“The Book that Evangelicals Need
To Be Reading Today
(Besides the Bible, of course)”
A review of
Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God
by David Platt.
Review by Chris Smith.
David Platt is an evangelical; he is the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills, a mega-church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he speaks and thinks in evangelical language. He is also the author of the recent New York Times bestseller Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Even in the title of this work, we start to get a sense that there’s something about Platt that does not quite fit the stereotypical mold of evangelicalism. When I reviewed Radical about a year ago, I found that Platt had a keen sense of some of major cultural pitfalls – particularly wealth and power – that await evangelical Christians. Although he did a superb job of exposing these temptations, I felt like the solutions he proposed left a great deal to be desired. Specifically, he seemed to minimize the role of the church, and to rely instead on a sort of heroic individualism.
Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I heard the news that he would be releasing a follow-up book that specifically emphasized the place of the church. This new book, Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God, does a superb job at addressing the concerns that I expressed about Platt’s ecclesiology in my review of Radical. In the book’s introduction, for instance, he sets the pace for the book by emphasizing the role of the church in God’s work in the world:
Throughout the history of humankind, God has chosen to call out not just individuals but a people for himself. … God’s intention is that “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” If you and I want our lives to count for God’s purpose in the world, we need to begin with a commitment to God’s people in the church (4-5).
I was amazed, particularly after my dissatisfaction with Radical, that Platt maintains this bold emphasis on the church throughout this new work. Evangelicalism has too often, in my mind, been stereotypically marked by the individualism of its theology. Having grown up as an evangelical, I always had a sense that this variety of the Christian faith did not have to rely, in its essence, upon individualism, and in a nutshell, Radical Together is Platt’s emphatic argument for an evangelicalism that takes the church seriously.
I must be clear, however, that Platt and I live in different worlds. The ways in which we imagine the Gospel and the world, and the theological language that we use to do so, are – pardon the pun – radically different. I am acutely familiar with Platt’s evangelical world, as I grew up there, but today it is as if that were a completely different planet. For instance, although I believe that the Bible is inspired by God and vitally important to our faith in Christ, I cannot agree with Platt’s focus on it as “the Word of God.” Scripture itself makes clear, I believe, that Jesus is the Word of God and not the biblical texts. The Bible is essential as the definitive account – discerned historically by the church – of the narrative of Jesus, but it is Jesus who has the authority (the “king of kings” and “lord of lords”) not the biblical texts. Platt’s gospel is – in the evangelical manner – about saving people’s souls, and as such is largely disembodied. In the post-evangelical world that I inhabit, the gospel, the good news, is that God is reconciling all creation and has called the church into that holistic work of reconciliation. Maybe I am mistaken in the world I imagine, or maybe Platt is, or maybe we both are to some extent or another, but regardless there are some striking similarities in the ways that we understand God to be at work in the world, a work that we agree is centered in the people of God.
Platt begins the book by asserting that the good things we do as the church might often impede our faithfulness in following Jesus. I agree with him on this point, and particularly as he proceeds to state we need to “put everything on the table.” “All our lives and all our churches, all our property and all our possessions, all our plans and all our strategies, all our hopes and all our dreams” need to be submitted to God and made available for God’s work in the world, and the stories that Platt tells over the course of the book make it abundantly clear that he is serious about this claim, and not simply spouting religious ideals that he doesn’t intend to live out. Now this is indeed a radical Gospel! Putting everything on the table – and Platt does express some hesitancy about doing so with “biblical essentials and theological non-negotiables,” to which I would ask: can we not trust God to guide us in those as well? – raises a host of questions and conversations about where God is leading us and how these resources should be employed. I deeply appreciate Platt’s insight here and the patient slowness that he recommends as we face these questions:
[We] realized that we didn’t have to answer every question immediately. None of us, including me, had answers to all the questions, and we still don’t. The key is simply to ask the questions. For in honestly asking, we begin to grasp how much [the distraction of] the good things in the church have a hold on our hearts (14).
Platt moves on to illuminate the tension between not being saved by our works and yet called to labor in faithfulness to the call of Christ. Again, he gets it right here, we cannot be passive religious consumers. Later in the book, he explores how this work gets done. I can hear echoes of John Howard Yoder’s work on “the fullness of Christ” in Platt’s critiques of the reliance in evangelical churches on professionals. He says pointedly:
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to overlook God’s plan for people when we organize churches around professionals. We single out people who seem especially gifted and we craft the community of faith around them. … But the making of disciples was intended for professionals alone; it was intended for the whole people of God (68).
Although Platt and I may have very different conceptions of what the “end of the world” might look like, we both firmly agree that our lives in the here and now are to be shaped by the eschatological hope of that end, and that this shaping is outward, it calls us out of the temptation of being a comfortable church community (which, I might add, is a powerful temptation once we acknowledge the importance of the church community), and toward the proclamation of the Gospel throughout all the world. He concludes the book with a chapter that continues this theme that “we are selfless followers of a self-centered God.” And although the language of “a self-centered God,” which doesn’t exactly fit scriptural depictions like those in Philippians 2, make me bristle more than a little bit, I adamantly agree that we are called to deny ourselves in following Christ.
Overall, Radical Together is a pointed call for Christian faithfulness and for a renewal of the church. It is the book that evangelicals need to be reading today (besides the Bible, of course), and although Platt speaks quite directly throughout, not sparing any punches, he does so using language that evangelicals can agree with and understand. If you are a member of an evangelical church, you need to be reading this book, and but reading it with others in your church, submitting yourselves to Platt’s presentation of the gospel here, and discussing what it might mean for your own church. Following the call that Platt sounds here, whether we are evangelical or otherwise, will only lead us deeper into the rich life of God’s Kingdom, which we share with the brothers and sisters that God has gathered in our churches!