Book Review: Radical Together, by David Platt
I think it would be really difficult to write a follow-up to a best-selling book, but I think David Platt has done about as good a job as can be done in his new Radical Together (hereafter, RT). RT reflects both a continuation and a maturation of the thoughts introduced in Radical. RT reinforces the prophetic call issued in Radical and applies it in new ways as Platt fleshes out what it looks like to lead a congregation day-in and day-out in radical response to the gospel.
As the title implies, RT contends that the only way to really live in radical response to the gospel is in the context of a local, gospel-centered church. Along the way, RT corrects some misconceptions that resulted from Radical, such as the tendency of some to read it as a “to-do list” for super-Christians.
I loved reading RT. It reads as the transparent struggle of a successful megachurch pastor wrestling to align his ministry philosophy with the gospel. David asks lots of questions, sometimes giving definitive answers, and sometimes leaving tensions unresolved. Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, you will be enriched through the process of examination.
BIG IDEA: DO OUR MINISTRIES REFLECT WHAT WE SAY WE BELIEVE ABOUT THE GOSPEL?
The question underlying all the others is this: Does the shape and focus of our ministries reflect what we say we believe about the gospel?
In the book’s six chapters, Platt reflects on six apparent paradoxes in Christian ministry:
- One of the worst enemies of Christians can be good things in the church (ch. 1).
- The gospel that saves us from work saves us to work (ch. 2).
- The Word does the work, not our programs, facilities, or ingenuity (ch. 3).
- Building the right church depends on using all the wrong people (ch. 4).
- We are living and longing for the end of the world (ch. 5).
- We are selfless followers of a self-centered God (ch. 6).
Platt’s primary target is a worldly wisdom that he believes has displaced simple faith in the gospel. For example, contemporary church wisdom holds that the single most important factor for growing a church is the quality of the weekend program. Quality programming indeed builds an audience, Platt concedes, but will it build a church? The real power of Christianity is in the preached word, Platt says, not in the soundboard. While the latter may attract an audience, only the former can transform the heart. Furthermore, what caused “a great sense of fear and awe to be upon every soul” and God to “add to their number daily those that were being saved” was not the quality of a performance but the beauty of Christ’s body on display in the community (Acts 2:42–47). Audiences may be built by a performance but communities will only be transformed by the gospel.
Platt also believes the contemporary church is much too at home in the world, distracting itself with amusements while billions die outside its doors. Platt’s logic is simple and compelling: if we really believe what we say we believe about the gospel, we cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of millions around us dying in body and soul. Platt thus reminds us that we must sometimes sacrifice the “good” of favored church programs for the “great” of the Great Commission. Gospel theology demands urgent missiology. Platt offers several practical ideas to this end, from church-wide budget cuts to foster care initiatives to short-term mission trips.
One of the most helpful parts of the book for me was David’s observation that our fascination with the Sunday morning program has caused us to neglect the power available to the church. Jesus said that because he went to his Father his disciples would do “greater works” than he had done (Jn. 14:12). How could that be possible? After all, Jesus raised the dead! And it is impossible to preach with greater clarity and power than he did. Jesus’ apostles’ works would not be greater in power than his were; they would be greater in extent. While Jesus was on earth, the power of the Spirit resided on him alone. After he went to the Father, the Spirit came to dwell in every believer. The “greater works” Jesus spoke are thus accomplished when a body of believers carries the power of the Spirit into the community. Why is it, then, that most churches are structured in a way that features the gifts of a few while neglecting the gifts of the many? The gathering of the church is vital to its health, but the sending out of the body is essential to its task. As such, should not a church’s success be evaluated on the basis of sending capacity just as much as seating capacity?
This book was a breath of fresh air for me. With clear examples and compelling stories, Platt shows what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus in an affluent culture. Evangelical religiosity is not discipleship, and the people in our churches need to know the difference. Further, Platt reminded me of what it looks like to believe in the simple power of the gospel. He helped me to sort through a lot of man-centered, flesh-powered, church growth fads and showed me again God’s vision for, and his promises to, his church. I was moved and inspired.
A FEW CONCERNS
There were a few things about Radical Together that raised concern.
