“When you read the end of this book, you will know quote a lot about John Stott. You will see why he was in the ‘Top 100’ list of influential people [TIME magazine, 2005]. He was driven by a passion for Jesus Christ’s name to be honoured around the world.”
—Julia Cameron, biographer, in John Stott: The Humble Leader (Christian Focus, 2012), 15. [Kindle]
You may not have heard about John Stott, though you certainly have felt the influence of his great life. He never married, through the world was his family, all the nations his parish (church family). As a pastor in London (All Souls Church), The Right Reverend Dr. John Stott was truly a “global Christian,” a voice for the furthering of the Gospel, and an advocate for the poor and marginalized for most of his nine decades (1921-2011).
Stott’s words and writings shaped worldwide politics, a faithful voice for the cause of Christ and the implications of making the world a better, safer place: see the Lausanne Movement, with the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the Manilla Manifesto (1989), and the Cape Town Commitment (2011). Stott’s fingerprints are all over each of these, for the marks of his godly life shaped for decades the leaders in the worldwide Evangelical Christian movement.
I want to encourage you to read about his life, and dive into his prolific writings (some listed at the bottom). In this post I am reviewing John Stott: The Humble Leader, a new biography send to me by the publisher Christian Focus (paperback, 114 pages; e-book versions as well). They’ve asked me to write a review, and while it’s not required to be positive I could not be more enthusiastic about this brief biography.
Pastor John Robert Walmsley (R.W.) Stott lived an understated life, embodying a lifestyle of simplicity and joy — and others-centered service — that has been used by God to spread the Gospel to the nations. His greatness can be directly contributed to his daily humility and dependence upon Jesus. It’s not so much that humility made him great; his humility was his greatness.
In our society, here in the affluent West, we often talk about “making an impact,” wanting our lives to be influential in our spheres of influence and in the world. This pursuit is noble when we link to the cause of Christ, getting caught up in His Mission. Yet I dare say we get caught up with a bigger-is-better mentality, wanting to be so successful that we adopt the world’s standards of success, clamoring for approval by others more than the smile of God. Subtly we think that Jesus will help us achieve our potential for greatness, championing our talents and causes. Dr. Stott showed the opposite is true: when we are minor characters in God’s Story, where Jesus is the Hero, His message flows supernaturally from our lives. He became famous by trying to make Someone else famous.
Before I dive into a review of this book — given to me by the publisher for that purpose, let me give some qualifying remarks.
I’m encouraged by a new trend: noted megachurch pastors are returning to simpler ways of embodying the life of Jesus while preaching His message — see Craig Groeschel’s WEIRD: Because Normal Isn’t Working, and Shaun Lovejoy’s newest book, The Measure of Our Success: A Passionate Plea to Pastors, added to the groundbreaking no-holds barred approach of Francis Chan (Crazy Love, and The Big Red Tractor and the Little Village [video]), and David Platt (Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream and Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God). Somehow talented leaders get tricked into believing that God wants to leverage their positions for influence, by magnifying their personalities and highlighting their preferences.
Dr. Stott’s life and legacy give us a glimpse of hope, a reversal of that recent trend of how we define “greatness.”
“Uncle John” Stott was interesting to others because He was interested in them. He became beloved, all over the world, because he loved people. His “brand” was Jesus, though he had nothing to sell, and everything to give. As he faithfully stewarded the gifts and calling from God, the Savior multiplied his efforts. He was convinced the best way to be influential was to depend daily upon God and find his affirmation and hope in pleasing Him. In this life he became far more influential that you or I will likely ever be. Long before the Internet, and without the advantage of late modern technology. His legacy is sure.
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Julia Cameron’s biography is an abbreviated summary of Dr. Stott’s life and legacy, though it’s far from being an light overview. Much space is given to the finer details, anecdotes and telling stories. Ms. Cameron is an able writer, and the book flashed by my eyes faster than expected. Cameron writes this biography as part of the Trailblazers series published by Christian Focus. Their aim is biographical sketches for youth, though this one was a delight to read as an adult. I could see me kids beginning to read it in their teen years.
