It had all the makings of a viral YouTube video—only YouTube hadn't been invented yet. And David Platt is sure glad it hadn't been. Here's the scene: a preteen Platt takes the stage at a youth group service to deliver his first sermon. He walks on stage carrying a Bible and a water bottle. Before saying a word, he fills his mouth with water and spews it all over the front row. "If you're lukewarm," he squeaks, "that's what God thinks of you!" Platt chuckles as he recalls his debut. "What a horrible start to preaching," he says. "There's no way I should have been given an opportunity to preach a sermon at that age, but I was. Guess I had a prophetic, or pathetic, edge from the beginning."
The prophetic part stuck. At 27 Platt became the pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, making him the youngest megachurch pastor in American history. A few years later he wrote Radical, a jeremiad against the American Dream, which hit The New York Times Bestseller List. Now in his mid-thirties, Platt is more committed than ever to reaching unbelievers and challenging complacent Christians. Drew Dyck and Marshall Shelley talked to Platt about his calling, his passion for disciple-making, and why he still feels he has "no clue" what he's doing.
Tell us about your calling. Was it always to be a pastor?
Preaching, evangelism, and mission have always been driving passions for me. The way that's played out is something I never could have planned. I went to seminary but never intended on pursuing a Ph.D. I had a passion to teach the Word and wanted to know how to do it more effectively. After I finished the Ph.D., I was asked to teach at New Orleans seminary.
I saw it as an opportunity to pour myself every semester into 50 or 100 students, people who would go around the world in ministry. And it would enable me to go overseas during fall break, spring break, Christmas break, and summer break, taking students with me. I could show them disciple-making in global context. What better job in the world is there than that? It seemed like a great way for those passions to play out and hopefully build up the body. So I was doing that.
Being a pastor wasn't even on my radar at that point. Then Katrina came. It put our house under water. We were in Atlanta waiting to get back down to New Orleans. And this church in Birmingham was without a pastor, so they called to see if I'd fill in one Sunday. And so I did. And one Sunday turned into two, and two into three. I remember the day I got a call from the pastoral search team about maybe coming to pastor. They wanted to talk to me. And I just thought, There's no way. I was 26 at this point. I had never pastored. I sat down with this team and said, "With all due respect, you guys are crazy. There's no reason why this would work." They're talking to me about the church's multi-million dollar budget. I don't even keep the budget at my house. My wife does that. So I never thought I'd take the position.
As we were praying, the Lord began to change my heart. My passion was to preach, to mobilize the church for evangelism and mission. But the Lord seemed to be leading us here to carry out that passion. Now, six years later, I can't imagine not pastoring. I love pastoring. I love shepherding the church on mission. I love preaching the Word. I would love to do this for as many years as the Lord gives me to live.
Were you following a calling or obeying a command?
I think there's a command, which is for everyone and it's nonnegotiable. Then there's call.
Each of us is commanded to make disciples of Jesus. We can't relegate that into a special calling or say only some people are gifted for that—super Christians or the pastor. No, every single disciple of Jesus is to make disciples. That's a command. The calling is the way that command can best be carried out.
So how can I most effectively make disciples of all nations? Well, the Lord by his grace has at least given me some kind of gifting in teaching and mobilizing and encouraging and leading. So he has called me to lead and shepherd this church at this time as the best way to carry out the command.
Other people obey the command with different callings. I want the CPA to see that God has given him gifts and passions that enable him to make disciples and to carry out this command in totally different ways than I could.
We can't let the calling become something we hide behind to avoid the command. I'm confident the Lord has called me here to this church at this point. But he could call me to go to the Middle East tomorrow. If that's the best way to carry out this command, then great.
I really struggle with being here in North America. There are 6,000-plus people groups in the world that haven't been reached with the gospel, and I'm in Birmingham, Alabama. The only way we can stay here is if we're convinced we're doing more to effect what's going on around the world by living here. Whenever that's not the case, my wife and I have agreed to buy a one-way ticket overseas.
How does your new book, Follow Me, relate to Radical?
As a pastor I'm burdened by the fact that there are scores of people who think they are Christians when, biblically speaking, they are not. That's true everywhere around the world. I see it here in Birmingham.
Some 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians, but when you look at the research into what they believe and how they live, you see that they're cultural Christians at best.
Some have looked at the research and concluded that Christians are really no different than the rest of the world, but I have a different reaction. What that research tells me is that there are a lot of people who think they're Christians but are not. In fact, the last thing we need to do is to encourage people to make disciples when they're not disciples in the first place.
