Editor's Note: John Stott died today at 3:15 London time (about 9:15 a.m. CST), according to John Stott Ministries President Benjamin Homan. Homan said that Stott's death came after complications related to old age and that he has been in discomfort for the last several weeks. Family and close friends gathered with Stott today as they listened to Handel's Messiah. Homan said that John Stott Ministries has been preparing for his death for the past 15 years. "I think he set an impeccable example for leaders of ministries of handing things over to other leaders," Homan said. "He imparted to many a love for the global church and imparted a passion for biblical fidelity and a love for the Savior."
"An evangelical is a plain, ordinary Christian," John Stott told Christianity Today in an October 2006 interview. From his conversion at Rugby secondary school in 1938 to his death in 2011 at 90 years old, Stott exemplified how extraordinary plain, ordinary Christianity can be. He was not known as an original thinker, nor did he seek to be. He always turned to the Bible for understanding, and his unforgettable gift was to penetrate and explain the Scriptures. As editor Kenneth Kantzer wrote in CT's pages in 1981, "When I hear him expound a text, invariably I exclaim to myself, 'That's exactly what it means! Why didn't I see it before?'"
Until his conversion and subsequent call to Christian ministry, Stott seemed headed for the diplomatic corps. A skilled linguist, he would win a first at Cambridge in French before going on to study theology, in which he also gained a first. (A prestigious "first" is something like "highest honors" for an American graduate.) Nobody doubted that Stott would have made a superb diplomat. In his ministry, he retained the best qualities of that calling, which is to faithfully and skillfully represent someone else.
Like any good diplomat, Stott knew exactly who he was and where he came from. Born into an emotionally close and cultured doctor's family, he spent virtually his entire life in the same London neighborhood. As a child, he attended All Souls Church, sometimes sitting in the balcony and dropping wads of paper on the ladies' hats below. At his ordination in the Church of England in 1945, Stott became curate there and then, in 1950, rector of the badly war-damaged church. He would remain on staff for the rest of his days.
Stott was thoroughly English in stereotypical ways: incisive, cool, time-conscious, orderly, and balanced. Though he had a great gift for friendship, he was not given to small talk or self-revelation. (He did have a wry sense of humor and was a talented amateur musician.) A lifelong bachelor, he showed a formidable capacity for work. When he was at a writing project, he could happily keep his own company for weeks on end at his retreat in Wales, grinding out page after page of well-regulated prose.
At the same time, he relished the world around him in all its variety. Perhaps nothing showed this so obviously as his lifelong love for birdwatching, which biographer Timothy Dudley-Smith says bordered on an obsession. In his later decades, Stott spent a great proportion of his time traveling, much of it in Majority World countries. Time for birds was nearly always included. He traveled without entourage, sometimes preaching in a cathedral one day and under a tree the next, meeting the mighty and the lowly and staying in their homes. As a London pastor, too, he formed strong attachments to a wide variety of humanity. When he encountered opposition or criticism, he would seek it out for an exchange of views. He did not enjoy conflict, but he was committed to dialogue.
Right from the beginning he was passionate about that hallmark of evangelicalism: evangelism. The man who led him to Christ, E.J.H. Nash, or "Bash," as he was known, worked for Scripture Union in the elite English public schools. Stott had been raised to attend church and to read the Bible daily, but as a young student he had no idea of personal salvation. Bash shared with him the scene from Revelation 3, of Jesus standing at the door and asking to come in. It seized Stott's understanding, and in a short time he had become an evangelical Christian. Bash soon put Stott to work, talking to other boys about what he had discovered. By the time Stott reached university, he was running Scripture Union holiday camps, which were very explicitly evangelistic.
Stott would ultimately become better known as a Bible expositor and teacher, but during his first decades of ministry he made a reputation as an evangelist. At All Souls, he led many to Christ himself, while organizing and teaching the congregation how to bring their friends and neighbors into a relationship with Jesus. All Souls was an inner-city church with a striking mix of the well-off and the indigent, and Stott was determined to neglect neither side. He firmly believed that the local church should be a locus for evangelism. One of his first books, published in 1952, was Parochial Evangelism by the Laity. His two earlier publications were Personal Evangelism (1949) and Becoming a Christian (1950).
J.I. Packer remembers that Stott "in his younger days … was a brilliant and hard-worked student evangelist." He was the chosen speaker for a considerable number of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship's week-long evangelistic campaigns at British universities, particularly Cambridge and Oxford. These later extended to North America and throughout the Commonwealth. From these evangelistic talks came one of his best-selling books, Basic Christianity (1958), which has been translated into 25 languages and sold well over a million copies.
