How much money does your lifestyle cost?
What have you abandoned for the Gospel of Christ? Not just given up, or done without, but utterly forsaken?
Could you realistically live on $50,000 a year or less... and give the rest away?
In his disquieting book, Radical; Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream, pastor David Platt asks bluntly, "what is Jesus worth to you?"
Givers or Takers?
To say such a question smacks of counterculturalism puts it mildly. I have never been to a church in my entire life that took such an aggressive tone against hedonism and affluence. Many pastors preach against the evils of consumerism, but it's usually based on a sliding scale of relativism.
Believers who live in Beverly Hills can, without feeling any pain, cut stuff out of their budgets that would probably fund an entire family in Tulsa, Oklahoma for at least a year. Many suburban families think sacrifice starts with foregoing cable TV. And who doesn't instinctively pine for higher-paying promotions, more luxurious homes, and a robust retirement portfolio?
Platt says that, basically, all we like sheep have gone astray, and the evangelical church has folded like wet cardboard into the sticky syrup of materialism and wealth-building. To be true disciples, we must eschew the trappings of conventional suburban society and devote ourselves to a style of servanthood which prioritizes ministry to the poor and disenfranchised instead of the accomplished and successful.
Hope or Hype?
At first, it all sounds tantalizing radical, which plays into Platt's entire theme. Of course! We've all been sucked into the world's system of transient rewards and profits before principles. In many of my essays, I myself have struck out against America's dominant church culture which has become inbred with love of money, stuff, and importance. So, I thought, since nobody's listening to me, maybe they'll listen to some buff over-achiever. We've gotta re-prioritize ourselves!
Yet, the cynic in me wants to summarily dismiss Platt's Radical as simply the requisite book by another Type-A pastor trying to single-handedly change the world. Still in his early 30's, he already holds two undergrad degrees, two Masters degrees, and a PhD. He leads a large, hip, contemporary Southern Baptist congregation in Alabama. He's the next new kid on the block.
Plus, as I should know, it's SO easy to bash America's Christian culture these days. How really radical is Platt's premise? Our audacious affluence relative to the rest of the world, coupled with our relative stinginess - evangelicals reportedly tithe only 4% of their income annually - makes for plentiful opportunities to rub the noses of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in, well, something not entirely pleasant.
On his church and book websites, Platt ladles out a heavy dose of good-old-fashioned Baptist guilt and gushes with a trendy We-Are-The-World evangelism which appears to jive with what most of us have been taught about Christianity. Indeed, even Calvinists don't need Baptists to teach us about total depravity, nor is any believer excluded from the mandate to share our faith. But at what point does "love of money," which seems to be Platt's niche in this discussion, plague both the rich and the poor?
In his review of Radical for World Magazine, Reformed scholar and author Anthony Bradley provides a well-reasoned counterpoint to Platt's exuberant poverty:
"Platt takes an appropriate sledgehammer to Christians who have refashioned Jesus into a middle-class, comforting and loving nice guy who hides in suburbia to avoid Samaritans, as well as to those who ignore the needs of the poor and serve the idols of self-advancement, self-esteem, individualism, materialism, and universalism. He nails the deadly consequences of these trends."
Bradley goes on, however, to enumerate some fallacies he sees in Platt's approach. Is discipleship, for instance, the sole purpose for us believers? Since when is materialism an exclusively middle class cancer? And how effective can the social gospel ethos be without an equally beneficial socioeconomic system? How you answer these questions depends on your Christian worldview, not necessarily on whether you're blatantly sinning by answering differently than Platt does.
As an ardent capitalist, Bradley draws some of the usual conclusions regarding wealth redistribution, but his overall perspective bears repeating here: "What releases people from loving the American Dream is radical obedience motivated by love in order to love others justly." In other words, we love others (not money) because Christ first loved us.
And, "God calls us to live radically for cosmic redemption but with wisdom and discernment." In other words, we need to be careful that what God provides us isn't wasted - either on ourselves, or on imprudent ideas for ministry.
What Do You Love?
While it takes someone who is truly deceived to deny that most American believers are narcissistic social-climbers, we all have to remember that the love of money cuts both ways. Poor people can covet wealth just as much as rich folks; their aspirations may simply be more unrealistic.
We also can't Biblically deny somebody gifted towards a high-income career the opportunity to pursue that objective, at least not as long as they want to honor God with it more than anything else.
How all of us spend what we earn from our vocations, however, remains the crucial question here, no matter how much money that is. You'll recall that Christ esteemed the widow's mite to be greater than the enormous sum boasted of by the wealthy Pharisee. Wealthy Christians like to gloss over that scripture, but we also need to remember that the widow's humility, not just the percentage, played a significant role in her gift's worthiness. Contentment remains an elusive quality no matter your net worth, and that's our own fault, not God's.
To the extent that Platt reminds all of us that the money we may - or may not - have isn't really ours anyway, then however more liberal we become in our charity could make the difference in how meaningful we find our lives to be. For Platt to claim that Christ expects us to relinquish everything He's given us for His sake is true enough. But just as we shouldn't recoil at such a mandate, neither should we release our access to worldly goods with feigned piety.
After all, can't benchmarks be exceeded with joy? Like one of my pastors liked to say: "ten percent is just a start."