Preaching for Radical Discipleship: An Interview with David Platt
- 2010 3 Aug
Preaching: Your book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream is a powerful message to church leaders. What is behind that?
Platt: I came to Brook Hills as the pastor about four years ago, and God had been working on various parts of my heart regarding some of the truths I've tried to express in the book. As I came to Brook Hills, they really took on a whole new level, because I found myself in a church culture where a lot of the standards of success seemed a lot more worldly and American than biblical and Christian. We'd embraced some ideas and values that were common in our culture, but ultimately antithetical to the gospel.
As we began as a faith family to walk through the gospel and consider its effects on the way we live— particularly in a suburban context in the southern part of the United States—we began to see a lot of our faith looked more American than biblical. In some ways, we were twisting Jesus to look like us instead of adjusting our lives to look more like Him. So that journey during the past few years as pastor in this church really has been the overflow of what God has been and still is teaching me and this faith family.
The book grew out of some things we were walking through as a church, so members who come to the church a year or 10 years from now will know some of the issues we have journeyed through as a church— to understand where we're coming from and why we're approaching church and Christianity the way we are. That's where it started; from there it grew and developed.
Preaching: I suspect most pastors and most American churches would find that a lot of those characteristics you're talking about in your church are common to most of our churches, where we've tended to be so acculturated that we're often not focusing on the biblical gospel so much as we are the American gospel.
Platt: That's exactly it. I don't want to cast a totally negative light on some of the things in church growth and other things that have brought us to where we are in the state of the church. There's really a church culture that has been built on entertaining and comforting ourselves when the central message of Christianity is about abandoning ourselves.
We see it in some of the ways we do church, the way we structure church, the way we organize ourselves in church; the deeper issue is exactly that—it's the gospel. Who is the Christ we believe in? What does He require—demand of our lives—by His grace and in His mercy? What does it really mean to follow after Him in a context where we are incredibly wealthy compared to the rest of the world, where we have so many resources, where we are tempted at every turn to trust in our own power, innovative skills and creativity as opposed to trusting in the power of God in a world where there's more than a billion people who haven't heard the gospel and don't have access to the gospel? Our Christianity really does need to look radically different for the sake of sharing the gospel with the world.
Preaching: You've had a lot of travel and interaction with Christians in the developing world. How has that shaped some of your own views?
Platt: There's no question that time with brothers and sisters overseas—often in persecuted contexts or where people have little or no access to the gospel—that those times have been formative in my own life and leadership. Time overseas has opened my eyes to the global nature of God and His desire for His glory among all nations. How is my life in Birmingham, Ala., going to be a part of spreading His glory to all nations and advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth? This is what Scripture clearly says we were created for, but it's not until we go into other contexts and see what God is doing in the world and learn from our brothers and sisters in those contexts that we begin to see some of the blind spots in our lives.
The transformation that happens in our perspective by being around and intentionally involved with brothers and sisters around the world in the Great Commission is very transformative. That's why in my own life and the context of the church I serve now, we challenge everybody (if at all possible) to go and be a part of taking the gospel into another context, because it radically changes the way we view Christianity in our own context. In the process, we are humbled; we are challenged, encouraged; and we come back to wherever we live and realize, "OK, how is my life here going to be a part of the global mission of God?"
This is not something I necessarily have to wait for a calling to; this is something I was created for. There's no question that my time in other contexts—whether in East Asia, Southeast Asia or Africa, where brothers and sisters are risking their lives to follow Christ, where men and women never have heard the gospel—that's had a transformative impact on me.
Preaching: In the book, you've got some amazing stories illustrating the power of the gospel in some of these settings. There was one remarkable incident with an Indonesian seminary student. Would you mind sharing that?
Platt: Within Indonesia, which is the world's largest Muslim-dominated nation, I was in this seminary where every student is required to plant a church. In order to graduate, every student is required to plant a church in a Muslim community with at least 30 new baptized believers. These seminary students are incredible. I spoke at their graduation, and it was humbling to look before me and see that every single student had planted a church in a Muslim community with at least 30 new baptized believers.
