Materialism vs. Christianity: The American Dream, the Megachurch, and the Gospel


Lakewood Church, Houston, TXI have only recently heard of David Platt, but from what I have read, I am thoroughly intrigued.

Platt has a new book out called Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, in which he accuses the American church of manipulating Christianity to fit its consumeristic culture.

If you can’t tell already, Platt’s core criticisms are particularly relevant to the issues discussed on this blog, and thus I am looking forward to reading and reviewing his book in the near future. In the meantime, however, David Brooks has offered a thought-provoking introduction to Platt’s ideas, which I think is worthy of response.

On the whole, it seems that Platt’s main criticism has to do with materialism: American Christians have become wrapped up in wealth creation and individualistic pursuits and have in the process confused their worship of Christ with a worship of themselves.

Platt’s primary targets? Brooks explains.

Target #1: The Modern American Church

Platt’s first target is the megachurch itself. Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity.

Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude.

Target #2: The American Dream

Next, Platt takes aim at the American dream. When Europeans first settled this continent, they saw the natural abundance and came to two conclusions: that God’s plan for humanity could be realized here, and that they could get really rich while helping Him do it. This perception evolved into the notion that we have two interdependent callings: to build in this world and prepare for the next.

These are fine things to criticize in the right circumstances. Indeed, we can all think of the megachurch that is tacky and tactless, overspent and unwise, self-absorbed and withdrawn. Likewise, we can all see how pursuing “the American dream” is not God’s roadmap for everyone.

The problem with these criticisms is that they are highly generalized and far too narrow.

Not all megachurches are the same, and who is to say which size of church God would prefer in the first place? Buildings and programs geared toward “gaining market share” may sometimes miss the mark, but why does Platt have a problem with their fundamental goal? Are we to believe that none of these churches are successful in developing “real” Christians?

As for the American dream, depending on who you ask, it could mean anything from working on an assembly line to owning a Rolls-Royce, and that’s only speaking materially. In its most general sense, the American dream is about the opportunity to pursue your dreams. When those dreams align with God’s (as they must), the American dream can be quite a wonderful thing.

It would seem then that Platt must have a very narrow view of the Gospel itself.

As Brooks quotes/paraphrases:

“The American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel,”  [Platt] argues. The American dream emphasizes self-development and personal growth. Our own abilities are our greatest assets.

But the Gospel rejects the focus on self: “God actually delights in exalting our inability.” The American dream emphasizes upward mobility, but “success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up.”

This is a truly narrow view of the “essence of the Gospel.” For Platt, it seems that the Gospel is about saving our souls while paralyzing our bodies. It’s not about an obedient willingness to sacrifice everything for God, but a robotic charitable impulse to be followed blindly.

On the contrary, the essence of the Gospel is entirely about self — at its most fundamental level, Jesus’ radical act of sacrifice was about saving and redeeming us as individual sinners. Such redemption requires “self-development and personal growth,” not to mention individual empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

Of course, the first step in such self-development is purely spiritual, but the strong and stable Christian is one who will grow to be accountable enough to leverage earthly resources for God’s glory in whatever way God deems appropriate. This will often include material sacrifice, but not always.

That’s the problem. For Platt, it seems that redemption can’t come with an overall willingness to sacrifice; rather, we must participate in a unified, universalized effort to limit our resources:

Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Evangelize.

These are good suggestions, but they are hardly mandatory for all Christians (with the exception of “Evangelize”). For being so heavy on criticisms toward altar-call-obsessed, suburban Christianity, Platt shows a shocking obliviousness to how difficult the Christian pursuit really is. Indeed, when the implications of Platt’s beliefs are analyzed as a whole, it seems as though he offers a similar solution to the one he claims to oppose.

In other words, if we are going to coordinate a massive exodus out of the land of material wealth for the sake of the Gospel, I think we are being more materialistic then we’d like to admit.

Alas, Christianity is not a simple, legalistic, give-all-your-money-to-the-poor gimmick that can be rolled out to consumers nationwide (much in the way it is not a simple, American-dream gimmick). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, once we are submitted, justified, purified, and obedient, there is no telling what God will call us to do.

