Convictions of an octogenarian minister: John Stott reflects on 60 years
Having spent a few days weeding out stuff from my bursting filing cabinet, I came across a real gem previously forgotten. Back in October 2005, John Stott, then aged 85 and just a year or two off his formal retirement from public ministry, addressed a small group of ministers, invited for the occasion. We’d only recently come back from Uganda and moved to All Souls, so it was a lovely way to start our time here. It wasn’t recorded, and was fairly informal.
My notes are just the bullet points hastily (and quite possibly inaccurately) scribbled down, but at least it gets some of the key points as I heard them. No more authoritative than that, I’m afraid, but hopefully, you’ll still sense some of the classic Stott hallmarks, even here. As I remember it, Uncle John’s purpose was to share some of the disciplines (and he was a supremely self-disciplined man) that sustained him in his own walk and ministry that began at All Souls in 1945.
Since his death last summer, many have frequently commented on the characteristics that really set Uncle John apart were his concern for individuals (people always sensed his genuine interest and concern in them when talking together) and his humility. To my mind, he was, for all his faults, essentially a very kind man – which is so striking. There are many spiritual greats who have walked this earth, many great leaders. But it is not many for whom a primary memory is simply kindness.
Well, this simple little list of practical tips from a man not long before his promotion to glory surely goes a long way to explaining how this was the case. We all have much to learn…
It is very easy to lose sight of our priorities in life and ministry. So set aside one quiet day once a month and use it to be drawn up again into God and his perspective. LFE Wilkinson advocated this to ministers at an Islington Conference in 1950s. JRWS would always do this to do the following:
- Long-term prep
- Prayer for big things
- Difficult letter to be drafted
- Prepare sermon series
- Time to be quiet
We must be committed to individuals. City centre church inevitably attracts more than perhaps its ‘fair share’ of ‘problem people’ [and All Souls hasn’t changed at all in this respect!]. Our temptation is often to get impatient with people or to overlook the ‘unloveables’ altogether. Richard Baxter in his seminal The Reformed Pastor was always very strong on this.
JRWS memorised Acts 20:28 as a motto verse, to remind himself of every person’s true worth:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
We all need to decide to persevere in loving the unloveable as it doesn’t come naturally. See people as individuals valued by each of the 3 persons of Trinity and when talking to them, think to yourself ‘what a precious person you are.’
We can’t escape the truth of the claim that Christianity is at its heart “a primitive Palestinian religion’. That leads many to assume that it has no relevance to us. However, history and experience had proved time and time again that this couldn’t be further from the truth. We need to ensure that we are rooted in its origins (ultimately through Scripture) and yet also living int he modern world.
- The Bible Speaks Today commentary series [of which JRWS edited the New Testament volumes] was designed to bridge the gap and speak relevantly from ancient world into modern world.
- Liberalism has always gone wrong by starting in the wrong place – it starts in the modern world not the ancient world, which is why it will always find a resonance with the world and therefore will always have a ready audience.
It is vital that as ministers we set aside time to study on both sides of the ancient/modern divide. He would set aside this amount of time on a regular basis for general study (i.e. not specific preparation work). [JRWS’ personal discipline is really in evidence here! Amazing if you can pull this off – I’m not sure I’ve quite managed it!]
- 1 hour every day
- 1 session every week
- 1 day every month
- 1 week every year
John 14:21 is one of the NT’s most precious, though surprising, promises: Jesus will reveal himself only to his lovers.
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.
Note from this that:
- The test of our love is our obedience to Christ
- The reward for our love is Christ’s self-manifestation
The famous American Statesman, Adlai Stevenson’s famous statement served as JRWS’ motto:
‘Flattery is like cigarette smoking – it does you no harm unless you inhale’
All pastors are very prone to pride, and so we must constantly be wary of it. It is at the cross, that our humility grows:
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)
Or as T W Manson once put it,
In the Kingdom of God, service is not a stepping stone to nobility – it IS nobility.
Humility is not hypocrisy (which is simply pretending to be something other than what we are) but honesty (which is about confronting the reality of what we are). Emil Brunner wrote (in The Mediator) that the attraction of other religions is that they “spare us the ultimate humiliation of being declared bankrupt and stripped naked in the presence of God.” But the wonder if the gospel is that this humiliation is not the end because of Christ’s grace and forgiveness.
5 tips from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, for ministers to grow in Christian humility.
- Gratitude: the soil in which pride does not easily grow
- Confession: simply self-criticism in God’s presence
- Be ready to accept humiliations in the course of ministry
- Don’t worry about your worldly status: only be concerned about your proximity to Him.
- Always keep your sense of humour