Email And Servanthood

Written in December 2003



A Reflection after hearing that Carl Henry Has Died

Ajith Fernando


A few days ago I heard that one of God’s great warriors Carl F. H. Henry had gone home to his reward. He was probably the greatest Evangelical Theologian of the second half of the Twentieth century. But I remember him most as the person whose letters came with the characteristic broken typescript of the old typewriter he used. In my younger days he would write to me regularly.


I got to know Dr. Henry because my father helped organise World Vision Pastors’ conferences in Sri Lanka in the 1960s and 70s. Carl Henry came to several of these. He was at his prime, and during that time he would give three months a year to minister in the Communist world and the Two-Thirds World. This was before the phenomenal growth of the church in these areas. I believe that the visits of people like Carl Henry and John Stott to this part of the world at that time had much to do with laying the foundation for the growth that followed later on. These visits are an evidence of Christian servanthood.


There is a lot of talk about servanthood today, but very little understanding of it because it runs counter to much of what even Christians view as success. There is a lot of talk about strategy today, and usually something is viewed as strategic if it produces measurable results and thus takes the person, church or organisation forward in a clearly visible way. So books are considered significant if they become bestsellers (Is this sour grapes on my part? I hope not!). Churches and organisations are considered significant if they grow in size. Unlike today, when Carl Henry and John Stott visited poorer countries, these visits were not considered significant. Many would have considered them a waste of time because they deprived key theologians of the precious time needed to produce their theological works which would extend their influence in the church.


But in the kingdom of God, greatness is servanthood. A good measure of servanthood is the willingness to do things to help people which will consume ones time and energy but not produce much measurable results beneficial to the person who does those things. Looking at it from that perspective, the visits of Carl Henry and John Stott to poorer nations and Communist nations before the years of church growth in those areas is a prime example of servanthood.


So is the letter-writing of famous people to seemingly insignificant people. Carl Henry wrote me many letters while I was a student in USA. My friend, theologian Peter Kuzmic, once went to a chapel in a large airport and saw from the back an elderly gentleman with a huge pile of letters arranging them in some order. When he went closer he found that it was John Stott. Thousands of Christian leaders all over the world will tell of how John Stott wrote extremely encouraging letters to them in their younger days. He wrote to me also; so did the great preachers Paul Rees and Leighton Ford and the great scholar and editor J. D. Douglas, who first wrote to Zondervan publishers about me. And so did some of my great teachers: Robert Coleman, J. T. Seamands and Donald Demaray of Asbury and Daniel Fuller and Arthur Glasser of Fuller. By the way, one of the most helpful insights I learned about writing is from a letter that C. S. Lewis wrote to a school girl in America who wrote him asking some questions about how to write well.


Today letter writing has been replaced by e-mailing. Many who write to us will bring no immediately apparent benefit to us. So writing to them may seem to be a useless waste of time. But we are called to be servants. So we do it because it forms part of our call from God. Did not Christ say, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)? Let us follow his example by replying the e-mails we get and composing letters to those who would be blessed by receiving a letter from us, even though no apparent blessing will come to us.


Let me give you a list of some of the people whom we need to write to, write on behalf of; or encourage in some other way:

–young people who may be in need of encouragement or of us using our influence to open doors of opportunity for them;

–students who write for help on a project they are doing;

–leaders who have fallen, and now are ignored by the Christian community;

–leaders who have retired and are unable to be busy in the work of the kingdom as they once were;

–lesser known writers who want us to read their work and write an endorsement for it (I wonder how many, many books J. I. Packer has endorsed?);

–former colleagues who are struggling to find their niche in ministry after they left us (Sometimes they left scolding us!);

–Christian workers and missionaries ministering in difficult situations;

–Christians in public life who are struggling to know how best to respond to the complex challenges they face and who feel rejected and misunderstood by other Christians who accuse them of compromising their faith (the last letter John Wesley wrote before his death was to anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce);

–Christians, such as those in the arts, who are precariously positioned as they try to blaze new trails for the gospel while few Christians understand what they are trying to do.


Of course, this type of activity is not as sacrificial as it may seem at first. Did not Jesus say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35)?