John Stott (1921-2011): Model Missional Pastor-Theologian

Yesterday, John Stott died at the age of ninety. Stott was one of a handful of men who helped bring about an evangelical renaissance in North America and the British Isles during the middle years of the twentieth century. Of that generation of giants, Billy Graham and J. I. Packer are the only two who haven’t yet departed to be with their Lord.

Numerous tributes have already been written about Stott; no doubt many more will follow. By God’s grace, he accomplished much for the kingdom during his long life. In this post, I want to focus on one aspect of Stott’s ministry that I hope continues to be replicated among my peers who are serving in pastoral ministry. John Stott was an exemplary model of a missional pastor-theologian.

Unlike his friend Packer, Stott never served as a professor in a theological college or seminary. Stott was a Church of England clergyman who served for thirty years on the pastoral staff of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London. He became a model for consecutive expository preaching, and along with his older contemporary (and sometimes rival) Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Stott helped bring about a renewed interest in expositional preaching among evangelicals. His ministry was also marked by a healthy marriage of intentional evangelism and cultural engagement, along with a burden that the gospel be preached to the uttermost parts of the earth. These emphases are reflected in the many books Stott wrote and the ministries he launched in the years following his retirement from full-time pastoral ministry.

Stott was a prolific author who wrote or edited fifty-two books and contributed hundreds of articles to other books and periodicals. Among his better-known books are numerous biblical commentaries, each of which evidence the fruit of his own expositional preaching ministry. Most of his commentaries were published in IVP’s widely used The Bible Speaks Today series; Stott edited the New Testament volumes. Along similar lines, he also wrote an excellent preaching textbook, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Eerdmans, 1982). No serious preacher of God’s Word should leave this book unread.

One of his most influential books is Christian Mission in the Modern World, first published in 1975. In 1974, Billy Graham convened a meeting of 2700 evangelical leaders in Lausanne, Switzerland for an International Conference on World Evangelization. Stott delivered a plenary address and chaired the committee that drafted the Lausanne Covenant, one of the most important documents produced by evangelicals in the past half century (read Stott’s commentary on the Lausanne Covenant). Christian Mission in the Modern World further expounds upon the vision of the Lausanne Covenant by arguing for a vision of missions that weds bold proclamation and sacrificial service, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Stott continued to be a leading advocate of global missions in the years following his retirement in 1975. For example, he founded Langham Partnership International, known as John Stott Ministries in the USA. Langham Partnership is a ministry devoted to serving Christians in the Majority World through training pastors in expositional preaching, translating and distributing evangelical literature, and providing scholarships for gifted Christian scholars to pursue advanced theological training. He also continued to link missions with Christ-centered cultural engagement, especially through the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, which Stott founded in 1982.

Stott also taught two generations of Christians about the gospel. His book Basic Christianity, first published in 1969, is considered an evangelical classic. I’ve met several individuals who either came to Christ of were first taught the core beliefs of the Christian faith through this important book. Undoubtedly his most important theological book is his classic The Cross of Christ, first published in 1986. The Cross of Christ is a robust defense of penal substitutionary atonement, a doctrine that Stott well understood is at the heart of the biblical gospel. Stott challenges the ever-popular notion that alternative models of the atonement (some of which are also biblical) should replace the biblical truth that God’s just wrath against human sin was poured out on Jesus Christ when he offered himself as our sinless substitute.

John Stott was by no means perfect. I strongly disagree with his sympathies for annihilationism and I’m not convinced he was right in his famous debate with Lloyd-Jones on the question of whether or not evangelicals should separate from the Church of England (I go back and forth on the latter). Nevertheless, on the whole I believe Stott is an excellent role model for young pastors who desire to wed expositional preaching with a commitment to global missions and cultural engagement. I pray the Lord will raise up a new generation of pastors who will write books, articles, and blog posts that help the church reflect on these issues. There would be no more appropriate way to honor John Stott, a brother who was arguably the most important missional pastor-theologian among evangelicals in the last fifty years. Thank God for his life and ministry.

