Saying Goodbye to Uncle John: My Memories of John Stott
John Stott died this Wednesday. He was 90 years old. What many people don't understand is that he was the most influential 20th-century evangelical leader in the world, with the exception of Billy Graham. Stott became the Anglican rector of All Souls Church in downtown London at the age of 29 in 1950, and he stayed there for his entire ministry. But from his parish at Langham Place in the city's West End, and right across from BBC headquarters, John Stott spoke to the world with 50 books that sold 8 million copies. He also traveled the globe , speaking, teaching, convening, mentoring, and bird watching -- a personal passion.
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Perhaps the most telling thing about this man is all the personal stories about "Uncle John" that the world is now hearing, from many Christian leaders around the world who were profoundly influenced, encouraged, and supported by John Stott. And secondly, how such a giant in the Christian world remained so humble, as testified to by those who knew him who say how "Christ-like" he was.
My story with John Stott started very early in our history. He had come to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the seminary where Sojourners started, to teach for the fall semester in 1972. He started to hear things about "the radicals" -- the term our fledgling group of seminarians came to be called. He said he wanted to meet with us for an evening of discussion in his faculty apartment. We were a little surprised that this very famous evangelical leader wanted to meet with us, but we saw it as a great opportunity.
I will never forget that first meeting and our conversation with John Stott. We were all sitting around in his living room, and he asked me to tell him about our concerns and our vision for Christian faith. Here we were, a very rag-tag group of young Christians committed to what we called "radical discipleship." We suddenly had an evening to share our concerns with an evangelical leader on the level of John Stott. I started speaking, sure he wouldn't agree with much of what we believed, but determined to give him an earful from the next generation! I talked about the war in Vietnam, American racism, the poverty in our cities and rural areas that people like him, from England and around the world, didn't know and probably couldn't imagine -- and that these were all issues of faith for us. I spoke about the cultural conformity of the American churches and how that undermined the integrity of the gospel's presentation. I went on and on, and I'm sure I was over the top several times, being full of youthful passion and self-confidence. Balance, nuance, and humility were sometimes lacking in those early days.
Stott just sat in his chair, looking at me intently, but saying nothing as I toured the world of injustice into which a radical gospel must be addressed. Finally, I ran out of things to say. Stott asked, "Are you finished?" Stumbling for a moment, I replied with, "Well, yes, I think I am." Then he rose from his chair and approached mine. With him standing tall, right front of me in a way that commanded a response, I stood to meet him. John Stott put both his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes with a look that captured my full attention. "Jim," he said, "I believe that you are going to have a great impact for the kingdom of God, and that what your group wants to do will come to have a very significant influence on the church. So I want to support you and stand by you. Please use my name in any way that would be helpful to you."
We had just started publishing the predecessor of Sojourners, called The Post American, and John Stott became one of our very first "Contributing Editors." We couldn't believe it, and likely others couldn't either. Later, after we came to Washington, John Stott would come to visit with us, talk with us, challenge us, and affirm us. I still remember him leaving the safe hotels of Washington, where he was staying for some speaking engagement or conference, and traveling to the war zone of the inner-city where the Sojourners community lived. He would just sit with us in a big circle in one of our run down urban dwellings, talking theology and politics. John didn't always agree with us, and was ready to argue with things we were saying, but he was always so engaging as he spoke about issues from a biblical point of view.
It was an amazing blessing, and both his keen intellect and his deeply authentic spirit made a powerful impact on me. Here was a genuine man of God with a profound understanding of what it means to be fully awake to the meaning of the Christian faith in the world. And he was going out of his way to spend time with us. Afterwards, I would carefully escort this lovely English gentlemen out of our dangerous streets to make sure he got back safely to official Washington.
On other occasions we would meet in places around the world, in London, and even in his humble little apartment above All Souls. The simplicity of his life contrasted with the depth and breadth of his vision. He was a global, but humble Christian leader. A very rare combination!
It has been said that John Stott was a bridge, and he was: between the dominant global-north Christianity, and the emerging global-south, which is now the future of the church; between an older and younger generation; between established church institutions (he was an Anglican!) and the reform and renewal movements that keep the church growing.
When you were with him, you always left feeling both expanded in your vision, grounded in your biblical faith, and warmed in your heart. All the many thousands of his nephews and nieces will miss Uncle John.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.