John Stott: Mentor and Model to Emerging Leaders  

This is an unedited version of chapter 17 of John Stott: A Portrait by his Friends, edited by Chris Wright (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011).

Ajith Fernando

My initial contact with John Stott was primarily through his books. I had a sense that I was going to be a minister from the time I was about 14 years old. I was influenced towards thoughts about ministry and preaching after coming under the influence, in my early teens, of Irish Methodist missionary George Good, who was my pastor, and a godly man and brilliant expository preacher. After him we had ministers who were not friendly to the evangelical approach to Christianity, but the influence of Rev. Good and of my parents helped me to remain firmly committed to the evangelical distinctives.

 

My father was an evangelical lay leader who had a large library. Among his books were the compendia of talks given at the Urbana Student Missionary Conferences in the USA. These introduced me to the Bible expositions of John Stott. These and the Keswick Convention compendia, that my father had, gave me a passion for Bible exposition during my teenage years. While I was a university student, I read Stott’s book, The Preacher’s Portrait. I regard this as one of the most influential books in my life because it helped me to develop convictions and ambitions about Christian ministry that still shape my life.

 

The above mentioned writings of Stott helped me develop the conviction that expository preaching that expounded a Bible passage should be the primary method of Christian preaching. Later, after reading Stott’s I Believe in Preaching, I began to view topical preaching, where the points came directly from the Scriptures, also as coming under the category of expository preaching. My style of preaching was subsequently also influenced by Methodist preachers like W. E. Sangster and E. Stanley Jones and by the Indian evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh—especially by their use of illustrations and their styles of application. But the primary influence remained the expository preaching of John Stott. Stott taught me that all preaching is the result of Biblical exegesis. You can imagine the personal thrill with which I responded to an invitation to be the Bible expositor at the Urbana Missionary conference in 1987 (and three other occasions). Though I have never felt that I should aspire to any such ministry opportunities, it was a joy to do what my mentor had done many times before. I had a similar thrill when I followed his three expositions on Romans 1-5 with two expositions on Romans 6-8 at the Lausanne II Congress in Manila in 1989.

 

In those days, unlike now, evangelicals were a despised minority in my denomination. We were accused of having committed intellectual suicide, and numerous challenges were hurled at us about to our convictions, many of which we could not answer. But we knew that there were brilliantly intelligent evangelicals who had grappled with these questions and who could provide credible responses to them. We gobbled up their writings with delight. Some of these scholars, like J. I. Packer, Stott and Carl Henry, visited Sri Lanka and won the esteem of even people outside evangelical circles. Inspired by the examples of people like Packer and Stott, my two brothers and I remained within the Methodist Church. One became a minister and the other brother and I have been active laymen. We have lived to see a remarkable transformation within the denomination as it moved to a friendlier attitude toward the evangelical faith. Now it is a denomination which is growing and seeing new churches birthed in unreached areas through conversion.

 

I first met John Stott when I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1970s, where he spent a day preaching and speaking with the students. After a question and answer session, he came up to me and asked, “Do I know you, brother?” I said, “No; but you know my parents.” He immediately knew who I was, and he gave me a hug. After that, I walked a few feet above ground level for a few days! Later he would send me complimentary copies of his books, and sign them with the words, “With esteem and affection, Uncle John.” What esteem could this giant have for an unknown young youth worker? And what qualifications do I have to have him call himself “Uncle John” when writing to me? These introduced me to another aspect of Stott’s great contribution to the church—his efforts to support and enable younger leaders to achieve their fullest potential.

 

I was included in the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation as a “younger member,” and my first meeting was in 1980 at the Lausanne Consultation in Pattaya, Thailand. There some of the representatives of the younger radical wing of the evangelical community raised their voices and pushed for a stronger emphasis on justice and social responsibility within the Lausanne movement. My experience and battles within a mainline denomination caused me to be alarmed at some of the things I was hearing. I even pointed out the need for caution in the way we respond to this challenge. But John Stott spoke up after I did and appealed to the committee to listen to these younger leaders. He pointed out that their concerns were genuine and highlighted some blind spots within the evangelical movement. This was a great help to me as I faced these challenges in my ministry. I learned to do all I can to help give expression to these voices while, at the same time, attempting to act as a watchdog for evangelism which could be easily neglected as we open ourselves to other aspects of the mission of the church. Like Barnabas, Stott had used his moral authority and esteem as an acknowledged leader to sponsor and encourage younger creative thinkers.