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David PlattLet’s be clear: I agree that the church mustn’t be careless and introverted. I agree that blindly pursuing our personal ambitions will not bring salvation. Our goals must be aligned to God’s, and many in the American church are confused about this. But Platt’s solution misses the mark.

What I disagree with is the notion that God cannot (or does not want to) use the American dream or the megachurch for his glory. If each individual’s heart is in the right place, God knows how best to use them, and it doesn’t necessarily mean giving all your extra money to the poor and living on $50,000 a year. Charity is not the only way to contribute to humanity, and a mission trip to Africa is not the only way to gain a genuine devotion to God.

Overall, I respect Platt’s Biblical approach and I appreciate what he’s trying to do. Perhaps he’s just overly idealistic and is speaking from his own personal experiences. Perhaps he just doesn’t understand basic economics. When I read his book, I hope to find the answers.

In the end, it is helpful to be reminded that we mustn’t pursue material wealth to achieve salvation. It is equally helpful, however, to recognize that we mustn’t necessarily abandon one to attain the other.

H/T to Jordan Ballor, who has a thoughtful commentary on the Brooks piece over at the Acton Institute PowerBlog.

Reminder: I have not yet read Platt’s book, but based on what I’ve heard about it, I am pretty confident I am honing in on his ideas accurately. If I’m getting anything wrong, I would love to hear from you.

(Note: The image above is provided by rainerebert / / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/24020902625 Remnant Culture

    Is the American dream compatible with Christianity? Must we escape material wealth to escape materialism? http://bt.io/Fy7d

  • Ian

    Good stuff. You acknowledge, though, that a megachurch (or even American evangelicals more broadly) can be “tacky and tactless, overspent and unwise, self-absorbed and withdrawn.” So there is a kernel of truth to Platt's criticisms (though I agree they're probably overbroad).

    Doesn't the question come down to: What is the best way to live a Christian life? That's a really difficult question to answer, but I certainly DO NOT think it has anything to do (necessarily) with limiting your income or moving to Africa. You can be poor and on the mission field and not living the life that Christ calls us to.

    But at the same time, I don't think the Christian life is simply an “inner” life either. (I know you agree with this, too.) The struggle is to find where, amidst the competing values, we are supposed to live. Platt has obviously given up the struggle and opted for a very pinched, narrow view.

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  • http://twitter.com/achtungaeon/status/24037021983 Achtung Aeon

    Materialism vs. Christianity: The American Dream, the Megachurch … http://ow.ly/18Wcca

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    I do think there is a kernel of truth to Platt's criticisms, but even if he is correct about certain megachurches in particular, I think it's silly to assume that each of the congregants therein are thus lacking in their faith or devotion. The point that Platt is overly broad can't be stressed enough.

    I agree with you on the fundamental question, as well as the difficulty of answering it. It is indeed a struggle — one that each of us will fight throughout our lives. It's tempting to “give up,” as you say, and surrender the struggle to either extreme materialism or extreme poverty, each of which fit nicely into our longing for legalistic structure.

    In the end, outside of the general guidance the Bible has for each individual, I think the only one who can answer the question is God. Such personal communication is only possible through the Holy Spirit, and such communion with the Holy Spirit is possible only through proper justification. Now that, my friend, is “radical.”

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    I do think there is a kernel of truth to Platt's criticisms, but even if he is correct about certain megachurches in particular, I think it's silly to assume that each of the congregants therein are thus lacking in their faith or devotion. The point that Platt is overly broad can't be stressed enough.

    I agree with you on the fundamental question, as well as the difficulty of answering it. It is indeed a struggle — one that each of us will fight throughout our lives. It's tempting to “give up,” as you say, and surrender the struggle to either extreme materialism or extreme poverty, each of which fit nicely into our longing for legalistic structure.

