John Stott reflects on where we've been and where we're going.
October 13, 2006
In 2004, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that if evangelicals chose a pope, they would likely select John Stott. Stott, 85, has been at the heart of evangelical renewal in the U.K. His books and biblical sermons have transfixed millions throughout the world. He has been involved in many important world councils and dialogues, not least as chair of the committees that drafted the Lausanne Covenant (1974) and the Manila Manifesto (1989)two defining statements for evangelicals. For more than 35 years, he has devoted three months of every year to traveling the globe, with a particular emphasis on churches in the majority world. He is ideally suited to comment on evangelicals' past, present, and future. ct senior writer Tim Stafford interviewed him at his home in London.
As you see it, what is evangelicalism, and why does it matter?
An evangelical is a plain, ordinary Christian. We stand in the mainstream of historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity. So we can recite the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed without crossing our fingers. We believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
Having said that, there are two particular things we like to emphasize: the concern for authority on the one hand and salvation on the other.
For evangelical people, our authority is the God who has spoken supremely in Jesus Christ. And that is equally true of redemption or salvation. God has acted in and through Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners.
I think it's necessary for evangelicals to add that what God has said in Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ, and what God has done in and through Christ, are both, to use the Greek word, hapaxmeaning once and for all. There is a finality about God's word in Christ, and there is a finality about God's work in Christ. To imagine that we could add a word to his word, or add a work to his work, is extremely derogatory to the unique glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
You didn't mention the Bible, which would surprise some people.
I did, actually, but you didn't notice it. I said Christ and the biblical witness to Christ. But the really distinctive emphasis is on Christ. I want to shift conviction from a book, if you like, to a person. As Jesus himself said, the Scriptures bear witness to me. Their main function is to witness to Christ.
Part of your implication is that evangelicals are not to be a negatively inspired people. Our real focus ought to be the glory of Christ.
I believe that very strongly. We believe in the authority of the Bible because Christ has endorsed its authority. He stands between the two testaments. As we look back to the Old Testament, he has endorsed it. As we look forward to the New Testament, we accept it because of the apostolic witness to Christ. He deliberately chose and appointed and prepared the apostles, in order that they might have their unique apostolic witness to him. I like to see Christ in the middle, endorsing the old, preparing for the new. Although the question of the New Testament canon is complicated, in general we are able to say that canonicity is apostolicity.
How has the position of evangelicals changed during your years of ministry?
I look backit's been 61 years since I was ordainedand when I was ordained in the Church of England, evangelicals in the Church of England were a despised and rejected minority. The bishops lost no opportunity to ridicule us. Over the intervening 60 years, I've seen the evangelical movement in England grow in size, in maturity, certainly in scholarship, and therefore I think in influence and impact. We went from a ghetto to being on the ascendancy, which is a very dangerous place to be.
Can you comment on the dangers?
Pride is the ever-present danger that faces all of us. In many ways, it is good for us to be despised and rejected. I think of Jesus' words, "Woe unto you when all men speak well of you."
Going back to the hapax, it's a very humbling concept. The essence of evangelicalism is very humbling. You have William Temple saying, "The only thing of my very own which I contribute to redemption is the sin from which I need to be redeemed."
We have also seen an immense growth of the church worldwide, largely along evangelical lines. What do you see as its significance?
This enormous growth is a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-4. God promised Abraham not only to bless him, not only to bless his family or his posterity, but through his posterity to bless all the families of the earth. Whenever we look at a multiethnic congregation, we are seeing a fulfillment of that amazing promise of God. A promise made by God to Abraham 4,000 years ago is being fulfilled right before our very eyes today.
You know this growing church probably as well as any Westerner does. I wonder how you evaluate it.
The answer is "growth without depth." None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the church. But it has been largely numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers.
How can the Western church, which surely has problems of its own, fruitfully interact with the non-Western? Right now many churches are sending mission teams all over the world.
