Here Come the Radicals!
Here Come the Radicals!
It's not easy to make the Church at Brook Hills, Alabama's second-largest congregation, look like a slum. But in 2010, the church collected trash all over Birmingham and set its stage in corrugated metal, scrap wood, plastic tarps, and other detritus. Three months before, their lead pastor, David Platt, had proposed that their church "take India," by which he meant pay for Compassion International's child survival programs in the country for an entire year. The whole church couldn't jet off to India, but the rubbish on stage tangibly reminded its members of the country's impoverished communities.
With the stage literally set, Platt called his church to something more than giving $525,000 to Compassion. Platt and the Church at Brook Hills (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) spent a full year praying for the world, reading the entire Bible, giving their money to those in need, spending time in a context beyond Birmingham, and building community.
The five components of "the Radical Experiment" may not seem that radical; they're more like basic Christian discipleship. But they struck a nerve at the church and beyond. Forty families and singles committed to moving into a disadvantaged area of Birmingham. As one attendee told me, the news created something of a reputation for the church. "People still ask me," she said, "whether I go to that church where people are moving into the most dangerous parts of Birmingham." And the message spread well beyond the city of 1 million. After Platt released Radical in May 2010, it spent more than two years on The New York Times advice best-seller list. Three years later, it's still on CBA'S (formerly Christian Booksellers Association) best-seller list.
The first thing you notice about Platt is how young he is. When he took the position in 2006 at age 27, he was almost certainly the youngest megachurch pastor in America. Yet Platt's youthfulness belies both the boldness of his message and the conviction with which he presents it. His style avoids the verbal pyrotechnics some preachers rely on for their message to stick. The rising and falling intonations of his slow Southern drawl, and the way he draws out particular words and hesitates before hurtling through a string of sentences, make his preaching like a lazy float down a river with the occasional burst of rapids. He reels people in, almost unwittingly, with his easy charisma and lack of self-awareness. One moment, he'll have a grin reminiscent of a schoolboy on Christmas morning. The next, his voice will crack with an intense, pleading tone that betrays heartfelt resolve. When Platt told his church, "Let's say, Brook Hills, 'We're going to take India,'" the final words had that raspy, gasping tone. It suggested Platt felt the weight of the responsibility too deeply for his words to convey.
At the heart of Platt's message is his claim that we mistakenly turn the "radical Jesus of the Bible … into the comfortable Jesus of 21st-century American culture." He warns that the culture of "self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency" and our "individualism, materialism, and universalism" have neutered American Christians' witness and blinded us to widespread global poverty, an orphan crisis, and the massive number of those who still have never heard of Jesus.
Platt's critique goes beyond the people in the pews. In case anyone missed his criticism of budgets and church-growth strategies, Platt's follow-up book, Radical Together, brought it to the surface: "[J]udging by what we hang on to in our churches, convenient programs and nice parking lots are still more important than [impoverished and orphaned] children and their families."