    In the end, outside of the general guidance the Bible has for each individual, I think the only one who can answer the question is God. Such personal communication is only possible through the Holy Spirit, and such communion with the Holy Spirit is possible only through proper justification. Now that, my friend, is “radical.”

  • http://twitter.com/daily_choices/status/24074933774 Daily Choices

    Materialism vs. Christianity: The American Dream, the Megachurch … http://bit.ly/92LS5x

  • http://twitter.com/xavier410/status/24074935068 Xavier Tolling

    Materialism vs. Christianity: The American Dream, the Megachurch …: “The American dream radically differs from t… http://bit.ly/cdHnwB

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  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/24402175004 Joseph Sunde

    My thoughts on materialism and suburban Christianity — particularly in light of @plattdavid's new book, "Radical." http://bt.io/Fy7d

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/24507264854 Remnant Culture

    Jesus didn't say to follow some robotic charitable impulse. He said to follow HIM. My thoughts here: http://bt.io/Fy7d

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/24575108366 Joseph Sunde

    "Christianity is not a simple, legalistic, give-all-your-money-to-the-poor gimmick." http://bt.io/G0W0

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  • Bereangirl

    Exactly what part of- do not live like the world, do you all not understand? (1 Jn 2:15-16) The lust of the eyes (covetousness/greed) the lust of the flesh ( sensuality), the pride of life (I am my own god/idolitry), how is that not specific? If you fall into any or all of those categories you are of the world not of Jesus Messiah. “The Way” to life and Godliness is HARD/NARROW Jesus said so. The way of destruction is EASY/WIDE. People want to make Christianity easy and sloppy that is what they think grace means, but they don’t realize that grace is actually a higher standard than “the law” like in Matthew 5. He told us to take up our cross everyday, crucify the flesh, if we love anyone or anything else more than Him we are not worthy of Him. People left Him in droves the harder it got, even the twelve deserted Him. David Platt has hit a very sore nerve for Laodacian America, and those convicted of any of these sins will cry – “legalism”, or “religious” just like the Pharisees did and still do. People who claim the Bible gives “general” instructions either cannot read so they listen to ecumenical pastors like Rick Warren interperate scripture for them, or they donot have any powers of comprehension. The struggle is with sin…our flesh loves it, when our spirit is renewed our spirit/soul loves righteousness, that is the good fight of faith we are to fight. I leave you with the words of Apostle Paul in Gal 4:16 “Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?”

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    “The lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life.” — I am not sure I understand what you are so worked up about. I am not arguing in favor of any of these things. I am arguing that the “American dream” doesn’t *necessarily* involve or constitute them. I would consider the ability to provide for my family and give my wife the liberty to stay at home to raise our kids part of the “American dream.” Is that some sick, sinful sentiment rooted in lust-filled pride? I don’t think so.

    I certainly agree that people want to make Christianity easy and sloppy, and I think Platt contributes to such sloppiness in the *application* piece of his book. His solutions to service and the poor are sometimes helpful and Biblical, but other times they are extremely rimshot, emotional, and natural-minded. The former is diluted (or slop-itized) by the latter.

    Like myself and Platt, you and I seem to agree on the Biblical calling to service and sacrifice, but we disagree on exactly how we get there. I agree that the road is “narrow” but it is not narrow by our limited earthly standards. It is not narrow in viewing humans as static, dependency-prone human beings, or economies as magical manipulation machines. It is not narrow in some kind of cap-your-lifestyle-at-dollar-number-X sort of way.

    It is, however, narrow in the cap-your-lifestyle-where-God-tells-you-to sort of way. The Bible is specific in its framework, direction, and foundation, and the Holy Spirit leads us and guides us into the rest (of which is also entirely specific). As one example, can you tell me how Platt’s magical $50,000 number constitutes a Biblical mandate?

    I am also interested in hearing about the times where the Pharisees decried Jesus for being legalistic. Jesus was out of the box in every way. He did not subscribe to a mechanistic plan geared toward channeling X number of resources to X number of people. He was intent on doing the will of His Father and going about and doing *specifically* what He called him to do. The Pharisees couldn’t stand this about Jesus, so I’m not sure where you’re coming from on that one.

