John Stott was inducted as the new Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place in 1950. He outlined in his first sermon five criteria that he believed ought to be applied to their local church ministry.
These were published that week as his ministry manifesto in the church newsletter, All Souls. Timothy Dudley-Smith writes that Stott at this time knew himself to be, ‘a product of Iwerne and CICCU’; that is, a product of the famous and influential public school (English private school) camping ministry of the Rev’d ‘Bash’ Nash, and of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union—a progenitor of the AFES and IFES movements. Their methods of ministry informed his five criteria:
- The priority of prayer;
- Expository preaching;
- Regular evangelism;
- Careful follow-up of enquirers and converts; and
- Systematic training of helpers and leaders.
In his early years as rector, Stott sought to translate these five priorities into a local church setting, building not just programmes, but a strong and self-replicating culture. Richard Trist, joining the All Souls’ team 45 years later, observed that these five criteria for local church ministry were still present—even though Stott had stepped back from being the rector some two decades earlier. What a legacy!
THE PRIORITY OF PRAYER: CORPORATE, WITH OTHERS, ON HIS OWN
Along with his five point manifesto, that 1950 edition of All Souls’ also contained ‘A Call to Prayer’ written by Stott:
‘About 450 come to church on Sundays to worship; about 25 come to the Church House on Thursday to pray. We have begun a new chapter in our church’s history … so we must pray if we are to succeed.’
Twenty years later, Ruth Redpath was part of All Souls’ and attending regular fortnightly Prayer Gatherings for the church family with two or three hundred fellow members. Prayer was regarded as a priority and the Gathering was for the committed members of the church family. Over an hour and a half they would pray together for both local and international concerns, often hearing from one of their forty or so link missionaries home on furlough at the time. In the off fortnight, small groups would gather in homes and so both gatherings were seen as an essential and regular part of church life. Well may we measure the real spiritual health of our local churches by attendance at regular prayer meetings!
Prayer with others—especially his curates—also typified Stott’s local church ministry. One of his study assistants was caught out in telling a small lie; the account ends with Stott getting them both to kneel together in a prayer of joint confession towards God and joint declaration of their persistent need of grace. Stott was a leader of great gifts and capacity, but also humility to pray with others in a way that directed them towards our common need of the gospel of grace. This is an important lesson for capable rectors and vicars to keep learning.
Early on and then throughout his ministry, Stott recognised the need for times away on his own with the Lord, in prayer. He marked with ‘a mystic letter ‘Q’’ in his calendar one quiet day per month, when he would withdraw to a room in a parishioner’s home, away from colleagues, the telephone, and his regular desk; to pray and plan ahead; to seek the Lord’s leading in planning sermon series, managing his diary, and devising strategies for ministry. Later, he found the Hookses, a remote farmhouse getaway that became his regular place of retreat, prayer and writing. Even when he was there with friends and colleagues, mornings with the Lord alone were sacrosanct for him. In this, he was merely following our Lord Jesus, who often withdrew to lonely places to pray and to be led by the Father’s will. Jesus did it, so did Stott, so should we.
EXPOSITORY PREACHING: CAUGHT AND TAUGHT
Stott’s clear and powerful expository preaching established his reputation at All Souls’ and opened the door to wider ministry and influence; although he had already been in demand in student ministry while a senior Bash camper, theological student and curate. He cited ‘Bash’ Nash, Charles Simeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones as his models. Bash had converted him and was an early model of the preaching style, with a strong evangelistic edge. Simeon’s published sermons and ministry at Cambridge were an inspiration to him. Lloyd-Jones was twenty years older, and at the height of his preaching powers in London when Stott started at All Souls’—he declared himself a ‘fan’ of the great doctor. Preaching, like praying, is more often caught than taught.
But it still must be taught! Stott immediately began training his curates in expository preaching—the congregation noticed in each one ‘his master’s voice’ until each developed their own personal style. Stott became an expository preaching hero for many, including Australia’s own Peter Adam who in turn has trained and influenced a subsequent generation. Who are our models, what are we modelling to be caught, and what is actually being taught by us about expository preaching?
Evangelical churches the world over mirrored the practice at All Souls’ of setting sermon series that would take the congregation through an entire book of the Bible, following a unifying theological theme that held the book together and edified the hearers. Stott’s founding of the Bible Speaks Today commentary series was one piece of lasting fruit from this ministry. Readers found there the balance struck by Stott between a love for God’s Word, carefully exposing and explaining what Peter Adam would later term ‘the inner rhetoric of the text’—and a love for God’s people, carefully applying the inner rhetoric of the text to the hearers’ situation.
Stott’s I Believe in Preaching (1982) still ranks as one of the most helpful and clear explanations of the what and how of expository preaching. The American edition is entitled Between Two Worlds, a helpful reminder that expository preaching is never simply an academic biblical studies lecture, but always about loving the Word of God and the People of God, and therefore working equally as hard on the text and on effective communication and relevant application.
REGULAR EVANGELISM: IN CONTEXT, AS PART OF REGULAR CHURCH LIFE
Stott the lifelong Anglican was firmly committed to local parochial evangelism. As a curate at All Souls’, one of his early escapades was to attempt to live on the streets of bombed-out post-WWII London. He wanted to experience for himself at least a little of what it was like to live as one of the parish’s homeless and poor. He found old clothes and let his stubble grow. He slept (or tried to) under Charing Cross Bridge. He took no money and went to charities for food and help. He tried to get a job in return for a cuppa. In the end, his privileged background Harley Street accent gave him away after just two nights!