 

In 1978 I was at the Lausanne-sponsored ALCOE Conference in Singapore where Stott was the Bible expositor. It was two years after I had returned to Sri Lanka, after my theological studies in USA, to serve with Youth for Christ. When he saw me, after his customary hug, he proceeded to ask me if I was giving time to study. This was, and is, one of the biggest challenges that I have had and the fact that this was the first thing he asked me showed me how important it was. Such things have helped me to persevere in squeezing in time for study in the three decades that followed. The idea of “squeezing in time” also came to me from Stott when he visited Fuller Seminary during my student days. Someone asked him, “How do you find time to study?” He answered that, in an earlier era, ministers could spend weekday mornings studying, but that this was not practical into today’s world. So we must always be ready to study and use every possible opportunity to do so. This resulted in my taking books everywhere I went and taking notes as I read, at bus stands, banks, government departments, trains, planes, airports and police stations, which I needed to visit often as our staff and volunteers were often arrested because of the unrest in Sri Lanka. Sometimes people, seeing me taking notes as I read, ask me whether I am studying for an exam!

 

One book I read by “squeezing in time” was what I regard as the most enriching doctrinal book I have ever read, Stott’s The Cross of Christ. I took it with me wherever I went for about four months—taking copious notes in the margins, composing a detailed Table of Contents at the front of the book, and compiling my own index at the back. Once I was travelling back by bus from a camp in the mountains. It was about a six-hour journey, and I had to stand as the bus was full. I read in the bus stand while I waited for the bus and then in the bus when it stopped to drop and pick up passengers. When the bus was moving I kept it on a rack above the seats. Suddenly someone said that a book had fallen out of the bus through the window. I knew it was my book and I took my bag and got out of the bus to go in search of the book. Someone in a bus coming in the opposite direction had seen the book fall, stopped the bus, collected it and continued his journey. People on the road informed me of that.

 

As I was talking with the people, a police jeep came along. They asked what had happened and, when I explained the situation, they let me get into the jeep and we gave chase after the bus! We finally caught up with it as it had stopped in the next town. I gratefully took possession of the book and proceeded on my journey. This was a book I could not afford to lose and replace with a new copy, because I had already made so many notes in it.

 

Stott’s The Cross of Christ is an example of another thing that made him a mentor to many of us younger Christian workers. From his pen came the definitive treatments of many key issues facing the church. They were biblically astute, theologically informed and aware of the context in society in which we live. In this category I would also include his Christian Mission in the Modern World, I Believe in Preaching, and Issues Facing Christians Today. These books were the result of what Stott called “double listening”—devoting ones energy to understanding both God’s Word and God’s world. During a question and answer time at the ALCOE Conference in 1978, someone asked Stott what the key requirements for effective contextualisation were. Stott answered saying that the first requirement is that we must know the Bible. Then he proceeded to talk about other requirements. I determined that everything we do in our ministry with youth will spring from a biblical theology. These “definitive treatments” on issues by Stott, not only gave us vital information on key issues but also gave us a model of how we should approach all issues in ministry.

 

I have tried to this adopt Stott’s biblical approach to all the topical books I have written. I did so even when I disagreed with him. I completed my book Crucial Questions about Hell shortly after Stott had stated that he was open to the possibility of the annihilation of the finally unrepentant as opposed to eternal conscious torment. This was published in Essentials: a Liberal-Evangelical Dialog, the book he co-authored with liberal theologian David Edwards. I came to the painful realisation that I was going to have to oppose my hero! I mentioned his name only in the end-notes, but I sought to respond to the points he made in that book. After completing the chapter and before sending the book to the publisher, I sent it to Stott. He wrote back saying that both he and I need to do more careful study of the Bible.

 

Another huge impact that John Stott had on me was through his lifestyle. It is quite discouraging to go for international Christian conferences and find that many delegates looked to these conferences as opportunities for personal advancement in the ecclesiastical ladder rather than as an opportunity for spiritual and vocational enrichment. I believe the most important blessing I received from my involvement in the Lausanne movement as a “younger member” was seeing people like John Stott, Leighton Ford, John Reid, Jack Dain and Robert Coleman whose primary reason for involvement was the progress of the work of God in the world.