So I wanted to take a fresh look at what it really means to follow Jesus. When we look at Scripture, we see that following Jesus is inextricably tied to making disciples of Jesus. To be a disciple is to make disciples. So the book is about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and at every point tying disciple-making to that. If you really believe this truth, you can't keep it to yourself. When our desires are shaped by Christ, we long to see people come to Christ.
Can you call people to an all-or-nothing commitment without lapsing into legalism?
Some people read Radical and came away saying, "OK, what do I need to do? Give me a list to check off. If I adopt some kids, sell my house, and move overseas, then I'll have the approval of God, right?" That misses the point. Part of the purpose of Follow Me is to correct that response. Radical was about what we let go of, aspects of the American Dream that are at odds with Scripture. Follow Me moves from what we let go of to who we hold onto. I want to point people to Jesus and say, "It's not about what boxes you need to check. Just go to Jesus. Abide in Christ. Only Jesus is radical enough. Only he gave enough, sacrificed enough."
We'll never be radical enough to earn the approval of God. But when we rest in the one who was radical enough, then we're free from ourselves and free to live a life that looks very different from the rest of the world.
Is everybody called to be a disciple-maker? In the New Testament, it seems some were active in inviting, convincing, and instructing disciples while others had more of a supporting role. Priscilla and Aquila, for instance, in contrast to Mary and Martha.
I believe there is a universal command to make disciples. By no means will it look the same in everybody's life. But everybody who has the Spirit of Jesus is commanded to make disciples, is equipped by the Spirit to testify to Jesus, to show others what the Christ-life looks like with the way they live.
We're all commanded to make the gospel known. If we're sitting next to somebody who doesn't know Christ, we have the Spirit in us to share the gospel with them. And so that's not just for a few.
Now, there's no question that the way in which we make disciples will vary. A pastor may proclaim the gospel directly every Sunday whereas the stay-at-home mom doesn't. But that doesn't mean she isn't commanded to share the gospel. She's got a neighbor next door who doesn't know Christ. Not to mention that she's equipped with the gospel and empowered by the Spirit to make this gospel known to her children as well.
Preachers alone can't reach Birmingham with the gospel. It's not going to be done by getting everyone into church buildings to hear preachers. No, we want to send thousands of people out from here every week that are filled with the Spirit of God to make this good news known to those they meet. Part of why they're saved is to make this gospel known. Of course the CPA's weekly schedule is going to look far different from mine. But the command is still the same. The danger is, if we're not careful, we'll both ignore the command. He may think, Well, I'm a CPA. I give money. That's what I'll do. Or I'll say, I run the church, and I oversee this and I teach. So I don't do this. And all of a sudden what Jesus has told us to do is getting bypassed by everybody.
Shortly after coming to Brook Hills you said, "I have no clue what I'm doing." Do you still feel that way?
Absolutely. And I'm not saying this to be self-effacing. I feel the same way as I did then. I still feel like Solomon in 1 Kings 3: "I'm only a child and I don't know how to carry out my duties." One of the prayers I pray is based on a journal entry from David Brainerd. His prayer: "God, let me make a difference for you that is utterly disproportionate to who I am."
That's my prayer. I feel completely inadequate on a daily basis to lead this church. The good news is that I've found God to be totally sufficient for the task that he's called me to. His Word is sufficient.
I love seeing how his Word does the work in the church. From the very beginning I've told folks here, "I don't have much pastoral wisdom to bring to the table. I can't ever say, 'Well, in my old church, what we used to do is this.'" But I told them, "We've got this Word, and it's sufficient to lead us and guide us." That's what I love about pastoring. When I preach a series, I'll begin to see how it's affecting the church. Sometimes I see that, oh no, now people are making this legalistic error. That's what happened when we were walking through some of the material from Radical. We were walking through it as a church and I saw people starting to think, Well, if I do these things, then I'll be a good Christian and earn God's favor. So then to correct that error, we would jump right into Galatians and say, no, it's all grace.
Then I saw people assuming, It doesn't matter how I live if it's all about grace. Then we jump into James. "Don't just listen; do it." And so the Word steers and guides and leads. It's not me doing it—it's the Word. The Word does that work. This goes back to the question about calling. When God calls us to something, he provides the resources we need to accomplish it. He doesn't call us to something without enabling us to carry out that calling.
He's called me to pastor this church. I still, in a very real sense, don't have a clue what I'm doing. But I know that his Word has been, and will continue to be, sufficient.
