Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
The Legacy of John Stott
A student recently asked me about the books that have shaped me as a pastor. There are books that have been influential, sure, but I have been shaped not so much by the words I have read but by the people I have known. Bruce, for example, pastored a church a couple of hours from my own. He was older and wiser, and his delight and honesty were catching. He loved the gospel and cared deeply for his diverse flock which he shepherded with compelling grace.
I told others that I wanted to be Bruce when I grew up.
I could compile a list of books which have informed my practice of ministry, if asked. But my student’s question led me to consider something different. It caused me to think of one author whose influence through his books has had an effect on me from a distance that was in many ways similar to that which Bruce had on me across a table. Framing the student’s question differently, as “what authors are there whose qualities revealed in their books have shaped you?” the answer then is easy: John Stott.
But who was John Stott?
Stott was an Anglican pastor, the rector of All Souls Church in London, England, during the heart of the 20th Century. He was a respected author, a sought after Bible teacher, and an influential leader in the evangelical movement.
In 1978, fresh from college and recently married, Barb and I wondered if we were being called to be missionaries. Stott’s book Christian Mission in the Modern Worldhelped me process some of those thoughts. When we pursued our missionary interest at InterVarsity’s Urbana Missionary Convention in 1979, we, with nearly 20,000 other students, spent each morning listening to Stott teach the content of the book of Romans. There was no flare to his oratory, no gimmicks in his presentation. But there was power, honesty, and clarity.
God in time led me to be a pastor, not a missionary, and Stott’s words continued to feed me. Between Two Worldsmodeled for me a pastoral approach to preaching, and his commentaries demonstrated a helpful blend of scholarly sensibility with pastoral concern. That he titled his commentaries on Ephesians God’s New Society and on the Sermon on the Mount Christian Counter-Culture reveals his concern not to let his scholarship, which was deep, overshadow his practical concern for Christ’s church. I was too busy and too distracted to read his classic The Cross of Christ when it was published in 1986. I regret now leaving it unread for as long as I did.
Certainly the content of these books shaped my mind and my approach to ministry. But over time, the character of the person behind the books began to seep into my soul and to shape my heart. Stott’s prose was clear and logical, and his respect for the biblical text was lofty. He as well conveyed a passion for Christ, a love for his church, and a heart for the lost. We’re shaped by the company we keep, and keeping company with John Stott in this way drew me to the person behind the words.
To say now that “I want to be John Stott when I grow up” is clearly presumptuous. I’ll never be him, but only me. But if the me that I am reflects a bit of him, I’m pleased.
Mentors are given to us only for a time. My friend Bruce moved out of state. John Stott retired and then passed away. When I heard about his death, I went for a run, and I cried. The tears, which surprised me, were, I think, tears of loneliness. To pastor is hard; to pastor alone is more than I cared to bear.
Today I’m gratified to know that Stott’s legacy is being preserved. In 2020, Crossway published a book called John Stott on the Christian Lifewritten by Tim Chester, himself a pastor as well as a scholar. This book attempts to uncover what moved the heart of John Stott to be who he was. I understand from those I trust that Chester accomplishes his purpose in a deeply moving way.
My student’s question brought Stott, and this book, to mind, and so it’s time that I read it. It’s my intention to do so slowly over the next several months. As I read, I hope to write posts on topics suggested by the content of the book.
Perhaps you’d like to read along with me. We are all shaped by persons, and this is a person I’d like you to know, and one I’d like to know better.
Perhaps you, too, will want to be him, or someone quite like him, when you grow up.
This is precisely the question that David Brooks asked in his 2004 New York Times opinion column in praise of Stott. Later, in his book, The Second Mountain he speaks of Stott’s profound impact upon Brook’s reluctant and slow movement toward Christianity.
John R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (United States: InterVarsity Press, 1975).
John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (United States: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982).
John R. W. Stott, God’s New Society: the Message of Ephesians (United States: InterVarsity Press, 1979).
John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (United States: InterVarsity Press, 1978).
John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (United States: InterVarsity Press, 1986).
Tim Chester, Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds (United States: Crossway, 2020).