New book: John Stott on The Church – introduction and extract

It’s been a great privilege to be involved in giving a new lease of life to John Stott’s great book, The Contemporary Christian, which is being reissued as a series of five short books on 20 June 2019. I was asked to provide a light edit of Stott’s work (removing dated references and discussions) and to add reflection questions to help readers think through the application today. The five books are:

The Gospel: A Life-Changing Message

The Disciple: A Calling to be Christlike

The Bible: A Book Like No Other

The Church: A Unique Gathering of People

The World: A Mission to be Accomplished

Or you can buy all five books for the price of four if you use this link.

(Also look out for my volume on John Stott in Crossway’s Theologians of the Christian Lifeseries which is coming out in June 2020.) 

Introducing The Church: A Unique Gathering of People

Stott begins the volume on The Church with a great example of his double listening (listening to both the world and the word). He explores some of the longings of our culture (for transcendence, significance and community) before showing how each of these is fulfilled in the life of the church (or should be). He then shows how, for both theological and pragmatic reasons, the church should be the main context for evangelism, before exploring the steps required to make this a reality. Then, in a reflection on John 17, Stott argues that church renewal needs to bring together a commitment to the truth, holiness, mission and unity. Finally he argues for a pastoral model of church leadership.

Here’s an extract in which Stott explains how the church must understand itself aright if it is to be an effective centre of evangelism (with footnotes and citations removed).

Many churches are sick because they have a false self-image. They have grasped neither who they are (their identity) nor what they are called to be (their vocation). We all know the importance of an accurate self-image for good mental health. What is true of persons is equally true of churches.

At least two false images of the church are prevalent today. The first false image is the religious club (or introverted Christianity). According to this view, the local church resembles the local golf club, except that the common interest of its members happens to be God rather than golf. They see themselves as religious people who enjoy doing religious things together. They pay their subscription and reckon they are entitled to certain privileges. In fact, they concentrate on the status and advantages of being club members. They have forgotten – or never known – that, as Archbishop William Temple put it, ‘The church is the only co­operative society in the world which exists for the benefit of its non­members.’ Instead, they are completely introverted, like an ingrown toenail. To be sure, Temple was guilty of a slight exaggeration, for church members do have a responsibility to each other, as the many ‘one another’ verses of the New Testament indicate (‘love one another’, ‘encourage one another’, ‘bear one another’s burdens’, etc.). Nevertheless, our primary responsibilities are our worship of God and our mission in the world.

At the opposite extreme to the religious club is the secular mission (or religionless Christianity). In the twentieth century some Christian thinkers became exasperated by the self-centredness of the church. It seemed to them so absorbed in its own petty domestic affairs that they resolved to abandon it. For the arena of divine service they exchanged the church for the secular city. They were no longer interested in ‘worship services’, they said, but only in ‘worship service’. So they tried to develop a ‘religionless Christianity’ in which they reinterpreted worship as mission, love for God as love for neighbour, and prayer to God as encounter with people. A similar movement of ‘post­evangelicals’ or the ‘emerging church’ abandoned traditional congregations in favour of unstructured Christian com­ munities with a focus on neighbourhood transformation.

How should we evaluate such movements? Their distaste for selfish religion is surely right. Since it is nauseating to God, it ought to sicken us as well. But the concept of ‘religionless Christianity’ is an unbalanced overreaction. The message of the gospel cannot be adjusted to suit modern sensibilities. And we have no liberty to confuse worship and mission, even though (as we have seen) each involves the other. There is always an element of mission in worship and of worship in mission, but they are not synonymous.

There is a third way to understand the church, which combines what is true in both false images, and which recognizes that we have a responsibility both to worship God and to serve the world. This is the double identity of the church (or incarnational Christianity). By its ‘double identity’ I mean that the church is a people who have been both called out of the world to worship God and sent back into the world to witness and serve. These are, in fact, two of the classical ‘marks’ of the church. According to the first, the church is ‘holy’, called out to belong to God and to worship him. According to the second, the church is ‘apostolic’, sent out into the world on its mission. The church is to be simultaneously ‘holy’ (distinct from the world) and ‘worldly’ (not in the sense of assimilating the world’s values, but in the sense of renouncing other­worldliness and instead becoming immersed in the life of the world). Dr Alec Vidler captured this double identity by referring to its ‘holy worldliness’.

Nobody has ever exhibited ‘holy worldliness’ better than our Lord Jesus Christ himself. His incarnation is the perfect embodiment of it. On the one hand, he came to us in our world, and assumed the full reality of our humanness. He made himself one with us in our frailty, and exposed himself to our temptations. He fraternized with the common people, and they flocked round him eagerly. He welcomed everybody and shunned nobody. He identified with our sorrows, our sins and our death. On the other hand, in mixing freely with people like us, he never sacrificed or compromised his own unique identity. His was the perfection of ‘holy worldliness’.

And now he sends us into the world as he was sent into the world.We have to penetrate other people’s worlds, as he penetrated ours – the world of their thinking (as we struggle to understand their misunderstandings of the gospel), the world of their feeling (as we try to empathize with their pain), and the world of their living (as we sense the humiliation of their social situation, whether that is poverty, homelessness, unemployment or discrimination). Archbishop Michael Ramsey put it well: ‘We state and commend the faith only insofar as we go out and put ourselves with loving sympathy inside the doubts of the doubter, the questions of the questioner, and the loneliness of those who have lost the way.’Yet this costly entry into other people’s worlds is not to be undertaken at the expense of our own Christian integrity. We are called to maintain the standards of Jesus Christ untarnished.

Seldom in its long history has the church managed to preserve its God­given double identity of holy worldliness. Instead, it has tended to oscillate between the two extremes. Sometimes (in an overemphasis on its holiness) the church has withdrawn from the world and so has neglected its mission. At other times (in an overemphasis on its worldliness) it has conformed to the world, assimilating its views and values, and so has neglected its holiness. But to fulfil its mission, the church must faithfully respond to both its callings, and preserve both parts of its identity.

‘Mission’ arises, then, from the biblical doctrine of the church in the world. If we are not ‘the church’, the holy and distinct people of God, we have nothing to say because we are compromised. If, on the other hand, we are not ‘in the world’, deeply involved in its life and suffering, we have no­one to serve because we are insulated. Our calling is to be ‘holy’ and ‘worldly’ at the same time. Without this balanced biblical ecclesiology we will never recover or fulfil our mission.