The most sobering part was one point in the graduation ceremony when we had a moment of prayer and silence for two of the classmates who had died in the process. These students are incredible.
I was talking to one particular brother; I changed his name in the book for his security, I call him Raydon. Before he came to Christ, Raydon had been a fighter. He was sharing his testimony with us. He knew all these fighting techniques. He was talking about how he could take people down. We were taking a mental note not to mess with Raydon!
He told us about one time when he was in an unreached village. He was sharing the gospel in this one particular home, and the witch doctor in that village came to the house. Those are very common—they have a really spiritual sway over entire villages with their incantations and curses. The witch doctor called Raydon out of the house, basically wanting to pick a fight with him. So Raydon said he got up and turned around, ready to walk out and go take the witch doctor down. As he was walking out of the house, he sensed the Lord saying, "No, you don't do the fighting anymore; I do the fighting for you."
So Raydon walked out, got a chair and sat down right in front of the witch doctor, looked at him and said, "I don't do the fighting anymore. My God does the fighting for me." He said the witch doctor began to speak; and as he began to speak, the witch doctor began to choke on his own words and gasp for air. Within a few moments, he had fallen over dead right in front of him.
Raydon said, "I didn't know what to do. I had no idea. All these crowds were coming, so I just started to preach the gospel." He said many people ended up coming to Christ that day; they just followed in the village. I do share in the book that I don't think sitting down in front of people and seeing them die right in front of you is necessarily the best method of evangelism!
Yet at the same time, it was a clear reminder to me that 2,000 years ago there was a name that when proclaimed caused the blind to see, the lame to walk and the dead to rise again; 2,000 years later the name is still good. There's power in the name of Christ and the gospel of Christ as it's going forward to the ends of the earth. We can have confidence as followers of Christ, ministers of the gospel, that there is great power that accompanies the preaching of the gospel.
Preaching: In the book, you urge the readers to take what you call the radical experiment. Tell me about the radical experiment.
Platt: Basically the radical experiment is something we did at Brook Hills to try to put some handles on tangible ways that we can put obedience to Christ into action in a way that we're seeing unfold in the gospels. So there are five components, and number one is to pray for the entire world. We as a faith family are using Operation World, which is an incredible prayer guide for praying for the world. The good thing about Operation World (or anything else along those lines) is it enables you to pray. Literally, you can walk through the entire year and pray for every single nation in the world. So the radical experiment starts with a one-year commitment literally to pray for every nation and allow God to transform our hearts in the context of praying for the world.
Second: to read through the entire Word and look intentionally and intensively at the revelation of God and His Word. So we as a faith family are walking through, reading the Bible together—as individuals, as families and as a faith family.
The third component is to sacrifice your money for a specific purpose. This is where we have challenged folks for a year: Just start with a year, and put a cap on our lifestyles. Don't think that just because we have a certain amount of money that we're required to live according to that standard. Put a cap on your lifestyle; free up as much as you can for one year to make sacrifices in our lives; and free up as much as we can to give away for the glory of Christ. I mean, there's urgent spiritual and physical need in the world. So we've been doing that as a church and as individuals and families in the church.
Fourth: Spend your time in another context. Take time in that year to go into some other context with the gospel—ideally somewhere overseas, although it doesn't necessarily have to be overseas. The way we describe it at Brook Hills is we challenge everybody to give 2 percent of his or her life during the year (about one week) to take the gospel to another context. That 2 percent radically will transform the other 98 percent of their lives.
Fifth: Commit your life to multiplying community. This is primarily a commitment in the context of the local church. None of us is called to be Lone Rangers in this picture; we're called to follow after Christ in the context of community, but not just in the local church. Even at Brook Hills as we've challenged folks to do this, we've challenged them to get involved in a small group where they are doing disciple-making, where they are sharing the gospel together, showing what the gospel looks like as they share life with one another, teaching the gospel to one another and serving the world together. So we challenge them to carry out the other components in the context of community.
