To Think or Not to Think
That is (not) the question.
Byron Borger, owner of the widely respected Hearts and Minds Books, recently wrote, “One can hardly think of a 20th century preacher and writer and leader who has so influenced the best of modern evangelicalism than the late John Stott.” I’ve invited you to join me in thinking about what made Stott’s life such an important and necessary model for current pastoral ministry as we reflect on the book Stott on the Christian Life by Tim Chester.
Chester first highlights Stott’s commitment to a christian mind.His pastoral life was committed both to spiritual vitality and to intellectual engagement. His core commitment to God’s word moved him to find ways that the truths of Scripture could be sensibly presented to a skeptical world. He became a student of both scripture and of the world around him through a practice he called “double listening.” That he might respond to the questions and concerns and interests of the world around him in a thoughtful and Biblical way, he believed he needed to understand them as well as he understood Scripture. Pastors, he believed, can’t wall themselves off from the ideas and challenges of the world and still hope to present Scripture effectively.
Stott models a ministry that is intelligent and engaged, something I’ve always wanted my ministry to be, and yet the more I read about it, the more exhausted I felt.
In Stott we’re watching a world class athlete run a marathon. It’s the race we should run, but not all of us can run it like him. John Stott, unlike many of us, had the intellectual capacity and pastoral situation that enabled him to do this well. We’re to run the race, yes, but we’re to do so with carefully tempered expectations.
Over the past few years pastors have been expected to have intelligent takes on everything from electoral politics to epidemiology. We’ve been expected to lead with expertise through highly charged debates concerning human sexuality or the possibility of revival in a rural Kentucky college. Some under pressure to say something resort to parrotting media generated talking points or give into what I’ve called “groupie spirit.”Neither response is helpful or healthy or, in the end, satisfying.
We want to bring a thoughtful Christian response, but our limitations haunt us. John Stott’s mind was sharp and retentive. Mine happens to be porous and distracted. I have a church to run and visits to the ER to make and broken hearts to listen to and a family to care for. Perhaps I’m lazy or undisciplined. Or perhaps I’m just not able to keep up with all that is demanded of me.
Early in ministry, long before pastors were supposed to have a position on everything that was hot on Twitter, I expressed my desperation in a letterto Dr. Will Barker, then a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, a man who had modeled for me the kind of thoughtful Christianity to which I was aspiring. In his kind reply, he wrote, “As I have gotten older, I have found it liberating to acknowledge that after all I am not really an expert on anything, but that the Lord will help his people learn together when they seek him in faith.”
There is truth in that response that frees us. Pastoral ministry is to be thoughtful and reasonable. Pastors should practice some form of double listening. We’re to give our congregations reasons for their faith. We are to run that race. But our efforts will be necessarily selective and limited, and that’s okay.
It’s a gift to our congregations when we model for them a willingness to think. But it may be a greater gift to admit in their hearing that we don’t have enough information to form an opinion on the topic at hand. We shouldn’t pretend that we know enough to speak as authorities on some issue when we don’t. To say “I don’t know” or “I can’t say I know enough to comment” is not to be irresponsible but honest. When we refuse the rush to expertise we model a kind of grace for our people. They may need a model of humility more than they need our expertise.
We’re to run this race of thoughtful Christianity, and as we do there will be times when we will need to deeply engage a thing. We need to practice a type of “triple” listening, adding to the voices of Scripture and of the world the voice of the Holy Spirit. He who knows our limits and hones our interests will lead us to dive deeply and act boldly on issues of His choosing. On the rest, it’s okay to take a pass.
John Stott ran his marathon at a pace that will ever elude me. That’s okay. I’ll run behind him, limp if I must. Stott has shown us the goal, and even if I only muster a crawl, somehow the one who is the author and finisher of my faith will be be pleased.
Tim Chester, Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds (United States: Crossway, 2020).
Chester suggests that Stott leans heavily on Harry Blamires’ 1963 book The Christian Mind. I don’t doubt that, but Blamires’ book is less a challenge to Christian thinking, as it is a lament that there is no shared Christian thought, no consensus on so many fundamental issues such as the nature of truth and authority. This fractured lanscape is as real today as it was then. I despair of there ever being such a thing as THE Christian Mind. Blamires’ book, though, is one we could all benefit from, if only to place within us a longing for a thing that may not come until the consummation.
This was only part of Stott’s concern. He was as well concerned to push back against an emotional form of Christianity that distrusted reason. That too remains important for our day.
“Groupie spirit” is a mindless rallying around a celebrity Christian, which I’ve addressed previously.
Yes, a letter. This was, after all, 1990.