John Stott, who taught Christians that their minds mattered and led them out of their safe, comfortable and guilty cultural isolation, died last week. Will we return to where he found us?
Soon after he became a columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks wrote that people were “misinformed” about Evangelicals. Part of the reason, Brooks reasoned, lay in whom the media chose to speak for us: choices that made as much sense as having “Britney Spears and Larry Flynt discuss D. H. Lawrence.”
So he introduced his readers to an evangelical whom many had never heard of but was, in Brooks’ words, “actually important,” John Stott.
Stott died last week at the age of ninety, once again with a very favorable eulogy in the New York Times. We will miss him in more ways than one.
In some respects this broadcast can be traced back to Stott. Over 30 years ago, I spoke at the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity, an event founded and hosted by Stott. I spoke about the connection between culture, conscience, and crime. This was during the period when I beginning to understand the question of worldview and its relationship to Christian mission.
I am far from the only Christian influenced by Stott in this way. In 1967, at a time when most Evangelicals were content to remain safe behind the walls of their churches, ignoring the larger world around them, Stott wrote a book entitled, Our Guilty Silence.
In it Stott made the case that because the Gospel is “Good News” we are under an obligation to share it with others. This sounds obvious, but in 1967 this kind of witness, and that kind of engagement with the larger society, was the last thing many Christians wanted to do. They much preferred their comfortable worship and cultural isolation.
Among its many benefits, this isolation didn’t require them to think too much, especially when it came to matters of faith. So five years later, Stott wrote Your Mind Matters, a book whose title could serve as a mission statement for this broadcast.
In it Stott criticized the “spirit of anti-intellectualism” that pervaded Evangelicalism at the time. This “spirit” often produced “zeal without knowledge” that was mistaken for Christian maturity. True Christian maturity is impossible without understanding what it is we believe and how it applies to our lives. The connection between Stott’s work and ours should, again, be unmistakable.
That I cared about prisoners drew John Stott and me close together. He was over and over the conscience of Evangelicalism, reminding us of our duty to the poor and the suffering.
Stott’s central role in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, which brought the Evangelical world out of its self-imposed exile, caused Billy Graham, when he was named one of the most 100 influential people in Time magazine in 2005, to say that Stott deserved the designation instead. As Graham told Time, “I can’t think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical world view.”
Like I said, we will miss Stott in many ways. That’s because in many ways we are back where Stott started in the 1960s. For too many evangelicals, faith has become a matter of feeling in which how we feel takes precedence over what we know. There is no shortage of disheartening data documenting how little many professing Christians know about their own faith.
Stott made my recent book The Faith possible. The current state of the church makes it and others like it necessary. The question today is: have we learn from John Stott or do Christians prefer silence?