Have you ever participated in one of those get to know you games at the beginning of a gathering of people who barely know each other? You know, “ice breakers.” In today’s world, some people have built a career around this type of activity. One ice-breaker game I dread is when you are asked to describe yourself in three words or less. Each time I’ve participated, I have been amazed at how creative folks can be. I also have been amazed at how self aware people are. You can always tell when you hear sighs or the word “yeah” spoken softly. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about using this exercise to describe John Stott, the humble gospel preacher and theologian who passed away last week at age 90. I thought of two words that best sum up his more than 50 years of faithful Christian service: Devotion and Discipleship.
I met John Stott on a couple of occasions in person, and he once replied to a letter that I wrote him regarding a tough decision I faced regarding my education. I was wrestling with a choice between seminary or graduate school. Rev. Stott thanked me for engaging him but said he was not familiar enough with me to lead me in either direction. He encouraged me to struggle further and discuss it with someone close to me whom I trusted. I don’t think I actually expected a reply from a man as busy as he was, so to receive his thoughtful response in the mail was a pleasant surprise. And from what I came to understand, that kind of personal outreach and encouragement was not unusual with Stott.
Let me share some of the reasons why I join others in celebrating his life, and mourning his loss.
Devotion and Discipleship
John Stott was renowned for his devotion to Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. It is commonly known that he chose to not marry and remain celibate so that he would not be distracted from focusing his full attention to the Scriptures and sharing his love for Jesus. His passion for and fascination with Jesus is clearly seen in his books, including Basic Christianity, The Cross of Christ, The Contemporary Christian. Recently, I’ve been absorbed in his last published book, The Radical Disciple, in which he shares his critique of the 21st century church and reflects on his life and ministry. In each of his works, he reveals an uncompromising love for Jesus and His church.
Stott’s devotion informed his discipleship to Christ and inspired his love for God’s people. He was known for his commitment to the training and nurturing of pastors and Christian ministers throughout the world. My friend, another leader who was deeply influenced by Stott’s example, says this:
John Stott was that rare mixture of statesman, scholar, pastor and careful Bible expositor. He had such high regard for Scripture that it made those of us who preach take it more seriously. His book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, forced me to renew my personal commitment to expository preaching. In addition to being a proud Brit, he was a global lover of Jesus who was as effective as he was infectious.
Stott was a “world Christian.” He learned from history and was always mindful not to replicate the poor behaviors of past missionaries. Regardless of a person’s background, he sought to honor and respect their cultural perspective. As his ministry progressed, it was apparent that his understanding of the gospel began to include social justice concerns and issues related to overcoming political oppression and fighting for the dignity of people as well as for their souls.
Many have mentioned his pivotal role in the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, as a key moment in his growth as a Christian leader with cross-cultural sensitivity. But I wonder if an earlier event was even more instrumental in this regard.
A Liberating Voice
During the many times Stott was the expositor at the mission conferences sponsored by InterVarsity, there was one occasion in particular that some think made a great impact on him. Many of those in attendance at the Urbana 70 conference say that Stott was deeply moved by evangelist ’s plenary address, which was titled the “ .” Stott reportedly listened to this historic speech intently and then looked into the eyes of the black students that filled the seats on the floor. He probably was able to see their spiritual passion and longing for justice in a new way. That experience, I believe, helped expand his worldview to see how our faith needs to be present and engaged in the issues that confront our world.
I am certain Stott could’ve spoken at any black conference or church and, through his humility and love for the Scriptures, communicated a gospel that would liberate the souls of those who struggled to find their voice and shalom in the world. He would’ve applied the message he shared in his book The Contemporary Christian, that a follower of Christ should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Without both, he is unarmed. With the newspaper only, you have the calamity and depravity in the world with no hope to offer. With only the Scripture, you have hope but no sense of where to apply it.
At Urbana 70, Tom Skinner remarked that “all truth is God’s truth.” I think John Stott understood this. He did not express an Anglican truth, a European truth, a white man’s truth; he was filled with the truth of Jesus Christ. And he sought to study and pursue that truth so single-mindedly that his life became a testimony to what true Christian devotion and discipleship should look like.