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 5: The Evangelical Missional Church

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 5: The Evangelical Missional Church

By Keith Whitfield

At a recent conference, Tim Keller addressed the challenges of evangelism in a post-modern context and gave six principles on how to pursue evangelism in this context. The first principle was “Gospel Theologizing,” and what he meant by this is phrase that all theology should articulate the gospel message. He says our theology should be an exposition of the gospel, and our presentation of the gospel should be situated within the biblical story. In order to engage the post-modern society, he argues, the gospel must fit into a coherent story that interrupts all of life. Ed Stetzer echoes this point as he emphasizes the need to be aware of the changes in our culture and the need to realize that proclaiming the gospel in the West is like cross cultural missions.

The Gospel in the Evangelical Missional Church

In the evangelical missional church, there is an effort to recast the message of the gospel. The recasting does not involve a change in the nature of the gospel, but it rather involves situating the historic orthodox gospel message within the Christian worldview so as to make the gospel clear, coherent, and holistic. Mark Driscoll models this when he writes that to “understand the doctrine of Jesus’ death on the cross, also known as the atonement, we must connect it to the doctrines of God’s character, God’s creation, human sin, and the responses of God to sin and sinners” (Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches, 29).

What you find in Driscoll’s words is that the gospel message entails the doctrines of God, sin, and God’s response to sin. He affirms that a historic fall affected all humanity, leading everyone to committing sinful actions. He affirms God’s holiness and just punishment towards sin. He affirms that God deals with the problem of forgiving sin by satisfying His holiness and justice through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. He argues that this view of the atonement matters because “Salvation is defined as deliverance by God from God and his wrath” (Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches , 34).

This approach to the gospel is related to older approaches to gospel proclamation, like The Four Spiritual Laws booklet: (1) “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life,” (2) “Man is sinful and separated from God,” (3) “Jesus Christ is God’s provision for man’s sin,” (4) “We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” However, the new trajectory among missional evangelicals is to situate gospel truth within the story of redemption. The evangelistic impact of this approach is that it offers a story that can confront and challenge the alternative stories people are trying to live.

In a short article, “How Can I Know God?,” Keller argues that the gospel requires that people understand three things: “who we are,” “who God is,” and “what you must do.” The story of redemption tells us that we are created by God and for Him, but we have sinned against him. It also tells us that God is just and loving, and these two characteristics of God come together in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Finally, the story of redemption tells us what we must do, which Keller captures in the words “repent,” “believe,” “pray,” and “follow through.”

Regarding ministry to our changing culture, Driscoll asks, “In our fast-paced and ever-changing culture of insanity, many Christians are prone either to cling to yesterday or to run headlong into tomorrow searching for a home. What’s our goal?” He answers himself,

The gospel requires us to proclaim and embody the full work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has accomplished four things which people long for. First, Jesus takes away the sins that separate us from God so that we can be connected to God, which fills our spiritual longings. Second, Jesus takes away the sins that separate us from each other so that we can be reconciled to each other as the church, which fills our social longings. Third, Jesus forgives the sins we have committed, thereby cleansing us of our filth, which fills our emotional longing for forgiveness. Fourth, Jesus cleanses us of the defilement that has come upon us through the sins of others, which fulfills our psychological longing for healing, cleansing, and new life (The Radical Reformission, 82).

Evangelism in the Evangelical Missional Church

One of the key features of the missional approach to evangelism is a shift from program-driven and attractional evangelism to relational and missional evangelism. This shift is stimulated by the realization that people are not able to convert from one worldview to another by a mere decision. Rather, they need established relationships where the credibility of the gospel can be demonstrated. Stetzer and Putman write,

What we are discovering is that those who are effective in breaking the code understand that there has been a radical shift in how we do evangelism. We can no longer just appeal to people to come ‘back’ to an institution of which they do not remember being a part. With this fading memory, proclamation evangelism has decreased in its effectiveness. Asking people to literally change their worldview after simply hearing the gospel, with no previous exposure to a Christian worldview, is usually unrealistic. While churches that effectively evangelize the unchurched/unreached do not abandon proclamation evangelism, they set it in the context of community, experience, and service (Breaking the Missional Code, 84).

