David Platt, Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God (Multnomah Books, 2011), 176 pages.
David Platt released Radical last year, promising to help readers “take back their faith from the American dream.” The promise appears to have been counterintuitively alluring, as Radical made The New York Times bestseller list and in various forms (audio, study guide, sermon series) found its way into hundreds of churches and thousands of Christian homes. In short order, Radical’s spirit spread like wildfire. It’s even acquired church visibility up in my neck of the woods (rural Vermont), a locale typically insulated from and oblivious to the publishing trends and phenomena sweeping the rest of the nation. I’ve seen Radical for sale at Wal-Mart, which, given its strong words against consumerism, is a bit like finding AA pamphlets for sale at a liquor store. For some suburban Christian communities, Platt’s book has become a bright orange badge of self-reflection, a sign of the desire of some to rethink how first-century discipleship plays out in the midst of twenty-first-century cultural Christianity. “I may have this book stuffed in my kid’s Eddie Bauer diaper bag,” it says, “but I am seriously thinking about downsizing the house, trading in the Escalade, and adopting eight kids from Uganda.”
To be clear, this is a good thing.
Nevertheless, in the wake of Radical came unsurprising criticism. In some regards, Platt is an unlikely publishing juggernaut: he was a seminary professor and did not figure so prominently in really any of the media-savvy corners of the evangelical world. But he has sounded many of the same alarms as Francis Chan, whose ministry (and bestselling book, Crazy Love) might be seen as the forerunners of Platt’s emergence. Like Chan (did), Platt pastors a megachurch (the Church at Brook Hills outside Birmingham, Alabama). Like Chan, Platt wrestles with how such ecclesial largesse jibes with mustard seed faith, flesh-crucifixion, and cross-taking mission. And like Chan, Platt has taken his share of heat for this wrestling.
Currently Skye Jethani at Out of Ur and Mike Mercer (Chaplain Mike) of The Internet Monk have been hashing out ways to demythologize and challenge a particularly unhealthy activism-for-everyone they are detecting in the strains of “radical Christianity” now emerging. Other than Mercer’s direct review of Radical, however, he does not appear to mention Platt or his book in his current series, and neither does Jethani (that I can see). But the radical idealism of Radical (and Crazy Love) is clearly in their crosshairs. Kevin DeYoung wrote a helpful review that summarizes some of the concerns many of us have about Radical.
We may synopsize the concerns with this question: Doesn’t the new push for “radicalism” in Christianity simply amount to a souped-up (but gospel-deficient) pietism? Or, in other words, are we simply cracking the whip of legalism in a new way, appealing to white suburban guilt in order to manufacture a religious zeal that is not sustainable? It is a legitimate fear.
So this month as Platt’s follow-up debuts, the question is this: Would these concerns and criticisms shape how the author develops the implications of Radical for the mission of the church? The good news is that Platt appears to have taken the concerns to heart, and he really does demonstrate having listened to his critics, given their challenges due consideration, and being willing to soften in some places and sharpen in others. Thus, Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God takes on the implications of the cost of discipleship on the corporate aims of the body of Christ.
The most glaring evidence of the author taking his feedback to heart is Radical Together’s second chapter, which is titled “The Gospel Misunderstood.” No doubt Platt himself felt a bit misunderstood previously and would shore that up this time around, reminding us pointedly that “The gospel that saves us to work saves us from work.” Actually, he composes that line the other way around—“The gospel that saves us from work saves us to work”—because it better fits his emphasis on the fruit of faith rather than the focus of faith. This could be a misstep in itself, but we ought to take Platt’s words at face value when he writes, for instance:
No matter what you do, even if you sell all of your possessions and move to the most dangerous country in the world for ministry’s sake, you cannot do enough to be accepted before God. And the beauty of the gospel is that you don’t have to. God so loved you that, despite your hopeless state of sin, he sent his Son—God in the flesh—to live the life you could not live. Jesus alone has kept the commands of God. He alone has been faithful enough, generous enough, and compassionate enough. Indeed, he alone has been radical enough (23).
