Friday, July 29, 2011

John Stott: A Legacy Passed On

Photo Credit: osattack
John Stott, a leading figure in Christian evangelicalism in the past century, passed away this week at the age of ninety. Christianity Today has written a wonderful piece about his influence and legacy on the world. Here's a highlight:
"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 in Lausanne, Switzerland. About 2,500 members attended (in addition to 1,300 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 30 years later, Philip Jenkins would write The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. But as David Jones, 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 skill as a 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 framework 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."
You can read the complete CT article here.

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