Basically, the five components of the radical experiment are those: to pray for the entire world; read through the entire Word; sacrifice money for a specific purpose; spend time in another context; and commit your life to multiplying community. These are means by which God transforms us, and they penetrate our hearts with truth and really bring it to light.
Preaching: David, tell me about "Secret Church."
Platt: "Secret Church" was born out of a time I spent with some underground house churches in East Asia, where they gathered together for 8-12 hours at a time at the risk of their lives. When they make the sacrifice to get together, they want to make the most of it. So they gather for 8-12 hours and study the Word together—literally for 12 (sometimes more) hours a day. They're just so hungry for the Word. These are contexts where there's no entertainment value, so to speak, apart from the Word—simply the Word. That is enough for them to risk their lives to get to know it.
When I came to Brook Hills, we began asking, "Why can't we do the same thing?" So the first time we did it, we called it "Secret Church," but we said, "OK, we can't do 12 hours; we'll start with 6 hours." So from 6 to midnight, we gathered in our auditorium and studied the Word—no emphasis on music, lights or anything like that, just stripped down bare, just us and the Word of God. We take breaks, and on our breaks we pray intentionally for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world who gather together at the risk of their lives to study the Word [this way].
The first night, we had about 1,000 people show up; and it was good. It just grew from there. We only are able to do it a couple times a year; but when we do, we have to take reservations because we don't have enough room. It's like $5 per person, which covers the study guide. When we put the tickets out for reservations, they sold out in three hours, so we'll have more than 3,000 people there. We have one overflow room and our regular auditorium.
It's one of my favorite sights as a pastor to look out after midnight—we hardly ever finish right at midnight, we usually go to closer to 1:00 a.m.—but to look out at 12:30 and see a room packed full of people with their Bibles open, just diving into the Word and praying for the persecuted church. That's what "Secret Church" is.
Preaching: As you have led your church through this adventure in radical discipleship, how has that influenced or impacted your own preaching?
Platt: It's been huge in my own preaching. Where a lot of this started was in my own personal life and conviction from the Word as I was reading through the Bible, particularly in the gospels. I was just challenged and convicted in my own life. When I began to preach some of these texts, I already was beginning to make various adjustments in my own life and our family. So as I began to preach through the text that really had pierced me, that overflow came about in the way I was preaching. I think the Word had humbled me. The Word had convicted me, had challenged me.
As we preach the text, the more it is internalized and transforms us, the more effectively we are able to communicate that Word with clarity, authenticity, passion, humility and hopefully with accuracy. So in that way it certainly transformed my preaching. As a result of that, some other things have happened. For instance, I was preaching through James. James just messed me and messed us up. James says you can't just hear this; you've got to do this. When it comes to James 1:27, looking after orphans and widows is the religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless.
It's one thing to preach that, but how do we live this out in the context of this community of faith and the context of His church? What does it look like for us to do this Word? What does it look like for us to live out this gospel? It certainly has changed, transformed and challenged me—and as a result, my preaching.
Preaching: If we were to come to a typical weekend service at Brook Hills to hear you preach, give us a sense of what that would be like. I know you're an expositor, so you have a strong emphasis on the biblical text; but tell me what one of your sermons typically would be like.
Platt: I hope that it would be clear from start to finish. When I get up to preach, the Word is primary; the Word is driving this picture. I don't say this to be cliché or trite, but I have nothing to bring to the table as the pastor before this people apart from His Word. My entire credibility, any authority I have to speak before them, is based on being tied to His Word. So I hope that if you were to come to Brook Hills, you would hear a Word-saturated sermon.