Reducing the Entire Christian Life to the Great Commission
As with Radical, this book tends, in places, toward reductionism. Platt sometimes speaks as if the Great Commission is God’s only purpose for us, and only things done toward that end have any real value. Yet the Scriptures teach that God is glorified by, and has a plan for, skills that aren’t “directly” applied to the Great Commission. For example, the Spirit filled Bezalel and Oholiab with skill in artistry and craftsmanship, which they used to beautify the tabernacle (Ex. 31:1–5). And Paul told Timothy that God gives material blessings to his children for their enjoyment, and they can and should enjoy them in moderation, without guilt (1 Tim. 6:17).
But how can we bear to use some of our money for enjoyment when there are so many needy around the world? How could God have directed Bezalel and Oholiab to “waste their time” on beautifying the tabernacle when there were so many poor, homeless strangers in Israel? The biblical answer is that God is glorified as we exercise our talents and enjoy his gifts, not only when we directly engage in Great Commission work.
The scope of Christian discipleship includes learning to glorify God in all things, including how we work, eat and drink, love our families, and enjoy creation (1 Cor. 10:31, Col. 3:21-24, 1 Tim. 6:6-9, et al.). Brook Hills Bob has not been reached merely for the sake of Brook Hills Baruti (93), he has been reached for the sake of God’s glory, that Bob might glorify Him in all that Bob does. In short, “radical” devotion to Jesus does not mean pursuing one dimension of discipleship to the neglect of all the others. “Radical” should apply to how we pursue all of the Bible’s teachings, not just the Great Commission.
Who Resources the Great Commission?
I also got the sense in reading RT that Platt believes the burden for resourcing the Great Commission rests on the church, and thus every material thing we own should be evaluated against how it can be used for the Great Commission. However, God has not placed the burden of resourcing the Great Commission on our shoulders. And that’s a good thing, because we could not sustain it.
God is the supplier for the Great Commission; we are never more than dependent servants. Jesus went to great lengths to demonstrate that to his disciples: He fed the multitude to overflowing with just five loaves and two fish and provided tax money for one of his disciples out of a fish’s mouth. He left no doubt that he did not need his disciples to supply him with anything! Our responsibility is simply to faithfully steward what God has given us. That includes, of course, giving generously—even extravagantly—to his work on earth, but we should be very clear that God is not depending on our resources to get his job done. Further, some of what God provides he intends for us to enjoy, and we are free—and even commanded—to do so with thanksgiving and without guilt. We should give as faithful stewards, not as those who suppose they must be world-saviors. The former leads to freedom and generosity; the latter to guilt, despair, and burn-out.
At Times Over-reactive
Finally, while David’s critique of the church growth movement is prophetic and timely, I thought in a few places it was over-reactive and a little unfair. For example, Platt dismisses the “seeker-sensitive” movement in one paragraph by saying, flatly, that in Scripture there are no true seekers. Thus, anything we do to attract people to our churches lacks theological basis (108). It is true that there are no genuine “seekers” of God (per Romans 3:10) apart from God’s Spirit, and that many church growth strategies attempt to build the church through the power of the flesh. But saying that there are “no true seekers” does not mean that God is not already at work in some, drawing them to the faith (for example, Cornelius in Acts 10:1–5).
For “seekers” like Cornelius, the hospitality of our churches can adorn the gospel and encourage faith. Some of what “church growth” advocates prescribe is simply that—equipping a congregation to be hospitable to its unbelieving community.
We have a statement at our church that “the sermon starts in the parking lot.” We believe that how we treat a guest gives them a glimpse of the hospitality of Christ. Believers should be the most hospitable people on earth, and their public gatherings should be no exception. If I were having unbelievers over to my house, I have a hard time seeing how God would be glorified through lousy directions, awkward parking, and a cheap meal.
Now, is our hospitality toward unbelievers of greater value than the preached Word? Of course not. (And this is where much of the church growth movement goes desperately wrong, as Platt notes.) But that doesn’t mean it has no value. Balance is, of course, the key. And this book certainly goes a long way in confronting a Christian culture that has gone entirely out of balance in one direction, even if perhaps it takes us a little too far in the other.
A CALL TO THE SIMPLE AND REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF THE GOSPEL
All in all, this book represents what I believe to be God’s gracious work of calling his church back to the simple and revolutionary power of the gospel. I am grateful for it, and for David Platt.
David’s book led me to serious reflection on where I have led our church to place its emphases, what we have spent our money on, and to what end we are expending most of our energies. It is one of the most helpful books I have read this year. I purchased a copy for every member of our staff to read. I would encourage you to do the same.