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What we’re reading: “Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds”

John Stott never became as famous as his friend Billy Graham, yet he was so beloved and influential that one observer joked that if evangelicals elected a pope, it would probably be Stott.

Tim Chester’s book Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds is a worthy introduction to this giant of the faith, with penetrating insights into his character as a pastor, leader, theologian, and man.

Although he became known for his humility and social conscience, he grew up in a privileged family. Born in 1921 in London, his father, Sir Arnold Stott, was a physician to the royal household and an agnostic. His mother, Emily Stott, attended All Souls Church, a nearby Anglican congregation.

Educated at elite boarding schools and Cambridge, Stott accepted Christ as a teenager. After completing his studies, he joined the staff at All Souls. At twenty-nine, he became rector (or pastor), held that post for twenty-five years, and then served as rector emeritus until his death in 2011.

“John Stott’s focus was the cross,” the Rev. S. Douglas Birdsall wrote upon his passing. “The church was his great love. World evangelization was his passion. Scripture was his authority. Heaven was his hope. Now it is his home.”

Stott prepared for his sermons by immersing himself in the text and identifying the dominant thought in a biblical passage. Everything in the message centered around that big idea—the secret, Chester wrote, to the power of Stott’s sermons.

“Preaching can never be degraded into the learning of a few rhetorical techniques,” Stott said. “A whole theology lies beneath it, and a whole lifestyle behind it. The practice of preaching cannot be divorced from the person of the preacher.”

He urged preachers to be courageous but humble. “Pride is without doubt the chief occupational hazard of the preacher,” he said.

He would pray before his sermons, even when he was giving the same one to a different audience. Then, Stott said, “As I make that journey to the pulpit, I just say over and over again, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit.’”

Stott’s influence grew far beyond All Souls Church, not only in the Church of England but also in the greater evangelical world.

“Although Stott would become well known in evangelical circles for his advocacy of social involvement, in ecumenical circles he was courageous in his call to keep evangelism at the center,” Chester wrote.

Stott was the principal author of the Lausanne Covenant resulting from the International Congress on World Evangelization in Switzerland in 1974. Then, at a follow-up meeting in Mexico City, a dispute arose over the direction of the Lausanne Movement.

Graham and others urged focusing solely on evangelism, a change from the original covenant, and Stott took upon himself the unenviable task of confronting Graham, arguing that social action needed to be included. They reached a compromise and remained friends.

“If pressed … if one has to choose, eternal salvation is more important than temporal welfare,” Stott said. “This seems to me indisputable. But I want immediately to add that one should not normally have to choose.”

Stott wrote more than fifty books, including Basic Christianity, which has been compared to Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, and Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today about bridging the gap between God’s word and contemporary life.

His book Issues Facing Christians Today covered environmental issues, global inequality, human rights, unemployment, racism, feminism, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality, among other topics.

He visited more than one hundred countries in his sixties and more than forty in his seventies, telling other pastors, “One of the main burdens God has given me is for the rising Christian leadership of the Third World.”

On one trip to Argentina, another Christian leader woke up to find Stott cleaning the mud off his shoes. Startled, he asked Stott what he was doing. “Jesus told us to wash one another’s feet,” Stott said. “Today we do not wash feet the way people did in Jesus’ day, but I can clean your shoes.”

A reporter once ticked off a list of Stott’s accomplishments, including being chaplain to the queen, and asked him his next goal. “To be more like Jesus,” Stott responded.

When he was eighty-six, he retired from public life to enter a home for Anglican clergy, but his passion didn’t dim.

“His face lit up as he told me how he had shared the way of salvation with one of the staff in response to a question, as she wheeled him back from the dining room to his own small apartment,” a visitor said.

Stott on the Christian Life, one in a series of books on great theologians, will stir your passion as well.