Billy Graham first visited England in 1946, and Stott met him while sharing open-air preaching at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. In 1954 he welcomed Graham for his 12-week Harringay Crusade, and the two became warm friends. Later on this friendship would be important to the Lausanne movement, but it is worth noting that it began through an active, shared commitment to evangelism.
Stott believed in evangelism, and he was active in many so-called parachurch ministries like Scripture Union and InterVarsity. Fundamentally, though, he was a church minister, who became the leading figure in a resurgence of British evangelicalism, particularly within the Church of England.
Conservative evangelicals were a despised minority when Stott was ordained, without a single bishop in the Church of England. In response Stott showed his ingenuity as a social entrepreneur. He was never one to keep his convictions to himself, nor to consider a situation hopeless. Instead, he fostered organizations meant to encourage younger evangelical clergy, and he helped organize and renew evangelical conferences.
Most of all, he served as a model of confidence and intellectual strength. "I remember reading his books as a young student," says Old Testament scholar Chris Wright, whom Stott later chose to lead Langham Partners International, the Majority World ministry of biblical scholarship and preaching that Stott started as a result of his global travels. "They were so clearly argued you felt that you had a case."
Stott believed in the mind as a gift from God. In an evangelical world tempted to rely on prooftexts and emotive stories, Stott drilled down deep into Scripture to display its power. Many people, hearing Stott preach for the first time, said they had never heard the Bible expounded with such clarity and depth. His passion was to learn what God said, and to let it shape life. Stott's preaching and writing renewed faith in the inspiration of Scripture, not only because he defended it, but because he displayed it.
At the same time, his practice of evangelism demonstrated that "plain, ordinary Christianity" could appeal to all classes of people. What evangelicals most treasured—the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures that testified to them—he showed to be potent resources for winning the world. Largely through Stott's leadership British evangelicalism was transformed from a defensive backwater to an engaged and significant movement.
Stott was every inch an evangelical, but a reforming evangelical. He recognized that evangelicalism could and sometimes did sink down into mere piety, whereas the Bible spoke of a robust transformation of the world brought about by God's people engaged in mission. As a London pastor, Stott increasingly recognized the need for evangelicalism to reclaim its heritage of engagement with the social issues of the day.
As he told an interviewer years later, "In the early 1960s, I began to travel in the Third World, and I saw poverty in Latin America, Africa and Asia as I had not seen it before. It became clear to me that it was utterly impossible to take that old view." The "old view" was that preaching was always a Christian's preeminent task, and that deeds of compassion were strictly secondary. As Stott probed the Scriptures, he came to believe that Jesus' Great Commission commanded Jesus' servants to carry on his entire mission, which included practical concern for life and health.
One of Stott's most significant works—and one that carried him far out of his own expertise—was the book Issues Facing Christians Today (1984), in which he attempted to address crucial concerns of contemporary society such as abortion, industrial relations, and human rights. Earlier he had written Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life (1972). In 1982 he helped to launch the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, which offered classes and lectures on a wide variety of topics relevant to life in modern society.
His greatest impact in the area of social concern came somewhat inadvertently. In 1974 the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association convened an International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne, Switzerland. Two thousand five hundred members attended (in addition to 1300 other participants). About half of the delegates and speakers came from Majority World countries. The gathering's wide representation resembled meetings of the World Council of Churches, but the excited atmosphere of unified mission was unprecedented. Many participants grasped for the first time the global dimensions of the evangelical church. Almost thirty years later Philip Jenkins would write of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. But as David Jones, former president of John Stott Ministries, says, at Lausanne "Jenkins' book was there in the faces and minds of people. Lausanne showed the global church that we can work together."
Such unity was hardly automatic. In fact, there were great differences in perspective between those from the West and those from the Majority World, and the relationship between evangelism and social concern was an emotional hot button. According to some, Christians were called to preach the gospel, full stop. For others, particularly those in countries where poverty and injustice were inescapably obvious, such a stance amounted to callous indifference to people. Lausanne could easily have divided between these perspectives.
Stott had been asked to give the opening address on the nature of biblical evangelism. He began with characteristic humility, calling for "a note of evangelical repentance." And he spoke head-on—with a lucid exposition of Scripture—to the issue on people's minds.
