John Stott died today, aged 90. He had withdrawn from almost all public life for some years, but it is still sad to think of him gone.
Stott meant a lot to me, and in several respects.
First, he modeled intelligent preaching, preaching that implied that both preacher and congregation were intelligent people who were concerned to understand difficult and important matters, and that patient and skilled interpretation of the difficult and important texts of the Bible was not only possible, but to be expected from sermons on every occasion. Preachers I have heard since then, and that’s the majority, who fail to interpret the text intelligently, fail to treat their audiences as intelligent people, and fail to express themselves intelligently, earn either my pity (if they can’t help it) or my contempt (if they can). But they do not get a pass: John Stott showed us what could be done, and we ought to do it, even if few of us can do it so well.
Second, he showed that smart and educated people could be evangelicals and remain evangelicals. In my young adult years, many upwardly mobile evangelicals were hitting the “high road,” so to speak, on their way to Anglo-Catholicism, Catholicism, or even Orthodoxy, but Stott–whose church services at All Souls Langham Place were like InterVarsity meetings with robes–was irrefutably sophisticated and unapologetically low-church evangelical.
Third, Stott demonstrated Christian liberty. At an InterVarsity conference I attended once in Toronto, the worship leaders insisted that everyone put up their hands in praise, wave them about, and generally move their bodies in ways I found distinctly uncongenial to worship. Stott was the main preacher and after several sessions in which he conspicuously refused to participate in this way, came to the microphone, blessed the worship leaders for their enthusiasm, and said simply, “I don’t find it helpful to raise my hands during public worship, so I don’t. But that is just me, and I mean no disrespect to those of you who do.” Nicely put, lesson learned, let’s move on.
Finally, I had one terrible summer during my undergraduate years driving bread trucks in various small towns in West Texas. This was “Friday Night Lights” territory, and I worked long days, loading at 4:30 a.m. and not unloading until 6:30 or 7–usually in 105F heat. I would then get supper at a local eatery, my one meal of the day, and hit my motel room bed for six hours’ sleep before getting up and doing it all over again.
To stay sane–literally–I made myself read Stott’s Christian Counterculture, his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount–for twenty minutes each morning before work. It got me started and directed for the day.
Three years later I met John Stott just once, early in my M.A. program at Wheaton College. I had him sign that book. It was the first time I had asked an author to autograph a book, and the last. Two weeks later, Francis Schaeffer came to the college. A few weeks after that, Billy Graham. I admired both those men greatly, but Stott’s signature and the brief moment I could thank him inadequately for what his ministry had meant to me was it. The man who had penned the Lausanne Covenant, who had preached all those Urbana sermons, who had conducted all those university missions, who had written all those books (I’ve read about a dozen of them), and who had helped so many needy young leaders through the Langham Partnership, known in the U.S. as John Stott Ministries–it wouldn’t get better than that.
And it hasn’t. John R. W. Stott set a standard of intellectual, homiletical, theological, pastoral, and political excellence unparalleled in our time among evangelicals and perhaps among any other group of Christians in the world. (Yes, I’ll put him up against your favourite pope, bizarre as such a challenge would be!)
Rest in peace, Uncle John. And, in honour of your first class degree in French, as well as theology, à bientôt.