with what is comfortable?

We have a tendency to design our Christian lives and our churches around what appeals to personal comfort and preference when the Gospel actually beckons us to die to these things. Our lives and our churches are never intended to be designed for more pleasure and ease in this world, but for the sake of treasure in eternity.

Given that, how then should it play out in our crowds, buildings and budgets?

We stop designing church to appeal to our comforts, spending our millions of dollars on buildings that can house crowds and support programs designed around ourselves. This is not Christianity. We have come up with strange methods for following a Savior who didn’t even have a roof over his head. We need to explore different ways to multiply the Gospel more effectively and efficiently, in ways that aren’t depending on large budgets, staffs and buildings.

None of these things are ultimately necessary for the spread of the Gospel. If they are, then what are we saying to our brothers and sisters around the world who don’t have these kinds of resources? If getting the Gospel to all nations is dependent on these things, we’ll never have enough places and programs and professionals. But we will always have enough people.

Are you talking about something more deeply than some trends to “health and wealth” Christianity? What are you calling the church to be and do?

The Bible is calling Christians and communities of faith to seriously engage a world where more than a billion people still haven’t heard the Gospel, and billions of others are physically impoverished. When we dare to look at the world and let God’s Word drive our lives, we will not be content to spend untold resources in our lives and churches on ourselves. The Bible is calling us to forsake short-term treasures in this world that we cannot keep for the sake of long-term treasure in eternity that we cannot lose.

How is The Church at Brook Hills living out your vision for Christianity — in its budget, programming, buildings, leadership, visioning?

We have made major cuts all across our budget to give toward urgent spiritual and physical need around the world. In the process, we have encouraged and challenged one another to do the same in our individual family budgets. We are becoming more intentional about being less and less dependent on paid staff to do what the church body is designed to do.

We are channeling all of our energies in the church toward a simple, straightforward process aimed at producing disciple-makers who are each a part of God’s global plan to make hIs name known as great among the nations. They are re-allocating resources in their lives, adjusting their lifestyles, selling their possessions, and spending their time here and around the world making the Gospel known amidst urgent spiritual and physical need.

What is it that worries you about how we embrace the American dream? Is there anything important about being both American and Christian?

The last thing I want to do is come across anti-American in this whole picture. I want to be pro-Gospel, and the Gospel transcends countries and cultures. So God has given us great grace as Americans — with great freedoms and abundant resources. The question is, “How can we use what he has given us in our context to make his glory known here and around the world?”

How do you see the radical commands of the Gospel being expressed through people and the church?

There are obviously no specific rules or regulations for how the radical commands of Christ play out in our lives and our churches. We would be foolish to even look for them, for the goal is ultimately to know Christ — to know him and surrender completely to him. To go to Christ with our lives and in our churches and put everything on the table – everything! – and say,

“How do you desire to use all the resources you have entrusted to me for your name’s sake and for the spread of the Gospel in all nations?”

Then to wait for a response. His response may mean to sell absolutely everything we have for the sake of the poor, as it was for the rich young man in Mark 10. It may be less than that, as it was for Zaccheus. It may be totally different than either of these stories. But the key is: Are we really saying in our lives and in our churches, “Here we are, with everything we have — spend us for your glory in all nations, no matter what it costs us.”

Exciting things happen when we really say this. I hear stories on a daily basis from individuals and church leaders around the country who are re-engaging the Word and the world with a fresh perspective, and they are discovering the joy of trusting Christ with all their lives with his purpose through their lives. Countless individuals and churches are going through the Radical Experiment, many of them customizing it for their context. www.brookhills.org


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