Reposted with a correction. Roger Steer kindly pointed out that there IS a hunt for the snowy owl story. My apologies to Roger for the error.
If the news of John Stott’s recent promotion to glory has left you wanting to know more of the man’s life and incluence, a brief biography is called for. Here is a review I wrote some time ago for Churchman magazine.
John Stott towers over the history of twentieth century evangelicalism, and remains a man of enormous influence through his writings, his preaching and his personal leadership. Roger Steer has written an accessible account of a John Stott’s life.
The biographer’s first challenge is to reckon with the sheer number of people who are significant in the story – and in whose stories John Stott is significant. The Table of Contents helpfully doubles as a timeline as we follow the subject through his early steps in life and then as a Christian into his emergence as a leader. From the moment Stott hits his stride, the pace of the book is fairly breathless. If this were a stage play rather than the book, then it could be set on a moving stage so that a long succession of leading christians may efficiently be shuffled on stage left, be introduced, and then slide off to stage-right. Perhaps life around John Stott was really like that. As the book continues it is with some relief that the train of visitors subsides and more of the man’s personal passions emerge: the certainty that life for Christ is the only and best way to life; his personal discipline and holiness; his passion for preaching; his gifts coupled with humility and sense of humour. The middle section manages not to leave the reader intimidated; the final section manages to leave the reader inspired. John Stott is also a prolific author and Steer does a good job of summarising the major works and the contexts from which they sprang.
This is a good introduction to John Stott’s life and writings given the space available, but we get little chance to reflect on his inner thoughts. We discover that he was criticised by people who did not work as hard to understand his position as as he did to understand theirs. But there is no clear engagement with his evangelical critics’ views, and the struggles he faced are mentioned but hardly analysed: tensions with his father about war service; differences with evangelicals over Billy Graham’s mission and methods; divergence with Martyn Lloyd-Jones; differences between the ‘narrow’ and broad’ views of evangelism in the Lausanne process; disputes over conditional immortality. We also hear little of the theological currents at each stage, again for lack of space. The fact of John Stott’s birdwatching is of course mentioned: the passion of it does not quite come across. (And there is no ‘quest for the snowy owl’ [Correction: the quest for the snowy owl is on pp 243-244; my apologies for the error]). Those who did not live through these times personally will do well by reading a biography of Stott, and Steer’s life is an excellent introduction, much shorter than Timothy Dudley-Smith’s two volumes. It will help us begin to appreciate the influence of Stott’s writings in shaping evangelicalism today in Britain and beyond. And readers of any age should be inspired by Stott’s example, humbled by his godliness, and stimulated to serve his Master.
When I was a younger christian, my experience of walking with Christ was such an up-and-down picture that I longed for the stability that wold come ‘when I am a mature Christian’. Now that I am older, I realise that there is still a long way to go to full maturity. If anything I see my weaknesses all the more, and of course perfection will only come when Christ comes to us or he calls me home.
But I also see that the desire for maturity is a godly and biblical one. God wants us to grow up to maturity in Christ. It is right to seek maturity, and frankly wrong to neglect it. Maturity comes through encountering God in his living word, the Bible. God gave different kinds of word ministries so that the body of Christ may be built up and become mature (see Ephesians 4.11-12). We cannot grow to maturity if we neglect the word.
John Stott pithily summarised this in what has become known as the Langham Logic:
We believe that God wants the church to grow up.
We believe that the church grows through God’s Word,
and that this word comes to people, primarily, through preaching.
Langham Preaching is a ministry originally founded by John Stott to follow through on the Langham Logic. Langham Preaching is about putting the bible back into the hands of local preachers and their churches. A fuller statement of their purpose goes something like this:
Langham Preaching is about training in a way which builds and sustains an indigenous movement of biblical preachers which changes the culture of preaching in the majority world … to impact church and society.
It’s a great work, and if you are interested in finding out more, and seeing how you can support it, visit their website at http://www.langhampartnership.org/preaching/
This collection of short essays by John Stott’s friends and protégés was originally conceived as a posthumous tribute and has been published to mark his ninetieth birthday in April 2011. The editor, Chris Wright, was invited by Stott to take over the leadership of the ministries that now form Langham Partnership (known in the USA as John Stott Ministries), and is now International Director of Langham Partnership International.
Thirty-five contributions paint a picture of the man they have known. They are ‘many brushstrokes, one portrait’ and describe the early and formative years, his time at All Souls and influence within the Church of England, his international influence, his wider interests, the study assistants and ‘the final lap’. The most varied section includes the wider interests of birdwatching, caring for the environment, and renewing church music. Of course the different parts overlap because no man can be so neatly divided.
John Stott’s influence has been both wide and deep. Contributors consistently speak of his clarity, faithfulness and power as a teacher of God’s word; of his remarkable efforts in equipping the churches in each continent to speak for Christ clearly, faithfully and effectively; and of his legacy of movements which continue to mobilise Christians with the gospel. Those who knew him best were deeply impressed by his character. Time and time again they speak of his astounding gift of friendship, his humility, iron self-discipline, love for children and Christ-like love for people.
This is a portrait not a biography. The works of Dudley-Smith (1999-2001) or Steer (2009) should be consulted for the facts of Stott’s life and work. This is a portrait not a critical evaluation of his work. Critics exist already, and objective analysis must wait for the passage of a little more time. And finally, this is a portrait not a shock exposé. It is an exposé, but there is no shock. As Chris Wright observes, Uncle John is like a stick of seaside rock that is the same all the way through. I found this fond portrait to be a gripping and inspiring read, that made me want to follow Stott’s example of devotion to Christ, and to thank God for this most remarkable man and his ministry.
Reviewed for Churchman 2011