We would dive into the text, almost always one particular text. We'll go all over the place to understand what this one text is saying as we look at this particular text in the context of biblical theology. I hope you would see the text as primary. I hope the sermon would lead you to love and enjoy more greatly the supremacy of Christ. This year I'm preaching on different texts each week that we have read through in the week prior, just to see how everything in redemptive history is pointing us to the greatness of Christ.
You'd be there a little while. The sermon would last about 55 minutes or an hour. I give our folks notes they can fill in as they walk through the text. My prayer is that in preaching they would not just see the wonder of the Word but would learn to study the Word in the nature of how I preach it.
I don't use a ton of illustrations. I don't feel like I have time sometimes. I probably could do a better job of this to be honest. I think it would be pretty heavy on explanation; and I think once we do end up at an explanation, it provides the platform for pointed application. So I want to do illustration and argumentation along the way that is going to help support that, but I want explanation to be primary.
Preaching: Do you primarily preach in series?
Platt: I do. This year is a little different because we're walking through Scripture, so I'm preaching on different texts every week from where we've been reading this year; but even then, we've divided into different series based on different epochs, so to speak, and redemptive history. Before that, I preached through James, Ruth, etc. I've done a good bit on addressing some issues in the church that I thought pastorally needed to be addressed.
We've walked through more topical series, but with textual sermons. I preached a series on worship, but we were in one text each week. Each week we'd spend time in one text, look at what this text is saying, then how it forms my understanding of worship. So it wouldn't be as much of a topical sermon as much as it would be a topical series with textual sermons.
Preaching: Typically how long do you spend preparing for a message? What does your preparation process look like?
Platt: I'll readily admit that I'm a bit spoiled in this because I only preach one sermon a week. I know a lot of my friends who preach three, four sermons a week. Preparation time can't look the same for that, but only having to preach one text a week gives me the liberty and the opportunity to spend 20-25 hours—sometimes less, sometimes more—in the text during the week.
To start with, I'll overview the process, reading through the text, wanting to internalize that text as I pray through it, as I let it penetrate my own heart. Then I begin to work with the various tools in my library, studying different facets of the background of words, phrases, movements and narrative; then working through from there, counter theories and that sort of thing and compiling all that together.
When it comes to the divisions of the sermon or movements in the sermon, my goal is to have an outline for the sermon by Thursday. Then I write from there; from the outline, I write a full manuscript over the course of Friday and Saturday. On Sunday morning, I take the manuscript and put it into a document that I'll take into the pulpit with me where I don't have every single word but have pretty much everything I'm going to say—just kind of shorthand written out. I won't take a full manuscript with me into the pulpit, but I will take a pretty extensive picture of notes with me into the pulpit.
Preaching: What are some of the most important things you're learning about preaching these days?
Platt: I would say I'm learning first and foremost to trust the Word of God to do the work. As I look at what God is doing in my own life, as well as the lives of this church that He's entrusted to me to lead, it is clear that only His Word can bring about transformation and life change. To see that His Word is good for conforming people to the image of Christ, for going into making radical changes in their lives, only the Word can do that—not my opinions, thoughts or ideas, but the power of the Word, the effect of the Word in that wisdom that is found in the Word.
As a young pastor, I've got so much to learn; but it's such a great encouragement and source of confidence to know, "OK, I can try to chart out what to do next for this or that in the church. If I let the Word lead, guide, direct—and even systematic study of the Word, whether it's this year just walking through the entire Bible or as I anticipate what we'll do next year, what vital book we might dive into next—just to know His Word is going to address what is needed in the context of the people I lead.
So a trust, a confidence in seeing the transformative effect of God's Word—these are the main things the Lord is teaching me right now. He constantly is humbling me in His Word as a pastor, and more importantly as a follower of Christ. I've got a lot to learn. I'm like Solomon in First Kings. I'm really a child, and I don't know how to carry out my duties, so I'm grateful for the sufficiency and power that's found in His Word to be strengthened in the middle of my weakness.