With this cultural change, the evangelical missionals realize that they cannot simply ask people to say yes to a presentation of religious truths. The task of evangelism is pursuing the process where people’s thinking and worldviews change. Evangelism then must become more process-oriented and relationally based, where the gospel truths are lived out before their eyes in the lives of others and the gospel reality is worked out in their own lives. The process approach assumes theological convictions. First, it maintains a belief that God is at work in the lives of lost people. Next, Christians should build relationships with people and value them. Third, it is important to listen and learn where God is at work in people’s lives. Fourth, we depend on God to lead us in how to share with people about the gospel and help them connect the gospel story with their own story.

“Missional,” for the evangelicals, is a strategic disposition towards its culture that directs how the church seeks to fulfill its calling. Stetzer says, “missional means being a missionary without ever leaving your zip code” (Planting Missional Churches, 19). Driscoll captures this vision in these words, “a radical call for Christians and Christian churches to recommit to living and speaking the gospel . . . to continually unleash the gospel to do its work of reforming dominant cultures and church subcultures” (Radical Reformission, 20). For Keller, missional means attempting to communicate so that non-Christians will understand the gospel. Its vision involves retelling the culture’s stories with the gospel, training lay people to “think Christianly” in public life and vocation, and creating counter cultural Christian communities. Keller sets forth this vision to demonstrate that what God is doing in the church through the gospel is radically different than what is happening in the culture around the church (“The Missional Church“). The gospel that he is referring to has at its center a substitutionary atonement and a call to repentance, and thus, for the evangelicals, being missional demands pursuing the spiritual conversion of individuals.

Keith Whitfield is pastor of Waverly Baptist Church in Waverly, Virginia, and a doctoral student in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post is fifth in a series of six articles.

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 4: The Emerging Missional Church

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 4: The Emerging Missional Church

By Keith Whitfield

Brian McLaren announced in 2004 at “The Billy Graham Center Evangelism Roundtable” that “we are in need of radical strategic rethinking of our current strategy as gospel-oriented Christians seeking to follow the Great Commission” (“The Strategy We Pursue,”). He argues that this need is urgent and apparent given the low church attendance by people in our culture, the number of Christian kids dropping out of the church after high school, the “mean-spirited, afraid, racist, and isolationist” attitudes of many Christians, and finally, the biblical mandate to make disciples. It is time for the church, according to him, to “Admit we may not actually understand the good news, and seek to rediscover it.” This conviction is repeated by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, in Adventures in Missing the Point (2007), where they call for the church to “reboot” its understanding of the gospel.

The Gospel in the Emergent Missional Church

The emergent church maintains that viewing the gospel as facts to believe in order to save one’s soul and go to heaven misses the point, so they propose an alternative approach. Their proposal is:

the gospel has something to do with the kingdom of God and perhaps the Kingdom of God is not equal to heaven after death, but rather involves God’s will being done on earth, in history, before death, in the land of the living (A Generous Orthodoxy, 3).

This position is built on their view that salvation is not mainly about the individual. The ultimate goal is being formed into and knowing Christ in the here and now. In Everything Must Change, McLaren writes, “All who find in Jesus God’s hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his on going work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice” (80). Salvation is then not primarily about having one’s sins forgiven, but it is about being rescued from maladies, distress, fear, violence, and enemies.

This approach to the gospel shines light on the emergent missional church’s position on the atonement. They are critical of the traditional evangelical view of the gospel and salvation that is “atonement-centered,” or at least, they are critical of how this view overemphasizes penal substitution as the “center” of the doctrine of the atonement. The emergents have moved away from substitutionary atonement being the center of their understanding of salvation and the gospel, because they moved away from salvation being from sin and alienation from God. McLaren explains why Jesus is important when he writes, “Jesus came into the world as the Savior of the world . . . . Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted in human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated” (Everything Must Change, 79)

In a biographical statement, McLaren confesses,

But as precious and indispensable as this perspective [reconciliation to God and inheritance of eternal life] is for me, over the years a feeling grew within me, usually vague but sometimes acute, that I was missing something, perhaps something important. Jesus’ cross in the past saved me from hell in the future, but it was hard to be clear on what it meant for me in the struggle of the present. And more importantly, did the gospel have anything to say about justice for the many, not just the justification of the individual? (A Generous Orthodoxy, 48)