I certainly want to be positive about short-term mission trips, and I think on the whole they are a good thing. They do give Westerners an awfully good opportunity to taste Southern Christianity and to be challenged by it, especially by its exuberant vitality. But I think the leaders of such mission trips would be wise to warn their members that this is only a very limited experience of cross-cultural mission.
True mission that is based on the example of Jesus involves entering another world, the world of another culture. Incarnational cross-cultural mission is and can be very costly. I want to say, please realize that if God calls you to be a cross-cultural missionary, it will take you 10 years to learn the language and to learn the culture in such a way that you are accepted more or less as a national.
So there's really no replacing the long-term missionary.
I think not, except of course for indigenous Christians.
What about what some call the greatest mission field, which is our own secularizing or secularized culture? What do we need to do to reach this increasingly pagan society?
I think we need to say to one another that it's not so secular as it looks. I believe that these so-called secular people are engaged in a quest for at least three things. The first is transcendence. It's interesting in a so-called secular culture how many people are looking for something beyond. I find that a great challenge to the quality of our Christian worship. Does it offer people what they are instinctively looking for, which is transcendence, the reality of God?
The second is significance. Almost everybody is looking for his or her own personal identity. Who am I, where do I come from, where am I going to, what is it all about? That is a challenge to the quality of our Christian teaching. We need to teach people who they are. They don't know who they are. We do. They are human beings made in the image of God, although that image has been defaced.
And third is their quest for community. Everywhere, people are looking for community, for relationships of love. This is a challenge to our fellowship. I'm very fond of 1 John 4:12: "No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us." The invisibility of God is a great problem to people. The question is how has God solved the problem of his own invisibility? First, Christ has made the invisible God visible. That's John's Gospel 1:18: "No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known."
People say that's wonderful, but it was 2,000 years ago. So in 1 John 4:12, he begins with exactly the same formula, nobody has ever seen God. But here John goes on, "If we love one another, God abides in us." The same invisible God who once made himself visible in Jesus now makes himself visible in the Christian community, if we love one another. And all the verbal proclamation of the gospel is of little value unless it is made by a community of love.
These three things about our humanity are on our side in our evangelism, because people are looking for the very things we have to offer them.
And therefore you're not despairing of the West.
I'm not despairing. But I believe that evangelism is specially through the local church, through the community, rather than through the individual. That the church should be an alternative society, a visible sign of the kingdom. And the tragedy is that our local churches often don't seem to manifest community.
Do you want to talk about preaching?
I never tire of doing that. I'm an impenitent believer in the importance of preaching. Of course, that's biblical preaching.
Biblical preaching has fallen on hard times in many places. What do you say to a pastor who is desperately trying to hold his congregation's attention and really doesn't have the confidence that enables one to just preach from a biblical text?
It's the same issue across the globe. Churches live, grow, and flourish by the Word of God. And they languish and even perish without it.
So the Langham Partnership International (see "Legacy of a Global Leader,") has three basic convictions. Conviction one is that God wants his church to grow. One of the verses that expresses this best is Colossians 1:28-29, in which Paul says we proclaim Christ, warning everybody and teaching everybody in all wisdom, in order that we may present everybody mature in Christ. There's a plain call to maturity, to grow up out of babyhood.
Second, they grow by the Word of God. I suppose you could concede that there are other ways by which the church grows, but if you take the New Testament as a whole, it's the Word of God that matures the people of God.
Which brings me to the third conviction, that the Word of God comes to the people of God mainly, though not exclusively, through preaching. I often envisage on a Sunday morning the amazing spectacle of the people of God converging on their places of worship all over the world. They're going to medieval cathedrals, to house churches, to the open air. They know that in the course of the worship service there will be a sermon, and it should be a biblical sermon, so that through the Word of God they may grow.
When I enter the pulpit with the Bible in my hands and in my heart, my blood begins to flow and my eyes to sparkle for the sheer glory of having God's Word to expound. We need to emphasize the glory, the privilege, of sharing God's truth with people.
