David Platt has preached for seven hours straight. He can recite Romans 1-8 on the spot. He delivered the most powerful sermon in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors' Conference. People brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that his shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.
Okay, so the last item was Peter, not Platt. But enthused congregations are raving about the pastor of the Church at Brooks Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. Three years into his pastorate, David Platt is still only 30 years old. He earned his M.Div. and Ph.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he served as assistant professor of expository preaching and apologetics. Christianity Today editor at large Collin Hansen spoke with Platt to learn about the man behind the mythology and ask about how to build biblical understanding in the local church.
How did you develop such a deep understanding and passion for Scripture?
God by his grace provided men in my life who poured the Word into me and taught me the supremacy of his Word, that any power in walking with Christ, even more so leading a church, is dependent on understanding God in his Word.
Coming into this role, I have nothing to bring to the table apart from his Word. This is the first church I've pastored. I don't have a lot of wisdom that life experience would bring. We're going to trust that his Word is sufficient and that any authority I have to lead in the church is dependent on the authority of God's Word and my attachment to it. There's no question that anything good is completely attributed to, dependent on, and accredited to the power of his Word. The Word does the work.
All good evangelicals affirm the centrality of the Word. Still, we have a severe problem of biblical illiteracy. How do we go from knowing the Word is important to knowing what the Word actually says?
We have severely dumbed down the Word, and shown a lack of trust in the sufficiency of the Word in the way we preach. We find it necessary to supplement it with entertaining stories and quips or good practical advice for living the Christian life that are not based in the Word. This deficiency transfers into people content with a little "Word for the Day," in a devotional book at best, as opposed to deep knowledge of Scripture.
We're trying to hit at the problem from a variety of angles at Brook Hills. First of all, in worship we're quoting the Word, singing the Word, and engaging in intensive study. We'll study 55 minutes to an hour. We try to really saturate the community of faith with the Word when we gather together.
I go to other places, such as house churches in Asia, and they study for 11 or 12 hours, knowing they risk their lives. They'll dive in deep. We came back and tried to do something similar here. We call it secret church and do it a couple times a year. We gather together for intensive study with no frills, nothing flashy, no entertainment value. The first time, about 1,000 showed up. We studied Old Testament overview from 6 p.m. to midnight, but usually it goes longer, supplemented by times in prayer for the persecuted church. It's all ages, but the predominant demographic is college students and young singles. It's grown to the point where we need to offer tickets at $5 for reservations and the cost of a study guide. We'll do it again in October with 2,500 folks. It's theological in nature. We've done a night on the Atonement, another on the doctrine of God. This time we're doing spiritual warfare. It's one of my favorite sights as a pastor to look out at 12:30 a.m. and see a room full of 2,500 people, their Bibles open, soaking it in.
We have so lowered the bar for biblical/theological literacy in the church, that if you really want solid training, you go to seminary. As a result, the bar is really low even for those going into seminary. I want to raise the bar on both levels. Much of what we get in seminary should be prevalent in the local church. We're starting a training center here. The goal is to provide seminary education in the context of this local church, accessible to the entire church, equipping them to make disciples of all the nations.
How does this program differ from adult education and Sunday school?
It's more academic in nature. It involves reading, buying books, assignments. There's no grading. It's pass/fail. We encourage small-group leaders to get training, along with elders and those who lead in musical worship. This spring, we're starting a church-planting component on two different tracks, vocational or bivocational. We're doing the "best of seminary" over one year, and at the end of the year we'll send church planters out with support. We're not presuming to do in a year what seminaries can do in three or four years. But we want to make biblical/theological training accessible to as many people as possible. Then we're taking all the teaching and translating it into multiple languages.
I imagine some churches would see these plans as unrealistic, or the overly ambitious plans of a 30-year-old pastor with a Ph.D.
There's no question that our size and resources make the breadth of what Brook Hills can do greater than what an average 50- or 100-member church can do. But while the breadth certainly changes, the foundational truths here are reproducible. The New Testament pattern is churches raising up leaders and missionaries. Maybe the small-church pastor brings one or two guys alongside as he preaches the Word. As he platforms the Word in the community of faith, then people's hunger grows. We have people begging for this here. The more they taste the Word, the more they want it, the more they want to minister. We've had about 1,000 each year go overseas doing disciple-making. The more they go, they more they realize they need to be equipped to be a part of what God's doing around the world.
While it's encouraging to see so many people hungry for God's Word, how do they deal with the implications of what they're reading?
A year ago this time, I hit a crisis of belief. I started looking at what the gospel teaches and the Word teaches about the poor. All throughout Scripture, God measures the integrity of his people's faith by their concern for the poor. And he has strong words on this subject. I asked myself, Do I really believe the Word? I preach it, I love it, I memorize it, and I study it, but am I really willing to submit my life to it in such a way that I reorient how I live my life in Birmingham to have deep compassion for the poor? This process overflowed into my preaching. As we studied the Rich Young Ruler or Luke 16 and saw concern for the poor all over Scripture, I said, "We are ignoring the poor with the way we're living in Birmingham. If we believe the gospel, then our opulent living compared to the rest of the world does not make sense. We need to make major changes, individually, in our families, with our houses, cars, and stuff." People would not say they wanted to resist the Word, but that message created all sorts of stirring. That's where the Word is attacking a core issue in our culture.
I'm not advocating legalistic standards, but what we've seen in the Word is that if Christ is in us, then our lives do not make a lot of sense in this area. There are 16,000 children who will die today due to starvation or preventable disease. We need to answer for why we're spending so much on our homes and stuff. My wife and I put our house on the market and began making adjustments. Others have been doing the same. One wealthy member in our faith family, while we were studying the Rich Young Ruler, told me I'm nuts. But then he said, "I think you're right. This is exactly what the Word teaches." With tears in his eyes, he said, "I have reached the conclusion that I'm never going to stand before God and hear him tell me, 'I wish you had kept more for yourself.'" Now he's selling his house to invest in needs around the world.
When you talk about increasing biblical and theological knowledge, you're not just talking about making people smarter. You're helping them to conform to the image of Christ.
The purpose of God's Word is to transform us into the image of Christ. The Word radically changes the way we live. This is why it's more important for me to preach Leviticus than to give them tips on parenting. The reality is that Scripture is not a guidebook for a lot of the things folks are going through. It's given to us for one purpose: to make us look more like Christ. When we look more like Christ, then when we're walking through grief or a parenting challenge, we find ourselves in touch with Holy Spirit of God, who is able to walk us through those things we're battling day in and day out. No other book in the Christian bookstore can get them in touch with the Holy Spirit of God.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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Christianity Today published a brief profile of Platt in 2006.
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