Published November 13, 2011
This past Friday, a memorial service was held at College Church in Wheaton, Ill., for the Rev. John R.W. Stott, a revered British clergyman and theologian whose death on July 27 at the age of 90 deprived the Christian church of one of its most universally beloved figures.
Although ordained as a priest in the Church of England, Stott was one of the leading figures in the evangelical revival of the postwar era, both inside the Anglican world and in the larger evangelical community. He played a key role in campus organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and took a keen interest in the international ministry of the church, particularly in the nations of the global south. He was the chief author of the Lausanne Covenant, an important organizing doctrinal document for modern evangelicalism.
His impact was exceeded perhaps only by that of his fellow Anglican, C.S. Lewis, and Stott’s influence has arguably been felt more extensively in the institutional life of the church.
His intellectual and moral leadership, and the impeccable personal example he set in a lifetime of singular devotion, made him one of the unifying figures in the sometimes fractious world of evangelicalism. It was often said of Stott that if the evangelical world were to have a pope, which is admittedly an unimaginable prospect, Stott would surely have been elected to the job by acclamation, a powerful testimony to the unifying effects of his life and work.
All of which imparts to his memorial service a particular poignancy because it is not immediately apparent who, or what, will fill the enormous space left by his departure.
He led the way
As a Cambridge-educated man of high intellectual gifts, Stott was a bridge figure. He was an astute thinker who took seriously the life of the mind and published a dazzling array of books, perhaps most notably his book Basic Christianity, that put forward the elements of the faith winningly and intelligibly. He led the way in striking a balance between communicating the message of the evangelical Gospel and at the same time insisting on the need for every believer to attend to the social implications of the Gospel. He had a personable, common touch, embodying the evangelical conviction that virtue and insight be fully accessible to plain, ordinary people.
That democratic orientation—emphasizing that God’s message and voice are for everyone, and are not the exclusive property of the church, the state, confessions, or councils—has been the genius of evangelicalism ever since John Wesley preached “plain truth for plain people.”
In addition, evangelicals have been a force because of the genuine human warmth of their appeals, their willingness to meet people where they are, with seeker-oriented, congregation-centered and organizationally flexible structures.
Whatever their foibles, evangelicals have often displayed relational skills and the common touch. While liberals were gaining control of the established denominations and sparking theological battles, evangelicals chose to build their own parallel institutions, such as Bible colleges and huge non-denominational churches, to fill the resultant gaps. But even as they have had success in these areas, they have often failed to engage and challenge opposing world views in the universities, the arts and other realms of high culture.
If evangelicals feel marginal in the culture, it is a problem partly of their own making. In the years ahead, they will have to relearn—or learn for the first time—the art of speaking winsomely and intelligently to much larger audiences, including appealing in a more convincing fashion to those who are skeptical or hostile to the evangelical message.
Back to the basics
Evangelicalism was fortunate indeed to have a figure like Stott to lead it, a man who was able to do all these things surpassingly well, and did them without the slightest trace of hucksterism or vulgarity. But it is not clear who will, or can, fill his shoes, a fact that presents a stiff challenge to the evangelical persuasion.
Whoever emerges as the next leader of the worldwide evangelical movement will have to possess the many gifts so richly displayed by Stott: biblical fidelity, personal integrity, intellectual strength, humility, unpretentiousness, and the ability to warmly communicate the message of “basic Christianity” to people of all classes and races.
Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Wilfred M. McClay, the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, is also a senior fellow at EPPC.