There were moments of hilarity — such as when young Johnny was routinely kicked out of Sunday school for carrying daggers and toy pistols. (If you know my family, you’ll instantly recognize how one pastor’s son, a cowboy-in-training, is in that same stage.) It’s ironic to see him later return as the Rector (more or less “Lead Pastor”) of All Souls Church only a couple decades later. There he was able to see the fruit of those who poured into his life. Every story of that kind is an insight into the reality of how God grows us up.
If you’re set on sorting out Stott’s legacy down to every global detail, let me suggest to you a thicker volume — Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott, by John Steer.
The quick-hitting Torch Bearer series volume I’m reviewing covers his life with a familiarity of a friend, with appropriate comments about what made John Stott so special. A few things I learned about his life from this biography:
- Life in the Stott household on Harley Street
- Childhood: “He went to Sunday School armed with daggers stuck into his socks, and a revolver in his belt to scare the girls. His Sunday School teachers probably despaired of him.”
- The call to follow Christ, the call to become a pastor, and life as a single man.
- A love of birds, which started as a love of bugs. (Thinking of my kids here.)
- Unusual self-discipline and work ethic (he lived an intentional godly life).
- “If you don’t use something in more than a year, you don’t need it.” Following his own principle for decision-making by giving away much of his belongings and clothes to those in need.
- Writing retreats at The Hookses (and trusting God as he saved up to purchase that rundown place, then renew it).
- He once intentionally became homeless for a couple nights, to identify more personally with those in need. “It was important that no one find out. He didn’t want anyone bringing him hot soup, or sandwiches. He wanted to experience exactly what it was like to be homeless, and to have no one really care” (page 34).
- Providence in being planted in London’s West End (it’s rare for an intern and curate to be appointed rector of his home church; he was a rare man).
- Visiting the poor on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — every year— to bring packages, food and gifts.
- Global travels, with Africa and Asia on his heart in particular.
- Reflections of church leaders in developing nations, speaking gratefully about “Uncle John.”
- Hospitality at the ‘Wreckage’— he insisted that his parsonage, the six-floor house built for a whole family that came with his job, be re-purposed to house interns and visitors and not be “wasted” on just him.
- Leading the way in caring for the poor (even starting the ABC club at Rugby, before becoming a Christian).
(There are a number of “Fact Files” included in this biography, with special anecdotes and insights.)
On his 70th birthday Pastor Stott reflected on ‘life verses’ and preached all that week on Malachi 2 at All Souls. One special note came to him earlier in life from his Great Aunt Emily:
‘The best motto I can think of for anyone in Christian service is in this verse. “Lay it to heart to give glory to God’s name.” It became in a sense my motto. In Christian leadership or ministry, we should not be concerned about the glory of our own silly little name, but about the glory of the name of God.’
You can hear “Uncle John” preach with some audio recordings of sermons at historic All Souls Church, Langham Place.
John R.W. Stott’s influence is widespread, even if he name is not as familiar to you as your favorite preacher. My friend Jon Furman writes:
While Billy Graham’s charismatic teaching style and stadium revivals garnered national attention in America and across the globe, John Stott produced theological masterpiece after masterpiece from his study at All Souls Church in London’s West End.
Outside the U.S. John Stott “covered” the rest of the field with brilliant, yet accessible, books that urged Christians to get into the game. His writings provoked us to let our faith influence our economics and politics, while calling the developing world to faith in Christ.
By uniting the Christianity of the West with the developing Christianity of Africa and Asia, John Stott played a major role in the globalization of Christianity as we know it today.
After you read this biography, start into Stott’s writings with:
- Basic Christianity
- The Radical Disciple: some neglected aspects of our calling
- Christian Mission in the Modern World
Then move onto Stott’s more scholarly writings (though he always wrote with us normal folk in mind)
I’m confident you’ll find one of his books helpful for your journey as you love the God who first loved us.
“We need to give time to understanding ideas. Ideas shape the way we think, and the way we think shapes the way we behave.” —John Stott