The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor

Derek Thomas Articles

If you're looking for something theologically deep, this is not it. Instead, what we have here is John Stott dreaming of what he desires the church to reflect. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the dedication of one of the most famous evangelical churches in Britain, All Soul's in Langham Place, London. His influence, through John Stott Ministries and over forty books, is worldwide and growing. In his 86th year, Stott has formally announced his retirement but somehow, if God spares him more years, this will probably not be his last book.

Some preliminaries: Stott is an Anglican. His loyalty to the (episcopal) Church of England is evidenced everywhere on these pages. His quotes Anglicans, the Prayer Book, former Archbishops (especially Michael Ramsey), and well, sounds quintessentially English as he does so. Indeed, to those of us familiar with the Stott (and Packer) v. Lloyd-Jones debacle of the late 60s, opinions over who was right and who was wrong were formed a long time ago. Stott, for many in British non-conformist evangelicalism and for practically everybody in the reformed branch of it, was on the wrong side! Lloyd-Jones's insistence that evangelicals leave liberal denominations--a call he made in a meeting of the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals in Methodist Central hall, Westminster (London) on October 18, 1966--was strongly opposed by Stott (who was there). The issue has been related many times: pro-Stott, see Timothy Dudley-Smith's account in John Stott: A Global Ministry (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001); pro-Lloyd-Jones, see Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 - 2000 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2000) and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1990).

Forty years later and cooler heads prevailing, one wishes that Lloyd-Jones had proposed a better ecclesiology than independency. In any case, Stott remains convinced of his position and an appendix in the book, "Why I am Still a Member of the Church of England," underscores Stott's unwavering commitment to principle--whether it be his ecclesiological-denominational convictions, or (and more importantly) to what are the basic needs of the church (generally) today.

In setting out his vision for the church of the twenty-first century, Stott has things to say about worship, evangelism, ministry (every-member ministry as well as ordained ministry), fellowship, preaching, giving, and how the church should serve as a social force within society (salt and light).

You have to imagine Stott sitting beside a roaring fire in an elegant drawing room in some English country mansion speaking to a group of young ministers (ordinands) at the beginning of their journey. These are reflections (and dreams) of an octogenarian, passionately in love with the church and fearful of the direction she is taking. As he speaks, there are some wonderful insights. Here are some, chosen at random:

...true worship is biblical worship, that is to say, it is a response to the biblical revelation...the reading and preaching of God's word in public worship, far from being alien intrusions into it, are rather indispensible aspects of it. It is the word of God which evokes the worship of God (35-36)

It is a good an healthy custom either to encourage members of the congregation to bring their Bible with them to church, or to provide Bibles in the seats (36)

Should we tolerate, let alone welcome, HUP [homogeneous unit principle] churches, that is, churches whose members all belong to an identical and particular culture? Surely not. (40)

The most striking of all recent religious trends is the rise of the New Age movement... It is a recognition that materialism cannot satisfy the human spirit and a search for another, transcendent reality... This quest for the transcendent is a challenge to us and to the quality of our public worship. Does it offer what the people are craving--the element of mystery, the 'sense of the numinous"; in biblical language "the fear of God," in modern language "transcendence"? My answer to my own question is "Not often." ...Our tendency is to be cocky, flippant, and proud. We take little trouble to prepare our worship services. (43)

[Describing what Stott calls "introverted Christianity"]; the local church somewhat resembles the local golf club, except that the common interest of its members happens to be God rather than golf. They see themselves as religious people who enjoy doing religious things together. They pay their subscription and reckon that they are entitled to certain privileges. In fact, they concentrate on the status and advantages of being club members. (51)

[On how churches can be a danger to family life and fail to be evangelistic] Some zealous churches organize an overfull program of church-based activities. Something is arranged for every night of the week. On Monday night the committees meet, and on Tuesday night the fellowship groups. On Wednesday night the Bible study takes place, and on Thursday night the prayer meeting. Even on Friday and Saturday evenings other good causes occupy people's time and energy. Such churches give the impression that their main goal is to keep their members out of mischief. Certainly they have neither time nor opportunity to get into mischief since they are busily engaged in the church every single night of the week! (56).

We do a great disservice to the church whenever we refer to the pastorate as "the" ministry. For if we use the definite article, we give the impression that we think the pastorate is the only ministry there is. I repented of this decades ago, and I invite my readers to join me in penitence today. If somebody says in my presence nowadays that so and so is "going into the ministry," I try to look innocent and respond "Oh really? Which ministry do you mean?" To this my interlocutor usually replies "the pastoral ministry"--to which I reply "Why did you not say so?" (74)

It is frequently said that we must always be positive in our teaching, never negative. But those who say this have either not read the New Testament or, having read it, disagree with it. For our Lord Jesus and his apostles both refuted error themselves and urged us to do the same. I sometimes wonder is the neglect of this necessary ministry is not a major cause of contemporary theological confusion. (82)

...there is a strange reluctance among us to engage in personal evangelism. We sometimes sing "Oh for a thousand tongues to sing my dear Redeemer's praise." But it is a useless wish. For one thing we will never have a thousand tongues. For another, if we had them, we would not know what to do with them when the one tongue we have is often silent. (92-93)

These are just randomly chosen. And there are many more like them. His ten principles of giving will be heard annually, I think, up and down the land as ministers engage their congregations in what has now become universally known as "Commitment Season."

On a personal level, I was recently invited to submit my personal reflections of John Stott to the publishers of John Stott's classic treatment of Christianity, Basic Christianity. I gladly did so, recalling with great joy that it was through that book that as an eighteen-year-old student of Mathematics, more into empiricism than formal religion, I wrote then the following lines:

"I first encountered John Stott in the autumn of 1971 when, as a first year mathematics student at the University of Wales (Aberystwyth) I was given a copy of Basic Christianity. At the time, I was an atheist. What faith I had was in science and logical positivism (or more accurately, logical empiricism). Having never read the Bible (apart from a few passages in school assemblies), Stott's mild-mannered, straightforward insistence on proving everything from Scripture won me over. Within days of reading Basic Christianity I found myself calling upon Jesus Christ to save me from my sins, a name that hitherto had functioned only as a swear word in my vocabulary. Hence, I owe my salvation (from a human point of view) to John Stott (and a dear friend who gave me Basic Christianity to read).

Over thirty-five years later, I find myself teaching theology at a seminary in the United States with Stott's latest book (The Living Church) on my desk. His commentaries on Romans, Acts, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus in The Bible Speaks Today series have been constant companions since the day they emerged, and his treatments of the atonement and preaching, The Cross of Christ and Between two Worlds, are both considered classics.

We thank God for giving the church the treasure which is John Stott."

John Stott / Downers Grove, IVP, 2007
Review by Derek Thomas, Editorial Director of reformation21