I think of all Christian leaders, teachers and theologians of the last 100 hundred years, John Stott has had more impact upon me as a Christian than any other.
This ministry to me has been both direct, through his books, through hearing him speak three times when I was a student in Bristol nearly six years ago and once through meeting him and getting to chat (when he tolerated a pasta bake we had made him for dinner!). Indirectly, I know I have benefited from his ministry too, as teachers and preachers who have been taught by Stott have in turn taught me.
The Living Church is John Stott's fiftieth book - and given his recent retirement from formal and public Christian ministry at the age of 86, I guess it might well be his last. In it, Stott look back at more than fifty years of experience in pastoral ministry, reflects on what he has learned about the church and sets a vision for the future. He longs to see 'radical conservative' churches: as he puts it, ''conservative' in the sense that they conserve what Scripture plainly requires, but 'radical' in relation to that combination of tradition and convention that we call 'culture'. Scripture is unchangeable, culture is not.'
Albeit with caveats that the early church wasn't perfect, as we so often romanticise it, Stott sees the description of the Jerusalem church in Acts 2:42-47 as showing four marks of a Spirit-filled church with serves as a model for churches today. These marks learning through the Biblical teaching of the apostles, sharing in generous fellowship, worshipping together (both formally and informally) and evangelising: compassionately taking the gospel message to the world. The rest of the book unpacks these further, and also includes chapters on church leadership, preaching, giving and community involvement.
Before sitting down to read this book, I'd not read any Stott in quite some while. What I was immediately reminded of is the complete sharpness with which he writes, often conveying quite difficult ideas simply. The chapters are easy to follow and structured for memorability. And the other thing to strike me from this book is the pastoral and authentic heart that John Stott has. He will not, for instance, be drawn into silly arguments like the evangelism - social action dichotomy, but simply says that a church that loves after Jesus will seek to do both. Unlike many other writers (and particularly many of those who write on the subject of the church), love shines through each page as the principle characteristic of the church, on which all of the others are built. And I have to say I loved the way in which Stott mixes theology with reflections on his own experiences, and shares pitfalls and dangers he's experienced in his own leadership.
Much of what I read was neither new nor surprising. What Stott brings to the plethora of books on this issue is a wonderful godly-hearted emphasis, which will affirm many of its readers.
If I was to nit-pick, then I might note that much of the content of this book has evidently been 'recycled' from previous material. The chapter on giving has been published elsewhere, and the material on preaching is more widely available too. In addition, I think Stott is more comfortable operating in a 'modernist' mindset than the more 'postmodern' worldview that characterises much of society today (and why shouldn't he, as an octogenarian?!).
Yet this book is still valuable. It represents the wisdom of a man who has stood firm for the gospel, and sought to preach God's word, both in season and out of season. It deserves to be read by young church pastors and those, like me, who might one day find themselves in church leadership. Upon finishing the book, I decided to send it to a friend of mine who is just cutting his teeth in local church ministry. I don't think it will radically change his view on either church or his own ministry, but I hope that upon reading it, he might be inspired to keep going as a 'conservative radical'.
I'll close with one of my favourite quotes from the book, where following a section on 'shepherding the sheep' from Acts 20:18-27, Stott reminds church pastors that it is God's church that they are pastoring:
'We should refer to God's church to which we have been called to serve. This truth should not only humble us but also inspire us, and particularly motivate us to the loving care of God's people. We need this incentive, for sheep are not all the clean and cuddly creatures they look from a distance. On the contrary, they are dirty and subject to nasty pests. They need to be regularly dipped in strong chemical to rid them of lice, ticks and worms. They are also unintelligent and obstinate. I hesitate to apply the metaphor too literally, or describe the people of God as 'dirty, lousy and stupid'! But some church members can be a great trial to their pastors, and vice versa. So how shall we persevere in loving the unlovable? Only, I think, by remembering how previous they are. They are so valuable that the three persons of the Trinity are together in caring for them. I find it very challenging, when trying to help a difficult person, to say under my breath: 'How precious you are in God's sight! God the Father loves you. Christ died for you. The Holy Spirit has appointed me as your pastor. As the three persons of the Trinity are committed to your welfare, it is a privilege for me to serve you.''