    Since writing this post, I have read the book and reviewed in full. Perhaps it will provide further clarification:
    http://www.commonsenseconcept.com/?page_id=1217

    Thanks for taking the time to read and contribute.

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  • Scott

    You have done noting here but build a straw man and then attempt to knock it down, and also by writing “I would consider the ability to provide for my family and give my wife
    the liberty to stay at home to raise our kids part of the “American
    dream.” Is that some sick, sinful sentiment rooted in lust-filled pride?” you prove that you have completely missed Platt’s point, and the dangers of the “American dream”. Platt is not and I would suggest that Scripture is not arguing against a man providing for the NEEDS of his family, but warning against the self indulgent materialism that drives our minds, and in which we attempt to find contentment ( I say we because I am a sinner who struggles too). I challenge you to show with Scripture how the American abundant lifestyle agrees with our Lords teaching and the Gospel, as Platt has based is criticism of it through Scripture. You also wrote “What is the best way to live a Christian life? That’s a really
    difficult question to answer, but I certainly DO NOT think it has
    anything to do (necessarily) with limiting your income or moving to
    Africa. You can be poor and on the mission field and not living the
    life that Christ calls us to.” Again another straw man argument, Platt never argues that being poor guarantees a sanctified life, but this for sure is not the problem with American Christianity! We fool ourselves if we believe we can have what the world offers and it not effect us and draw us “One cannot serve two masters…” away from the self denying Gospel of Christ. It is only a difficult to answer “What is the best way to live a Christian life?” if we decide that somehow it is up for discussion or we somehow have the right and power to decide, but alas it is not for us to decide, it is God who has answered that question (Matthew 6:24, 10:38, 16:24, 19:21, Luke 14:25-33, John 12:24, Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:24, 6:14, I could go on)! Platt is not arguing for some legalistic system of sacrificial giving in order to gain righteousness, but pointing to the undeniable truth that Christ’s call on our lives is to deny ourselves(make no mistake, the rich young ruler is us), to deny our urges to be filled and satisfied by the world, and to make Christ our hope, our satisfaction, and our portion. When congregations spend millions for facilities, when Christians spend millions on selfish and needless comforts, while millions go without even clean drinking water and even more go without having been witnessed the Gospel, then we have to stop making excuses and admit that our lifestyle is NOT what Christ has called us to. I sincerely hope the tone of this is soft and loving, for I am nothing more than a sinner saved by grace and do not desire to come across any other way. Grace and peace to you.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    This was written based on the marketing materials, some blog posts of Platt, and Brooks’ column. I wrote a more specific review of the book after I read it: http://www.valuesandcapitalism.com/dialogue/society/faith-and-american-dream

    Whatever Platt might *wish* to convey, who knows. It think he gets much of the basic theology right, but his application is careless. You say he’s not arguing for some” legalistic system of sacrificial giving,” and that may not be his intent, but that is certainly how it comes across. I note the pros and cons of the book here: http://www.valuesandcapitalism.com/dialogue/society/faith-and-american-dream

    Thanks for the feedback.

  • Skfreem

    To post a critique of a book you’ve not read undermines your credibility and legitimacy as a leader and the body of Christ doesn’t benefit from this kind of approach. If you’ve subsequently read the book, I’d suggest removing this blog entry.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    I don’t understand how one loses credibility by engaging in the high level thoughts of an author as long as one’s limited level of understanding is made clear. I have reviewed the book elsewhere and Brooks’ assessment proved accurate.

  • Linda Kwinana

    Hi there. I would like to comment on the discussion about materialism and Platt’s book. 

  • Linda Kwinana

    There was a wealthy man who asked Jesus what he had to do to gain eternal life. Jesus told him to give away all his possessions and follow him. Also, in Luke 9:23, Jesus tells the multitude following him, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The flesh and other material things must be denied if we are to enter the Kingdom of God. Megachurches often preach that people must pursue worldly success and the ”American Dream” as they themselves pursue success via their megachurches.