John Stott died last week from complications related to old age (he was 90). Family and close friends gathered with “Uncle John” as they listened to Handel's Messiah.
From his home at All Souls church at Langham Place in London’s West End, John Stott was the principal framer of the historic Lausanne Covenant in 1974, wrote such classics as Basic Christianity (written in 1958, it has sold over three million copies in over fifty languages), and carried the tongue-in-cheek title (first suggested by Michael Cromartie) of “Pope” for Evangelicals around the world.
I have two particular memories of Stott.
The first was at a breakfast meeting while still in seminary. Stott had been touring various American seminaries, and someone asked him for his observations. He did not suggest anything about a diminishing state of orthodoxy, a lack of biblical preaching, or diminished standards of academic excellence. Instead, he said two things that still stand out to me to this day: first, he said he wanted to tell everyone to “cheer up.” Seminaries all seemed so serious, so gloomy, so joyless.
Coming from a Brit, that was particularly interesting.
But then he said that there seemed to be a real lack of spiritual formation; that the seminaries did not seem to be doing much to help people know how to grow spiritually, or to care for their lives spiritually.
A second memory is from Amsterdam 2000, one of the last major gatherings Billy Graham attempted of leaders from around the world. My role at the event was to serve on a theology task force under the leadership of J.I. Packer and Timothy George. We broke into teams around tables with the goal of forging the “Amsterdam Statement.”
I was to lead the discussion at my table.
Imagine my dismay when seated at my table for me to “lead” was none other than John Stott.
It was beyond comical to attempt to help “steer” the conversation in such a way that I might assist someone like Stott to gather his thoughts and contribute to the wider conversation. The only reasonable course of action was to defer to his presence, ask for his insights, and then write down everything he said and submit it for publication.
He would have none of it, remaining quietly in the background as the conversation went forward in earnest on the nature of the church and its role in the world. I recall the conversation: Should we evangelize or serve? Offer the gospel, or a cup of cold water? After much discussion, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing his thoughts. He then offered, in a matter of a few sentences, the most brilliant distillation of the discourse with an added word or two that made any additional conversation unnecessary.
I recall his first words, “It would seem to be that we must embrace both orthodoxy and orthopraxis.”
And in many ways, those two memories serve up the man Stott was, at least for me: a model and mentor in relation to authentic spirituality and genuine humility.
Yes, he was a giant intellect; he could exposit the Scriptures like no one I have ever heard. He was a statesman and led the way in terms of serving what he termed the “Majority World” through the founding of Langham Partnership International (as opposed to “third world” or “developing world”).
But I remember the man.
It strikes me that the two great evangelical leaders of my lifetime – Stott, and Billy Graham – both affected me in the same way after spending time with them. I walked away thinking here was someone who walked with Jesus, and challenged me to be more faithful and authentic in my own way, and that humility is something beautiful and to be pursued.
Neither attribute is often seen in today’s evangelical world, and, sadly, its leadership.
And neither attribute would particularly strike those who encounter me, I’m afraid.
I struggle each day to honor God; I fight pride in all of its forms.
But these men showed me that what matters most is to continue in that very struggle; to fight that very good fight.
All to say, I give thanks to God for John Stott. Not simply for his life, but for his example.
Upon hearing of his friend’s death, Billy Graham issued the following statement: “The evangelical world has lost one of its greatest spokesmen, and I have lost one of my close personal friends and advisers. I look forward to seeing him again when I go to heaven.”
James Emery White
“John Stott Has Died” by Tim Stafford, Christianity Today, July 27, 2011. Read online.
“Rev. John Stott, Major Evangelical Figure, Dies at 90” by Wolfgang Saxon, The New York Times, July 27, 2011. Read online.
To learn more about Stott’s life, there is no better place than the two-volume biography by Timothy Dudley-Smith, and the one-volume treatment by Roger Steer.
To delve into Stott’s writings, I would suggest his classic, Basic Christianity; other personal favorites are Christian Counter Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount and The Cross of Christ.
To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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