Where do we evangelicals need to go? We've been through quite a trip in the last 50 years.
My immediate answer is that we need to go beyond evangelism. Evangelism is supposed to be evangelicals' specialty. Now, I am totally committed to world evangelization. But we must look beyond evangelism to the transforming power of the gospel, both in individuals and in society.
With regard to individuals, I'm noting in different expressions of the evangelical faith an absence of that quest for holiness that marked our forebears, who founded the Keswick movement, for example, and the quest for what they sometimes called scriptural holiness or practical holiness. Somehow holiness has a rather sanctimonious feel to it. People don't like to be described as holy. But the holiness of the New Testament is Christlikeness. I wish that the whole evangelical movement could consciously set before us the desire to grow in Christlikeness such as is described in Galatians 5:22-23.
Regarding social transformation, I've reflected a great deal on the salt and light metaphors, the models that Jesus himself chose in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount. "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world." It seems to me that those models must be said to contain at least three things.
First, that Christians are radically different from non-Christians, or if they are not, they ought to be. Jesus sets over against each other two communities. On the one hand there is the world, and on the other hand there is you, who are the dark world's light. Jesus implied that we are as different as light from darkness and salt from decay.
Second, Christians must permeate non-Christian society. Salt does no good if it stays in the saltshaker. Light does no good if you hide it under a bed or bucket. It has to permeate the darkness. So both metaphors call us not just to be different, but to permeate society.
The third, the more controversial implication, is that the salt and light metaphors indicate that Christians can change non-Christian society. The models must mean that, because both salt and light are effective commodities. They change the environments in which they are placed. Salt hinders bacterial decay. Light dispels darkness. This is not to resurrect the social gospel. We cannot perfect society. But we can improve it.
My hope is that in the future, evangelical leaders will ensure that their social agenda includes such vital but controversial topics as halting climate change, eradicating poverty, abolishing armories of mass destruction, responding adequately to the AIDS pandemic, and asserting the human rights of women and children in all cultures. I hope our agenda does not remain too narrow.
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See also today's sidebar, "Legacy of a Global Leader."
Previous Christianity Today articles on John Stott include:
Basic Stott | The wisdom of evangelicalism's premier teacher on gender, charismatics, leaving the Church of England, the poor, evangelical fragmentation, Catholics, the future, and other subjects (Jan. 8, 1996)
Why Don't They Listen? | John Stott on the most pernicious obstacles to effective world evangelism (Sept. 5, 2003)
Pottering and Prayer | As John Stott turns 80, he still finds weeds to pull, birds to watch, and petitions to make. (April 27, 2001)
The Quotable Stott | Reflections on the occasion of John R.W. Stott's 80th birthday. (April 27, 2001)
An Elder Statesman's Plea | John Stott's 'little statement on evangelical faith' reveals the strengths and limitations of the movement he helped create. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Guardian of God's Word | The amazingly balanced, wise, biblical, and global ministry of a local pastor, John Stott." (September 16, 1996)
Articles on Stott from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture include:
WWJSD | The global ministry of John Stott. (March/April 2002)
Basic Christianitywith an Oxbridge Accent | John Stott and evangelical renewal. (Sept./Oct. 2000)
The New York Times op-ed page has repeatedly named Stott as the best spokesperson for evangelical Christianity.
Christianity Today's other articles on its 50th anniversary include:
Where We Are and How We Got Here | 50 years ago, evangelicals were a sideshow of American culture. Since then, it's been a long, strange trip. Here's a look at the influences that shaped the movement. By Mark A. Noll (Sept. 29, 2006)
Sidebar: 'Truth from the Evangelical Viewpoint' | What Christianity Today meant to the movement 50 years ago. (Sept. 29, 2006)
One Reader's Thoughts on Christianity Today's 50th Anniversary | After five decades of reading, I've clipped far too many articles. (Oct. 12, 2006)
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