When I was seventeen years old I went to the Urbana Missions Conference. The date was 1970 and I had been following Jesus for just over a year. This was my first trip to the United States and my first experience with American evangelicalism. Still in the throes of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement I met a faith community that was deeply conflicted.
The registration form asked conferees their race. I wrote “irrelevant” on my form. But when I got to the University of Illinois in Urbana I discovered that race was profoundly relevant. You see, African American students were housed separately from the rest of us. Some radicals who had infiltrated the conference (from Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies I later discovered) surveyed the hundreds of mission organization represented at the conference only to find that the vast majority of them would not accept black missionaries.
The place erupted!
And within this conflict there were tensions between evangelicals about the Vietnam War, the role of faith in the public sphere and questions of justice. I was intrigued, confused and disturbed by it all.
But in the midst of this conference, every day for an hour, there was a consistent voice. Every day a humble man with a delightfully British accent spent an hour teaching the Scriptures. Every day this man expounded the meaning, the depth, the beauty and the power of the final extended teaching of Jesus in an upper room in Jerusalem during Holy Week.
Every day we were invited into this most intimate of conversations recorded in John 13 to 17. Every day we were given a glimpse into the very heart of Jesus. And every day we were offered a deeper and more profound perspective on our own discipleship, our own lives, and the conflicted world in which we lived.
The man who held our attention in a quietly profound series of teachings in the midst of the cacophony of voices shouting all around us and deeply within us was John Stott. And by the end of the conference I knew that this man had put before me the standard of biblical exposition. Here, in this humble man I met an engagement with Scripture, and indeed an engagement with Jesus, that I new would be a call on my life.
John Stott died on July 27, 2011 at the age of 90 years old. The world has lost one of the most important Christian leaders of the 20th century. There have been many very moving tributes and obituaries published in the last few days and I won’t repeat what they have said. Check out Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s lovely piece in Relevant or the obituary in the Guardian.
I’ll just tell one story that bears witness to the character of this wonderful man.
In the early 90’s I was at a consultation at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, a centre that Stott had founded. The context was sort of a heresy trial. My friend, Ann Holt, gave leadership to a British evangelical organization called CARE. Her portfolio was education and she was taking a stand for principled pluralism in the schools in opposition to the continued hegemony of Christian traditions.
This was a justice position rooted in hospitality. Some of the most vocal conservative evangelical leaders wanted the woman fired. The consultation was supposedly on matters of scripture and society, but really it was a heresy trial of Ann Holt. I was there as witness for the defense. The meeting started in deep hostility. The folks who wanted Holt gone had their knives out and the discourse was incredibly acrimonious. People were saying things about Holt that not only bore false witness but also were in deep conflict with the love to which Jesus calls us.
At the lunch break, all of a sudden, there was John Stott standing beside Ann and I. He hadn’t been there in the morning, but told Ann that he would stay for the afternoon. “I will not speak,” he said, “but will remain as a silent witness.” A silent witness, but a witness that spoke volumes. You see, when the meeting resumed after lunch there were still sharp disagreements voiced, but the whole tone of the meeting had changed. The acrimony, the anger, the dismissive hostility couldn’t be maintained.
If John Stott was in the room, you simply couldn’t behave that way anymore.
You would be embarrassed to be that nasty and that arrogant in the presence of a man of such deep love and humility.
On July 27 we lost one of the greatest biblical expositors of our time. But more importantly, we lost an elder brother who gave us a profound example of what it means to follow Jesus.
Thank you, John Stott.
Thank you, Jesus.