"Here then are two instructions, 'love your neighbor' and 'go and make disciples.' What is the relation between the two? Some of us behave as if we thought them identical, so that if we have shared the Gospel with somebody, we consider we have completed our responsibility to love him. But no. The Great Commission neither explains, nor exhausts, nor supersedes the Great Commandment. What it does is to add to the command of neighbor-love and neighbor-service a new and urgent Christian dimension. If we truly love our neighbor we shall without doubt tell him the Good News of Jesus. But equally if we truly love our neighbor we shall not stop there."
Stott's speech made it possible for delegates to rethink their positions, to listen to others, and to conceive of preaching and social action working in tandem. He managed the same trick in chairing the committee that drafted the Lausanne Covenant. Stott's contribution as diplomat was never more in evidence, as he chaired potentially fractious meetings, getting people to listen to each others' views. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to draft and redraft the covenant, finding wording that would capture various points of view without doing violence to any. In the end the Lausanne Covenant spoke to the moment, expressing a common mission that most delegates could enthusiastically endorse; and it spoke to the future, providing a statement that evangelical groups could use as their basic statement. Lausanne was a defining moment in global evangelicalism. Billy Graham was the indispensable convener, but John Stott was the indispensable uniter.
And what is left behind, now that John Stott is gone? Some of his legacy can be seen in his church, for generations a vital, grounded, evangelical community in the heart of London. To this day, All Souls serves as a beacon for visitors from all over the world.
So with Langham Partners, preeminent among the organizations he launched. Increasingly it reflects a global partnership of evangelicals concerned for scholarship, literature and preaching in the Majority World.
His books, too, continue to speak eloquently: clear, precise, stimulating and balanced. His commentaries cover much of the New Testament, bridging the gap between scholarly works and thoughtful works for lay people. Many people consider The Cross of Christ Stott's magnum opus, but his entire corpus is a summing up of evangelical Christianity: dominated by the Bible, but full of a sense of Christ-centered mission.
For all his skill and intellect, his writing, his entrepreneurial energy, and his brilliant preaching, John Stott's ultimate legacy may be people. He has mentored and befriended a vast number of co-workers all over the world.
Far earlier than most, Stott recognized the vitality and strength of the church in the Majority World. He began to spend an increasing share of his time there as he retired from the day-to-day responsibilities of leading All Souls.
Most of his work in the Majority World was, from a westerner's perspective, invisible. He met thousands of church leaders, often young men and women struggling to find their place. He procured theological study books for those who had no access to good libraries. He arranged scholarships to study for doctorates in the U.K. and the U.S. for those who had ability at that level. He demonstrated biblical preaching, and he modeled modesty and a simple lifestyle. He made hundreds if not thousands of friends, becoming in his person a bridge between cultures.
"Naturally, by temperament, he is an introvert," says Chris Wright. "He is very happy to be in his own company. Yet he has given himself to so many people, remembering names, knowing their families, knowing their children, writing letters, praying for them. He was constantly praying for people. His prayer list was so long. Whenever he would meet them again he would remember them because he was praying for them."
"There have been mixed feelings about the west among our leaders," says Ajith Fernando, a Methodist church leader and head of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. "Sometimes I feel an anger close to racism has arisen in the minds of Christian leaders out of the sense that western leaders do not understand the concerns of people in the rest of the world. There is a suspicion that what they want is to fulfill their agenda in our countries—another form of colonialism? With people like John Stott around it was impossible for me to nurture such feelings toward the west. Here was humility personified … .We are grateful that he gave so much time coming to the poorer nations not with some huge program which would impress the whole world, but simply to teach us the Bible."
Latin American theologian Rene Padilla remembers vividly one of his early encounters with Stott. "On the previous night we had arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, in the middle of heavy rain. The street was muddy and, as a result, by the time we got to the room that had been assigned to us our shoes were covered with mud. In the morning, as I woke up, I heard the sound of a brush—John was busy, brushing my shoes. 'John!,' I exclaimed full of surprise, 'What are you doing?' 'My dear René,' he responded, 'Jesus taught us to wash each other's feet. You do not need me to wash your feet, but I can brush your shoes.'
Theologian David Wells, who was converted through a 1959 John Stott mission in South Africa, later shared a household with him for five years in the early 1960s. "His leadership was effective," Wells says, "because of his personal integrity and his Christian life. People who knew him always came back to these points. He was known all over the world, but when you met him he was a most devout, humble Christian man. His private life was no different from his public life. It was the same person. That's another way to say that he had integrity. There was no posing."
One would like to say that such is the nature of plain, ordinary Christians. Not all live up to it. John Stott did.
Tim Stafford, a senior writer for Christianity Today, is vice-chair of the board of John Stott Ministries.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.