Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

A Tribute to John Stott (1921-2011)

John Stott died on 27 July 2011.  For those readers who are not familiar with the Rev. John Stott (27 April 1921-27 July 2011), he was a pastor and evangelist in the Church of England with a long ministry to London’s urban poor.  He was also one of the architects of the global Evangelical movement, especially in the English-speaking world.  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof favorably compares Stott and his ministry to the hateful U.S. TV preachers who have stolen the term “evangelical,” twisting it from its natural meaning (“gospel centered”) to one of favoristism to the rich, punitive political power, self-satisfied self-righteousness, and marginalization of outcasts.  Stott, a scholarly minister who wrote numerous books, combined orthodoxy in his theology with compassion for the poor and the environment.

Stott was born in London to Sir Arnold and Emily Stott.  His father was a physician and an agnostic while his mother was a Lutheran by conviction who faithfully attended All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, a famous parish church of the Church of England at which Stott would later be the pastor.

At age 8, Stott was sent to boarding school in the English tradition. In 1935, he entered the famous Rugby School. (Yes, the sport of Rugby football was invented there.) In 1938 at Rugby, Stott heard an evangelist preach on Rev. 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. . .”, realized he’d never invited Christ into his heart, and became a born again Christian.  Steve Bash, the evangelist in question, became a mentor to Stott, writing him a weekly letter, advising him on how to grow as a Christian.

Stott earned his B.A. in Modern Languages at Cambridge University (Trinity College) where he graduated with a double first in French and theology.  There Stott became heavily involved in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, an evangelical student ministry.  He did his theological studies and ministry preparation at Ridley Hall, the Anglican theological college at Cambridge. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1945. He then became first curate (1945-1950) and then rector (1950-1975) of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, the parish of his childhood.

One of the things I admire most about Stott was his longterm commitment to inner-city ministry and to a single parish. Too often in contemporary evangelical circles, the “successful” minister moves to ever bigger congregations (with increases in salary packages and perks) or building a mega-church with a TV ministry–either independent or only loosely tied to a denomination.  This has encouraged a “cult of personality” and for people to seek churches that “meet their needs.” By contrast, Stott was unabashedly Anglican (though involved in many ecumenical endeavors and organizations, especially those with strong evangelical ties) and was committed to inner-city ministry that was not glamorous–and to a single parish, All Souls’ Church.

As Rector, Stott began to play an important role in national and international debates among evangelical Christians, especially in the English-speaking world.  In the late 1960s, British evangelicals had a large debate over whether they could remain in the Church of England (then being led mostly by strong liberals such as John A. T. Robinson (1919-1983), New Testament scholar, “secular” theologian, universalist and Bishop of Woolwich.) Stott was one of the leaders of those arguing for evangelicals to remain in the Church of England and his side ultimately prevailed.  As a result of this leadership, however, Stott increasingly felt unable to devote his full time to All Souls. He appointed a vicar to take over most pastoral duties in 1970. In 1975, he retired as rector but remained a member of All Souls as rector emeritus.

Stott created John Stott Ministries (a.k.a. Langham Place International) to equip Bible teachers for local churches around the world.  In 1974, the first International Congress on World Evangelization (an evangelical event) at Lausanne, Switzerland, adopted the Lausanne Covenant.  It committed evangelicals to the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed (with the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith), to global evangelization and to work for social justice. (Most U.S. evangelicals, while affirming loyalty to Lausanne, abandoned the commitment to social justice by the 1980s, instead forming the Religious Right and becoming an ultra-conservative wing of the U.S. Republican Party.) Stott was a major drafter of the Lausanne Covenant and both his writings and his ministries were consistent in keeping the tri-partite balance between evangelism, a generous orthodoxy, and work for social justice.  Jim Wallis of Sojourners , a U.S. ministry focusing on peace and justice that was founded by white evangelicals (most of the original members began as students of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL in the 1970s), affirmed that John Stott was the first evangelical leader with any name recognition to affirm the value of their work, instead of seeing it as a threat to the work of evangelism.

Stott wrote over 50 books, all of which were aimed at “informed laity,” and could be read and understood by high school graduates, but none of which “talked down” to readers.  The most famous of these was Basic Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 1958), an evangelical and ecumenical primer and apologetic which was widely used in “new members” and “seekers” classes around the world.

Stott never married. While this led some to suspect that he was a closeted gay man, he affirmed a calling to the celibate life.

Stott was never a major influence on my theology or my outlook. At the time I would have appreciated his popular works the most, I was reading other people. But I admired the balance in his life and I have always believed that if his influence had been stronger in North American (especially U.S.) evangelical circles, the health of American Christianity would be far stronger.  When, beginning c. 1979, strident voices like those of Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, James Dobson, and others drowned out voices like that of John Stott, American evangelicalism became cancerous.

We need more people like John Stott as evangelical leaders–in the U.S. and throughout the English-Speaking world.

August 20, 2011 - Posted by | obituaries, theologians

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s