Is there a danger in becoming reliant on our own resources?
No question. I remember when I came to Brook Hills, thinking, All right, I know I don't have much experience, but this church has a lot going for it. This church has so many gifted people, so much expertise. This church has money. God has given this church so much. So I started thinking, If this church can get behind a global mission, we can shake the nations for God's glory.
Then I realized that's such a wrong way to think. It doesn't matter how many people there are here, how gifted they are, how much money they have, or how many resources we have. Apart from the power of God's Holy Spirit, this church will do nothing to shake the nations for his glory. The opposite can also be true. You could have a little church with few people and little in the way of resources and yet, under the power of the Holy Spirit, great things can be done for God's glory.
That's one of the real dangers in a large, thriving church. There's a tendency to focus on what we've got. "Look at all these people. Look at all these things. Now what can we do?" Instead, we must realize all these things pale in comparison to our need for the power of the Holy Spirit.
Recently I was talking with a pastor I really respect. A pastor for 30 years, he was leading his church in missions before missions were cool. He told me that the last year of his ministry has been the toughest year he's had. And I thought, Oh, that's not encouraging at all.
In my first years I just kept thinking, All right, it's going to get easier. It's going to get easier. And here's a guy who has been doing it for 30 years and he's facing the toughest resistance yet. That's when it hit me. As long as we are on the frontlines of advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth, we can't be foolish enough to think it's going to get easier. We can never rest on our own gifts and skills. If we're working to push back the darkness and reach people, then I'd be foolish to think that it's going to be easier.
Some young leaders feel like they've been called by God, yet there are some days when they feel like imposters. They don't feel holy enough, faithful enough, gracious enough, strong enough, competent enough. They feel obligated to talk farther than they've walked. Do you ever identify with that?
Definitely. With any kind of spiritual leadership, whether it's pastoring a church or discipling one person, you get to the point where you see something you need to call people to do. Then you realize you're not doing that, certainly not to the degree you'd like to see others do it.
I think God actually designed leadership that way so that it's a sanctifying process for us. Leading alerts me to areas where I'm falling short. The dangerous point in leadership is when you start ignoring the gap between what you teach and who you are, when you decide just to say it anyway and not deal with it in your own life.
That's a real temptation. I'm sure I'm guilty of that in many ways. But what I try to do is this: if I'm preaching a text that reveals some things that I know I'm not doing or that I'm struggling with, I need to repent and confess. And then, even in the process of communicating it to the church, I need to be honest and say, "This is an area where I've struggled." I can think of numerous occasions where I've done that.
Now, we also have to be careful not to use our shortcomings as an excuse to shrink back from leadership. I think it's easy for people to say, "Well, I am not ready to make disciples. I have to figure out all my questions and straighten out all these areas in my life." But what if disciple-making is actually part of the means by which God is going to sanctify you?
Someone might say, "I'm not disciplined enough in prayer to teach somebody else how to pray." Well, start teaching them anyway and it's actually going to cause you to be more disciplined in prayer. In order to teach somebody else how to pray you're going to have to pray more.
God's got this thing rigged. He's designed disciple-making not just for others' sanctification, but for our own sanctification, too. In order to teach somebody else how to study the Bible, we've got to study the Bible ourselves.
I tell our folks here that until we pour into others' lives we're going to hit a ceiling in our own life spiritually. As long as it's just about us, then our sanctification will not happen as effectively as it would if we are working to lead others to faith in Christ.
You're known for your all-or-nothing, prophetic teaching. Is it hard to maintain that edge while pastoring people?
Yes, and it doesn't always work well. Before I came to Brook Hills, I was mainly just doing the prophet thing. So I'd just go somewhere and preach and light a fire. Then I could leave and go somewhere else the next week.
What I love about pastoring is that I can preach a message on Sunday, but then I have a responsibility to shepherd people as they put that message into practice. That itself is a very sanctifying process for me. It's also softening.
I love these people that God's entrusted me to shepherd, and I want them to experience all that God has for them in Christ. I want their lives to count for his glory in the world. And there's this urgency because thousands of people haven't even heard the gospel.
But I can't just pick up my people and throw them overseas. My responsibility is to lead and shepherd toward meaningful service and disciple-making wherever they are. And that's a long-term process that involves a long-term demonstration in my own life and family.
Just walking with them definitely has a tenderizing effect. Though there's a tension. I struggle to balance the urgency of the mission and being patient shepherding people on the mission. When I get impatient, it helps to remember that the Lord has been very patient in shepherding me.
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