 

I was on the planning team for the Lausanne Younger Leaders Conference, Singapore 87. There was no doubt that the hero of this conference was John Stott, who distinguished himself by not speaking at it. He gave a short message, but he was there for the whole conference, that is, for over a week, just so that he can be an encouragement to the younger leaders. He used every spare moment to have personal appointments with the delegates. It was clear that behind the greatness of this man as a communicator of Christian truth, was a love for people and a commitment to personal ministry.

 

The life of concern for younger leaders is well represented by the correspondence he continued to have with younger leaders. My friend Dr Peter Kuzmic, from Croatia, says of how he once went to an airport chapel to pray. In the front of the chapel he could see the head of an older man and scores of papers which he seemed to be arranging according to different categories. Upon closer observation he discovered that it was John Stott arranging a huge pile of letters. I used to be amazed that he had time to write to me. Later I realised that if one is to have an international ministry, one must also have a ministry of international intercession and correspondence. You influence people in your travels, and you need to pray for them and encourage them through correspondence.

 

I had one unforgettable opportunity to visit John Stott in his little flat. I was thrilled to note the simplicity of the place and to see the kneeler where he prayed. But what thrilled me most was a question he asked me: “How is Jeyaraj?” Jeyaraj was a colleague who had been arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and who spent fifteen months in prison before he was released without any charges being made against him. I had asked for prayer for him in my semi-annual prayer letter. And I found that not only did Stott remember Jeyaraj’s name, he also remembered to pray for him.

 

Another time Stott had a huge impact on me through his godliness was at the Lausanne II conference in Manila in 1989. At the last moment, Stott was given the assignment of writing the preliminary draft of the conference statement of the Lausanne II Congress in Manila in 1989. Known as the Manila Manifesto, this was to be based on the talks given at the conference and to serve as a clarification of the Lausanne Covenant. It also included applications of some of the principles stated in the Covenant. In the short time available, Stott stayed up many nights and completed this draft at great personal cost. Towards the end of the conference, some felt that the whole statement should be dropped and some short affirmations should be given instead.

 

After grappling over this with God in the night, Stott announced to the committee the next morning that he was willing to discard the document, which he had worked so hard to produce, and replace it with some affirmations. I was part of the drafting committee and to me this was a prime example of surrendering personal plans and ministries for the overall good of the kingdom. Interestingly, most (or all) of the members of the drafting committee from the Global South supported the longer version while many from the West supported the shorter version. Finally, a compromise was reached and the short affirmations were printed just before the longer document.

 

Today’s Christian leaders are presented with a huge challenge from an alternative leadership lifestyle to what Stott exemplified. It seems that today’s model of the lifestyle of the successful Christian leader has taken in many features from a model prevalent in society. In Asia this is further enhanced by the model of the religions Gurus who live on a different plane to the people and are venerated with an adoration one would give a god-man. These leaders usually travel with a large entourage, stay in luxury hotels, have other trappings of earthly success such as big cars and houses, and have a strong public-relations machinery which helps push forward their reputation. Unconsciously, we too could begin to desire such things as some people view these as indicators of a significant ministry. The influence of such thinking is subtle and it is easy for us to succumb without realising that we are doing so.

 

Certainly, performing a significant service for God is the desire of all vocational Christian workers. John Stott showed us that it is possible to have a huge influence without these trappings of earthly success. So when Time magazine included Stott in a list of the hundred most influential people in the world and when the New York Times wrote of his huge impact upon the Christian church, we felt that it was an affirmation of some of the vocational and lifestyle decisions we had made. This recognition showed that one could do a significant work without the earthly trappings of success.

 

As for me, his example has helped me to remain in Sri Lanka serving Youth for Christ for the past thirty-four years. And now, as I approach the prospect of stepping down from leadership, his example of remaining under the umbrella of All Souls, Langham Place, spurs me to seek a way I can remain accountable to Youth for Christ even after stepping down from the National Directorship. His example also helped me decide to live on a Sri Lankan salary and to divert my royalties and honoraria to Youth for Christ for literature and education projects. I have felt that doing this has given me freedom to minister worldwide without any sense of guilt or secrecy knowing that everything I do in ministry is done as a worker of Youth for Christ.

 

What influenced me more: his model lifestyle and godliness or his model preaching, teaching and writing? That is a difficult question to answer. I would say Stott has had an equally powerful impact on me in both these areas.