That is a most necessary and helpful reminder. Platt rightfully reiterates, “The gospel has saved you from your work, and you are free from any effort to overcome your guilt before God” (24). Radical Together, like Radical, is rife with imperatives, but this time around the author is keen on tying them to the indicatives of the gospel in a more prominent way. I am grateful for this mindfulness, and if I could provide an imperative of my own to anyone who purchases the book hoping for inspiration, it would be to underline the sentence on page 35 that reads, “The gospel is the key—and the only sustainable motivation—to sacrificial living.”
Indicatives Matched to Imperatives
If critics will find theological quibbles with Radical Together, they will have to settle for saying that Platt does not seed these indicatives into his text more consistently throughout the book. But he says what’s necessary. And in that regard, the real quibble we policers of gospel-centrality may have with the book is not what Platt says, necessarily, but how he says it. Radical Together may not reflect the Pauline tendency to keep those indicatives and imperatives tightly matched—Philippians 2:12-13; Galatians 5:19-23; Colossians 1:29; etc.—but it reflects the match nevertheless.
The book’s third chapter, titled “God Is Saying Something,” stumps for the authority of God’s written Word in the unparalleled power of the gospel. Platt previously nods at the potential for Radical-inspired disillusionment in his introduction, writing, “You may even be a Christian who is tempted to throw in the towel and say, ‘My church will never be radical’” (viii). I have suffered through and seen others suffer from the nagging and chiding that can result from such discontentment in the church. Indeed, as a pastor, I’ve done a fair share of this nagging myself. In chapter three, Platt basically answers the question, “How do people become radical?” and makes this his key practical application: Preach the Word.
As members in the church, will we trust that God knew what he was doing when he gave us his Word? Together, will we realize that our greatest need is not to be successful business executives, profitable money managers, or even good parents but to know God and to walk with him (52)?
That is a very good word. And while other pastors and writers have said it more artfully, more cleverly, almost none of them get to say it to as many people as Platt does. For that reason alone—that Radical Together’s platform gets these counter-(church)cultural, God-centered words before the eyes of thousands of evangelicals who wouldn’t pick up books by John Piper or Michael Horton (et.al.)—we all ought to be grateful for Platt’s platform. Your cousin at the seeker-sensitive, production-driven megachurch will likely read, “The Word is sufficient to hold the attention of God’s people and satisfying enough to capture their affection” (57).
Short Read, High Cost
Radical Together is a short and relatively easy read, which belies the commitment and the cost argued for on its pages. Throughout six relatively brief chapters, Platt explicitly and implicitly connects God’s love for us in Christ with our mission of love for others in Christ, holding up close-to-home examples of downsizing families and internationally adopting couples and further-flung examples of death-defying world missionaries.
What constitutes “radical,” according to Platt, varies according to the calling of God upon our lives, but it is clear that some kind of out-of-the-norm sacrifice is required. (At this point, I would love to recommend to you a message by Bill Streger, pastor of Kaleo Church in Houston, Texas, called “The Gospel and the Ordinary,” which was preached at the Lead Conference in Maine last year). And yet, in Radical Together at least, the self-sacrifice is not pitched as sexy and self-exalting. In the book’s sixth chapter, “The God Who Exalts God,” Platt does an adequate job explaining that God’s foremost passion is for his own glory. He writes:
Humbled by the reality of a self-existent, self-sustaining, self-sufficient God, I realized:
God does not need me.
God does not need my church.
God does not need you.
God does not need your church.
God does not need our conferences, conventions, plans, programs, budgets, buildings, or mission agencies.
I would recommend this particular message to any Christian wholeheartedly.
The book itself I recommend with only one concern, as previously mentioned, that he would have more tightly matched the imperatives of discipleship to the indicatives of the gospel when writing. But it is clear that Platt gets this connection, understands it well, and has allowed previously shared concerns to shape his presentation, which no doubt allows him to better present what he actually endorses!
In Isaiah 6, we see the prophet’s radical zeal to pour himself out in mission. What prompted this willingness? An undone-ness resulting from beholding God’s manifest glory. Platt’s book, designed to call churches to self-emptying exaltation of God, could have shown more evidence of reveling in that same awe. But that is admittedly a personal preference.