Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Radical Disciple

For over 50 years, up until his death in 2011, John Stott was a leader of the worldwide Evangelical movement.  He was a key author of the Lausanne Covenant on World Evangelisation in 1974 (he was chair of the drafting committee) and central to the subsequent spin-offs and supplementary statements.

Stott was an ever-present eminence in my youth, an evangelical authority who was assumed to be right until he could be positively proven to be wrong.  You would be hard put to find such proof - his writings are careful and considered, marshalling evidence before laying out a modest, logical conclusion.  His sermons - to which we listened on cassette tapes - were masterpieces of the art of condensing complex subject matter into four alliterative points for easy recall.  He was not so much an original theologian as a gifted teacher, able to explain complex concepts in simple lay terms.

He was a good role model for young evangelicals.  He didn't despise learning but nor did he flaunt it.  He avoided extremes, treated opposing viewpoints with respect, always played the ball not the man.  He also lived what he taught.  He never sought high office in the church, even though he would have made a good bishop, and lived all his life on a modest stipend from his London parish while allocating his substantial book royalities to the charities he founded.

To my mind, though, his biggest contribution to the evangelical movement was his focus on holistic discipleship. For him, it wasn't enough for Christians to preach the gospel - we also had to practice it, to live as far as possible the way Jesus intended.  This led him to adopt and adapt many of the findings of liberation theology into an evangelical context.  In my youth I thought he was too tame and conservative - I still do in many ways - but he was a key influence in moving evangelicals away from a myopic focus on conversion to a concern with justice and human wellbeing.

All these thoughts are prompted by a 50th birthday gift from my friend Trevor of Stott's final book, The Radical Disciple.  I'm not sure why it's taken me until after my 51st birthday to read it, but I have a lot of books on my shelf waiting to be read.  Written when he was not far short of 90, the book is shot through with mortality.  Stott was living in an aged care facility as he wrote it, having broken his hip not long previously in a fall.  He knew he did not have much life left and this would be his last book, and his post-script is a typically self-effacing final farewell to his readers, thanking them for their encouraging letters and explaining the details of his literary will.

This is a deceptively simple book, because although you could read it in a single sitting, it would take a lifetime to put it into practice.  Stott summarises what he sees as the essence of Christian discipleship.  What sort of people should we be striving to become as Christians?  He allows himself eight points rather than four.

Non-conformity for Stott is the mid-point between escapism - a desire to run away from the world - and conformity, a desire to blend in.  Christians are called to live in the world, but to live by Christ's standards even if these are different from those of our neighbours.

Christ-likeness follows directly from this, trying to model our lives on the standard Christ set for us.  This involves us learning humility, service of others, unconditional love, and devotion to our mission.  These things in themselves can be the study of a lifetime, and fortunately he reminds us that we have God's help, and the presence of his Spirit, to guide us.

Maturity is one of Stott's signature themes and the focus of much of his ministry.  His complaint about the church throughout his life was that while the numbers of Christians have increased around the world, so often our Chrisitianity is only skin deep.  We have limited knowledge of our faith, and practice only its most obvious disciplines.  He is particularly focused on Bible study and knowledge, but his meassage could be extended - maturity in prayer, in moral judgement, in theological and political discernment.

Creation care for Stott is a key aspect of living in God's world in the 21st century.  God has put us on earth with the task of caring for it and its creatures, and we need to acknowledge we are failing in that task, and learn to do better.

The chapter on simplicity is drawn from the Lausanne Movement's Consultation on Simple Lifestyle which Stott chaired in 1980.  It touches on our care for creation, our concern to eradicate proverty, our building a new kind of community in the Church, our personal commitment to simplicity, and our desire for justice.  He has no expectation we will acheive this in this life, but believes we should try.

His sixth concept, balance, is quite nuanced and complex.  He points out three dichotomies - between individual discipleship and corporate fellowship, between worship and work, and between pilgrimage towards God and citizenship in this world.  For Stott, these are not choices to be made, but elements of our life to be held in balance.

Dependence is perhaps something Stott was well qualified to talk about in his declining years, dependent as he was on others for many of his daily needs.  However, he points out that we are all dependent - on God for our very life, and on one another.  A fierce independence is not a virtue, it is a weakness we need to address.

Death is the final item in Stott's list.  Jesus says if we follow him we need to be willing to take up our cross, and he was not talking metaphorically.  For many Christians persecution and even martyrdom is a reality.  Yet even for those of us who live in safety, mortality is always with us, and part of Christian discipleship is to look it in the face and accept that only through our death can we truly live.

Stott faced his death with equanimity.  He also left us a legacy, both in his writings and in his example.  If we could follow just a small part of it, we would be a genuine blessing to the world around us.


Hermit said...

Enjoyed your article. I must read more of Stott. You mention the books you have waiting to be read - it seems to me a shame that men spend their lives reading and learning and thinking, and then they die, and nothing comes of all their reading - it is lost.

Have you thought of writing a book? If you did, what would it be on?

Jon said...

I once wrote a novel based on the life of Thomas the Rhymer. It was terrible but I often think of having another go, using the writing skills I've gained through blogging. I also have a plan for a childhood memoir about growing up in Sunnybank in the late 60s and early 70s. In the meantime apart from this blog I write a lot of professional reports which are read by small numbers of people - often in single figures :).