Commitment to evangelism in context meant making the most of the strategic opportunities that his particular local church had. For example, the newly reopened All Souls’, an architectural masterpiece refurbished after war damage, became part of the London tourist trail. There were regular mid-week services, and an illustrated guide to the buildings was published. Stott contributed a winsomely written section on ‘The Church’s Message’ which moved from the church as a handsome building to its message as directing ‘men and women… to Jesus Christ… who He is… what He came to do… what He is asking of us.’
There was strong medical connection at All Souls’, and so an Annual Doctors’ Service was started. As were monthly healing services, later called prayer services for the sick. The Clubhouse was opened for ministry in the more economically-deprived eastern end of the parish: children’s, youth, elderly, and migrants were all served there by specially appointed staff and volunteers. It had its own less formal worship services. Chaplaincies were established for the many employees of the Oxford Street retail strip, with a regular lunch-time mid-week service, and for the nearby Polytechnic. All this involved hard work, organisation, some opposition and much prayer.
All Souls’ had very many strategic opportunities. Most other local churches have fewer, but the principle remains: find the opportunities in your context and work hard to make something happen! Stott had a multi-faceted strategy for local regular evangelism (see section on training below). It included regular monthly evangelistic guest services. These were interwoven into the regular services of Morning and Evening Prayer. In a time when evangelism generally centred on special events and unique services, this was a radical and important idea. Lance Shilton, visiting in 1956, took this principle back to Holy Trinity Adelaide and then on to St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney: make evangelism part of the fabric of our regular worship services.
CAREFUL FOLLOW-UP: PERSONAL DISCIPLINE AND CHURCH-WIDE SYSTEMS
Stott’s memory for names and pastoral details was legendary. But there was more than a natural gift of memory to it. There was a commitment to careful recording and follow up. There is more than one account of someone having a door-stop conversation with the rector on the way out of church, only to see him whip out his notebook and write down the pastoral note. Stott would later pray through his notebook, thus committing the matter and the person to God and to his memory. Stott built a culture of careful follow up of newcomers. Ruth Redpath vividly recalls her introduction to All Souls’ in 1968:
‘I arrived on a day when there was a lunch for visitors. I stayed for lunch after the service. They got my name and address. And in the post the next morning was an invitation to a welcome afternoon tea the following Sunday at the curate’s house.’
New converts were also followed up with great rigour. During a ‘Guest Service’, a person making a confession of faith would have a trained ‘Counsellor’ to come alongside them. They would then be invited to an ‘At Home’ meeting with the staff, and later funnelled to a ‘Nursery Class’ for new Christians. Each of these steps was almost entirely novel in the local church in the early 1950s. To build the system, Stott had to start and then keep training his lay people.
SYSTEMATIC TRAINING: PLAN, EXECUTE, REVIEW, REPEAT
Evangelistic guest services only work when there are unbelieving guests present. That depends on Christians catching the vision for evangelism, praying for their unbelieving friends and family, and actually inviting and getting them along. Stott thus began the All Souls’ Training School for people of every age in the parish. It would run a six-month course covering the Theology of the Gospel, the Personal Life of the Evangelist, and the Practical Technique of Evangelism. Fortnightly Monday night lectures would alternate with some form of practical ministry in the parish. Graduates would be commissioned by the bishop. The idea and content would later be put into booklets and on cassette tapes and spread to churches around the world.
Stott started with training because he understood that he had to feed and grow his sheep into maturity and to catch the vision for evangelism and the necessity of conversion to Christ, the way he had under Bash. The training did not stay static: it wasn’t just rinse and repeat, it was reviewed and improved and no doubt further contextualised over time. So the rather embarrassing ‘Nursery Class’ name was later changed to ‘Beginners’ Group’.
Stott’s radical idea in the 1950s—set up systems and programmes to train your laity—has become standard practice for evangelical churches the world over. Does your church have a systematic training programme for members? You can probably blame Stott for it.
FOUR STOTT BOOKS
Finally, Stott’s impact on local evangelical church ministry may be considered in the light of four of his major books: I Believe in Preaching, The Cross of Christ, Issues Facing Christians Today, and The Contemporary Christian. Perhaps the least well known is the first. But in the hands of clergy, it has kept promulgating his emphasis on expository preaching for generations, with such an inestimably valuable contribution to churches and Christians everywhere.
Stott considered his defence of penal substitutionary atonement as his magnum opus. It shows us what was at the heart of his faith and understanding of Christian life and ministry. The final section of The Cross of Christ ‘Living under the Cross’ may be read as Stott’s vision for the local church living out its character and purposes in Christ. It is an ongoing inspiration and challenge for local churches everywhere.
The last two books form a kind of twin companion volume, illustrating Stott’s increasing focus over time on wider ethical concerns and lay ministry outside of the church. In 1950, his manifesto spoke very much to ministry inside a parish setting. These latter volumes speak to ministry by local church members, sent out to serve and bear witness to the Lord Jesus in a complex and challenging world context. They equip and energise lay evangelicals, and also force clergy to rise to the challenge of continuing to pastor, encourage, guide and equip ministry both inside and outside the walls of their buildings. In the centenary year of John Stott’s birth, local church leaders would do well to review all four volumes for our times—with thanks and praise to God for his faithful departed servant.
The main source for this article is Timothy Dudley- Smith’s, John Stott: The Making of a Leader, IVP 1999 – esp. ch.10. Thanks also to Peter Adam, Ruth Redpath and Richard Trist for their reflections and recollections.