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The Perfect Storm: The Recalibration of the American Dream

September 14, 2010

The Perfect Storm: The Recalibration of the American dream

I’m just beginning to think there is a silver lining around the leaden gray cloud of daily gloom that crowds most everything else out of our pervasive news environment. It is about a change in character and values rather than a government induced attempt to buy our way out of the recession. As Linda summarized after listening to me grouse about our nation’s anemic financial situation, “Well, money isn’t everything.” Indulge me in some positive speculation fostered first by my favorite social observer, David Brooks, then by describing a prescient and deeply encouraging conversation I had after a recent Halftime Institute.

A September 8 NY Times David Brooks Op-Ed predicts radical changes in the American Dream. He says, “In the coming years of slow growth, people are bound to establish new norms and seek noneconomic ways to find meaning. … Today, savings rates are climbing, and smart advertisers emphasize small town restraint and respectability.”Brooks focuses on a recent book by David Platt, a megachurch pastor who leads a 4,000 person suburban church in Birmingham, Alabama. The book is titled, “Radical; Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream,” which Brooks says “encapsulates many of the themes that have been floating around 20-somethings evangelical circles the past several years.”

For several years my associates at Leadership Network and Halftime have observed American megachurches moving from comfortable, consumer Christianity to an external focus on their communities. A good example is our 2003 book, “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church ” by Reggie McNeal.

David Platt’s critique says, “The American Dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel.” Platt argues that the American Dream emphasizes self-development and personal growth. Our own abilities are our greatest assets. But the Gospel rejects the focus on self: “God actually delights in exalting our inability.” The American Dream emphasizes upward mobility, but success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up. This is what Bill Hybels, of WillowCreek Church in Chicago, has been encouraging for years: “downward mobility.” The Brooks piece affirms Platt in his assertion that the American Dream over the next several years will be redefined. It took years to get into this debt-funded excess of living beyond our means. And the way out may focus on meaning more than money. It this what you are observing too?
A Remarkable Dinner

I meet a lot of purposeful people in the ten or so sessions of the 26-hour Halftime Institute I lead each year. The subject is always the personal quest from success to significance. I had a fascinating give-and-take with Mark Rhodes, who works with hundreds of significance seekers serving in relief and development efforts on behalf of the world’s poor. Mark is Director of Engagement for World Vision. Following dinner, we had a pile of back-of-the-napkin notes. I asked Mark if he would be willing to summarize our thoughts (mostly his) in a short memo that I could share with others. Here is what he sent verbatim – all Mark’s words. Be inspired. This is profound stuff.

The Perfect Storm

Connecting the Rich, the Poor and Everyone Else

Concepts Reflected by Mark Rhode, July 2010

During a recent trip to Lesotho, a tiny Kingdom landlocked within the borders of the Republic of South Africa, I startled myself with the question, “is it possible the rich need the poor as much as the poor need the rich”

Rich Like Never Before

For most of history, the human experience has been that of the poor. There have been only a handful of noble or rich.

In the past two generations – tremendous wealth has been generated by the masses. For the first time in human history – dozens of millions are truly (financially) rich and tenfold that number have expendable wealth.

Humankind is facing something entirely new. Within the “developed” world, we are the first generations to be surrounded by financial opportunities, vacations, hobbies, free time, cheap housing, fuel and food – an abundance of everything we need.

And now, billions and billions of dollars are being transferred from those who created the wealth to their offspring and dependents.

Something in our DNA

And yet, there is something about being human, perhaps a shadow of image of the God who created us – that cries out for interpersonal significance.

Especially when basic needs are being met (thank you Maslow), we seek to fill a powerful void of social, interpersonal significance.

When the rich allow themselves to see the pain of poverty through the eyes of a child or a mother – there is a great need to respond. It would be un-human not to do so.

For the first time in human history – we are on the precipice a new movement, an explosion of human potential – a transfer of values from the rich to the poor – and from the poor to the rich.

The poor need the rich – to partner with them to fight economic poverty. The rich need the poor – to partner with them to fight spiritual poverty.

The Solution to Poverty

Charity alone will not rid the world of poverty. Wealth creation is the solution to poverty.

This is possible only by assisting the poor in the creation their own wealth.   This becomes realistic with a) access to clean water, b) sustainable food production, c) basic education, d) basic health care and e) the tools of economic development – including small and micro businesses development and micro-financial services.

The Perfect Storm

  1. Never before has there been such great wealth.
  2. Never before has there been mass awareness of the human condition. The HIV/Aids Pandemic, Food Crises in Africa and Mass Disasters such as the Haiti Earthquake and the Asian Tsunami have become part of the broad human experience. Millions of the wealthy (through the media) have instant access to the human impact of poverty.
  3. Never before has technology enabled everyone to be connected with everyone. Social media platforms on the web, software solutions (like eBay and Univicity) create markets for exchange of products, information and commerce – both for profit and not-for-profit.
  4. Never before has there been a generation of market-place leaders who are seeking to translate the success of their “first-half” into significance in their “second-half”.
  5. Never before have non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in aggregate become a powerful force for change.
  6. Never before have principles for management effectiveness (Drucker Unpacked) been accessible to the masses.
  7. Never before has a generation (the Millenial Generation) been so motivated to make difference in the world.
  8. Never before has the Christian Church been on the brink of mass mobilization to address a common challenge – and thus fulfill the teachings of Jesus Christ to care for the poor. Thousands of congregations are releasing the time, talents and treasure of their members to attack the challenges of poor.

The combination of these eight perfect-storm conditions will result in a new movement of social activism that will result in significant change.

So What about You?

Do you think Mark is on the right track or just dreaming?


This time I will pass everything on to Mark.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 6:27 AM

    Bob – I think you are spot on. We are seeing a recalibration and I believe it will be lead by the 20/30’s somethings – like David Platt. I can’t wait to read David’s book. Thank you for your musings. A constant drip of Bob Buford is good for the heart, soul, and intellect!

  2. Ed Walker permalink
    September 14, 2010 12:57 PM

    I think that what has observes is correct and I rejoice in it, but I have one concern. That concern is this –will this emerging movement in the church keep an evangelistic focus?

    I strongly support the cultural mandate, but for the church the evangelistic mandate should have the priority. This emerging movement is in obedience to to God’s cultural mandate and is in alignment with the will of God according to his Word, and all mankind both believers and unbelievers are responsible to obey. The evangelistic mandate is only for the church, and the church should give that mandate from God priority over the cultural mandate without neglecting either mandate. If what is observed is correct, I fear that the cultural mandate will in time swallow up the evangelistic mandate. This movement could spread far beyond the church as more people realize that the rich need the poor as much as the poor need the rich.

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