I receive several weekly emails from various Christian publications, and I am grateful to notice how many of them recognize the passing of the man who in my heart and mind is the modern-day "hero" of world Christianity ~ John Stott. Unlike the majority of Christian leaders profiled in the media, John Stott was never at the center of a scandal. There was never a "gotcha" moment in the news, where the press caught him in some hypocritical lie or hideous photo. Impressively, Billy Graham named Stott as one of the 20th century's top 100 most influential people in the world.
I will not try to summarize his career here -- but please take a few moments later to read over these outstanding memorials to his ministry and life:
Perhaps the one that moves me most though was posted today the New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof. I don't know if you read much of his work, but this is a stunning testimony to the power of Stott's work. As Kristof says in this column, "I’m not particularly religious myself," but then goes on to commend the humble, generous and hard-working evangelical Christians like Stott, laboring and advocating for the poor in quiet and consistent way. This says it all:
"I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties."
I want people who are "not particularly religious" to say those sort of things about me.
All of that being said, I want to use this post to note John Stott's impact on my life personally. Given the long span of his career, I've "known" him since I met Christ in 1976. Somewhere around the end of high school or early college I got my hands on perhaps his most famous book, Basic Christianity. Soon after I read a slim little volume that had a profound affect on me: Your Mind Matters (my copy had a weird graphic of a man's head from an autopsy or something - sorta creepy). It was a relief to find out that as I progressed through college that my faith could be intellectually rigorous as well. Then I read his commentary on 2 Timothy called Guard the Gospel. It felt like I finally "heard" and understood the sentimental tone of Paul's last letter after reading Stott's notes on it. I found myself snapping up every one of Stott's books as I could afford them.
But the one that made the tectonic plates shift in my heart and mind was his commentary on the Book of Acts, which was titled then The Spirit, the Church and the World. I read this in one of my early seminary classes (can I get a shout out for New Testament II, Acts to Revelation!?). He mapped out the history of the church in a very simple but profound way that was honestly like a shot of adrenaline to me in my early twenties. Maybe this won't fire you up, but I underlined and highlighted this paragraph back in the day:
But we should never be satisfied with a person's conversion. That is only the beginning. The same grace which brings a person to new birth is able to transform him or her into Christ's image. Every new convert becomes a changed person, and has titles to prove it, namely a 'disciple' or 'saint', newly related to God, a 'brother' or sister, newly related to the church, and a 'witness', newly related to the world. If these three relationships -- to God, the church and the world -- are not seen in professed converts, we have good reason to question the reality of their conversion. But whenever they are visibly present, we have good reason to magnify the grace of God.
Ah, such good stuff. He made theology interesting and something I could actually grasp!
Several other books serve as signposts in my Christian life... The Cross of Christ (Systematics II in seminary), his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Between Two Worlds (a life-changer on preaching), Why I Am A Christian (such fond memories of reading this with my small group who graduated in 1999)... ending with just last May, when I finished up my "Foundations of the Faith" class at Providence Hall for the year with Stott's final book, The Radical Disciple.
Can you see why I'm so attached? From the beginning of my faith, as a new convert in 1976, to where I am today, speaking to teenagers and pastors in 2011, Stott has been there. His crisp and logical explanations, executed with warmth and urgency at the same time, have walked me through countless passages of scripture. He made me fall in love with studying the Bible, with theology and apologetics, but perhaps most importantly of all, with living out my faith with integrity and commitment.
I had a personal "Stott sighting" myself years ago when he was speaking at chapel at Westmont College. I was in my late twenties, and could not believe the good fortune I had to hear him in person. Sadly, the students had no clue who he was, so in the few minutes before he spoke, they were busy visiting with friends or quickly cramming before their class that followed immediately afterward. I saw my chance -- he was seated in front and the seat next to him was open. He sat there serenely with his hands folded in his lap. I interrupted his peace and quiet, sitting beside him and introducing myself. (Yes, I know you can picture that quite easily!)
In his perfectly clipped British accent he kindly asked, "So do you live in one of the dormitories here?" I chuckled, telling him I was long out of college, and was in fact the Area Director for Young Life. He smiled warmly, said some nice things about Young Life and meeting the founder once (of course he did!). I asked him how often he'd been to Santa Barbara and he immediately brightened -- he went on for at least ten minutes about how much he liked "birding" here because of the fantastic array of birds present in our area. It was fantastic... I was chatting with my theological hero about birdwatching! (Which is why I selected the photo at the top, where he's wearing his beloved binoculars).
I grabbed a couple of other opportunities to hear him speak to pastors in other years, and continued to be awed by his calm, steady approach to controversy and problematic texts. He was so confident in the gospel and appeared unflappable. He truly was a role model to me, as a pastor, as a scholar, as a leader, as a single adult, as a generous person. (He donated the proceeds from all of his books to provide study resources to Majority World pastors -- I mean seriously, John Stott was the genuine article!)
Though I could go on and on, I will end with a list of seven core elements of John Stott's work, as listed by Mel Lawrenz on his blog listed above. These words are a mission statement:
1. Make personal devotion to God in Christ our highest priority.2. Live consistently, with integrity. Resist the temptation to develop a public persona.3. Develop core disciplines like Scripture reading and mediation, prayer, work and rest.4. Trust in the unchangeable truth of Scripture. Go deep in our study of it.5. Prepare public talks with a focus on substance. Look for the connections and order of our ideas.6. Value relationships with other leaders. Be a mentor without having to be called a mentor. Follow natural patterns. Don’t reduce discipleship to a program.7. “Read” the truth of God written in the natural world. Stott was an avid ornithologist. His cumulative knowledge made him a world expert. This was both an avocation and an act of worship. Like many other Christian leaders, Stott practiced a full awareness of God’s presence and work, and that included participating in the creation with a developing sense of awe and wonder.
Praise God for the ministry of John Stott. How glorious that God chose to use such an understated, humble, lovely man to impact millions for so many years. Beautiful.