An interview with John Stott

John Stott is spending July in Australia, lecturing and preaching in a number of cities. We posed these questions to him while he was still in London, preparing for the visit. Thanks to Wendy Toulmin and Langham Partnership Australia (Inc) for organizing this interview.

What approaches to evangelism do you think are bearing most fruit at present?

Different approaches bear fruit in different cultures. Friendship evangelism remains basic, because it is fundamentally ‘incarnational’ and demands a sacrificial entry into other people’s worlds. Local church evangelism is thoroughly biblical, as each church receives the gospel and passes it on (1 Thess 1:5-8). Mass evangelism, however, is less effective in the west nowadays. What is essential in all forms of evangelism is that we uplift Christ, crucified, risen, reigning and returning. It is he who draws people like a magnet to himself (John 12:32) and people need to be able to see him in us (1 John 4:12).

Some parts of the Anglican church are seeing church planting as the way forward, even when it means breaking with the parochial system. Do you have any comments on this strategy?

I hope we will never break altogether free from the parochial system. In theory, it is a magnificent concept, making everybody somebody’s spiritual responsibility. But it breaks down whenever local churches are either non existent or unfaithful. In these situations pioneer church planting is necessary. But it needs to be done by strategic planning, rather than by haphazard individual initiatives.

Has student ministry changed very much during your time? What things have changed? What things have remained constant?

I was involved in student evangelism, and specially in university evangelistic missions, for 25 years from 1952 to 1977. It is extraordinary to remember that in those far off days clergy wore clerical collars and robes, and that the gospel was proclaimed in a religious context of a service of hymns and prayers. Moreover one could assume that students had some background knowledge of gospel truths. No longer. Universities are much more secular. Students are biblically illiterate, so that the presentation of the gospel has to begin further back. In addition, university missioners dress and talk like normal human beings! Nevertheless the gospel remains unchanged in every generation and every place. Indeed it often has a welcome freshness today because students have never heard it before. Missions tend to be effective in proportion to the degree to which Christian students have penetrated university life and made non-Christian friends.

Do you feel you have made any major mistakes in ministry, from which others may learn?

I’ve certainly made mistakes. Whether they deserve the epithet ‘major’ I must leave you and others to decide! My worst mistake, I think, has been my tendency to be an activist, giving insufficient time to study and prayer. This may surprise you, but I can echo Billy Graham in saying that, if he had his ministry all over again, he would make two changes. He would study three times as much as he had done: “I’ve preached too much and studied too little”. And he would pray more. I have heard him say these things. I feel the same way.

Evangelism at its simplest is ‘persuading people’ (2 Cor 5:11). So the apostles were not afraid to develop arguments for the truth of the gospel. Today, however, we are better at evangelism than at apologetics. But evangelism (proclaiming the gospel) and apologetics (defending the gospel) belong inextricably together. “The ministry of the Word and prayer” were of course the priorities of the apostles (Acts 6:4). Although we are not apostles, these same activities are still priorities for those called to gospel work today.

Do you think the sermon still deserves pride of place in the evangelical church meeting? If so, why? If not, what could replace it?

The Word of God is certainly central to all Christian worship, since it is the Word of God which evokes the worship of God. Paul instructed Timothy to devote himself to “the public reading of Scripture” and to “preaching and teaching” which (he implies) would have their origin in Scripture. In our day, in which words have largely been replaced by images, the visual needs to supplement (but not supplant) the verbal, first of all the gospel sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), which Augustine rightly called verba visibilia, ‘visible words’. In addition to them, there is a place for drama, power point presentations etc. We need to remember that Jesus is styled both ‘the Word of God’ and ‘the image of God’. The Word became visible, and the image became audible. Above all, we must use our minds in worship. Since the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’, anti-intellectualism and the fullness of the Spirit are mutually incompatible.

If you are given another 20 years (like the Queen Mother was!), what will you seek to achieve?

In general, my prayer is that by God’s grace I may be enabled to be faithful to the end, fighting the good fight, finishing the race and keeping the faith (2 Tim 4:7). In particular, I am anxious before I die to see the Third World ministries of the Langham Partnership International (in which I have been involved for 30 years) becoming thoroughly established under the gifted leadership of Dr Chris Wright. Our overriding concern is to help raise the standards of biblical teaching and preaching. To this end we are seeking to develop three ministries:

  1. Langham Literature (making good books available to pastors, seminarians and seminary libraries)
  2. Langham Scholarships (enabling young scholars to obtain a doctorate and return to their own country to teach in seminaries or exercise theological leadership in other ways);
  3. Langham Seminars (helping pastors to take their preaching responsibilities more seriously). This strategic threefold ministry in the developing world is occupying much of my concern, time and energy, as Chris Wright takes over the leadership from me.

In his recent book Evangelicalism Divided, Iain Murray argues that the policy decision by evangelicals in the 60s and 70s to put some of their distinctives to one side in order to have a wider influence with the denominations has ultimately been harmful and counterproductive. Do you agree with Murray’s diagnosis? What is your view on the progress of evangelicalism over the past 30 years, and of your own place within it?

I never like talking or writing about people behind their back! Iain Murray is a good evangelical brother, who has done some conscientious research in Evangelicalism Divided. Nevertheless I don’t think your summary of his argument is altogether fair. Speaking for myself, I am not conscious of having “put aside” any evangelical distinctives “in order to have a wider influence with the denominations”. For this savours of a theological compromise of which I don’t believe I have been guilty. No, our decision at the Keele Congress (1967) was to get involved in both the secular world and the visible church, because we saw it as our God-appointed duty to do so. During the last 50 years I have seen the evangelical movement grow in size, scholarship and influence. What worries me now is that we are more a coalition than a party. We need to rally to the evangelical flag, as I have tried to argue in Evangelical Truth (2000), maintaining Trinitarian Truth in love (Eph 4:15).

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