This sentiment has not just shaped McLaren’s view of the atonement, but it has also shaped the view of the atonement of many proponents of the emergent model. What makes this a workable view of the atonement is that their “primary reference point is no longer their former alienation but their present and future identification as part of God’s new order, which was inaugurated with the first coming of Christ” (Emerging Churches, 54). They argue, therefore, that the gospel is not restricted to a message about individual assurance of eternal destiny. The cross of Christ offers an example of sacrificial love as well as the means for reconciliation to God. They say that the kingdom is the path to the cross and the kingdom is the pathway Christians walk throughout their lives with the cross, as those who have died to self with Christ to live in his grace and power. This, for them, is a retrieval of the gospel.

How does God save in this view? God saves by judging, by forgiving, and by teaching. Through Jesus, God intervenes into history as savior. He judges by naming evil for what it is and confronting self-denial and delusion. McLaren described the process in these words,

The consequences of our bad behavior loom over us, we hear God’s judgment and realize we’ve done something stupidly wrong and we have second thoughts about what we’ve done. As we repent, as we become truly sorry, as we have a change of heart, God goes further by forgiving us, thus bringing salvation in an even fuller sense. Salvation is what happens when we experience both judgment and forgiveness, both justice (exposing the truth about our wrong) and mercy (forgoing the negative consequences we deserve) (A Generous Orthodoxy, 95).

The judgment is first for those who are doing evil against others, and can also be for those who are being saved. God judges by revealing the evil character and actions of people through the light and truth of Jesus. Jesus both judges and brings forgiveness. McLaren says, “This is the window into the meaning of the cross,” namely, that Jesus takes the worst humanity has to offer and after experiencing it, He offers grace and forgives. Then, the third way that God saves is by teaching us. “[B]ecause we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid,” says McLaren, “Jesus comes with saving teaching, profound yet amazingly compact: Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jesus says, and love your neighbor as yourself” (A Generous Orthodoxy, 97).

Evangelism in the Emergent Missional Church

The proclamation of the gospel in the “emergent missional church” is not primarily informational but relational, and inviting people into a relationship with a King and with members of a Kingdom whose foremost concern is wholeness for a broken world takes priority over sharing how someone may have security in their eternal destiny. The gospel, McLaren explains, starts “with God’s concern for the world, in which God creates a community called the church, comprised of persons who stop (or repent of) being ‘part of the problem’ and choose instead to join God as ‘part of the solution’-thus simultaneously entering a mission and a community in which one is accepted by grace, through faith in Jesus” (“The Strategy We Pursue”). The focus is to create a culture of the kingdom and to allow God to do the work. It is this conviction that sets the course for the emergent missionals. They are critical of what they view as a preoccupation with eternal salvation of the conservative evangelicals because of its overemphasis on beliefs, and at the same time, they are critical of the liberal Protestants because their good deeds serve their civil religion. They, however, seek to find the balance in defining the gospel by their conception of the kingdom of God.

Their focus is on recruiting people who will follow Jesus by faith as disciples and who will participate in God’s mission in the world. Their approach to the gospel results in a collapsing the difference between “evangelism” and “social action,” which is reflected in McLaren’s proposal to “Recenter the Great Commission in the Great Commandment.” Thus, the gospel is contained in words embodied in good deeds. The logic of this statement is tied closely to their view of the gospel as the realized kingdom of God.

Evangelism is the calling to become a part of the kingdom of God by becoming disciples of Jesus. This position opposes the missionary vision that the church is taking God to the world. Rather, it is God who pursues redemption of everything in creation that needs direction and repair, and the church is an active participant in God’s mission. This vision of evangelism re-envisions the church as a community that shares in a mission with God, but a mission that God is already working out in the world. When the church refocuses its attention to becoming a community and being deployed to serve, it then becomes a community that is open and welcomes strangers as Jesus welcomed sinners.

Keith Whitfield is pastor of Waverly Baptist Church in Waverly, Virginia, and a doctoral student in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post is fourth in a series of six articles.