Book Review: The Living Church: Convictions of a Life Long Pastor, by John Stott
Reading John Stott’s The Living Church is like having a conversation with a venerable and godly grandfather. There’s no bold new vision. No young man’s castles in the sky. You might not even agree with everything he says. Yet all of it commands respect. All of it evinces wisdom. Every single word, every single expression, feels permeated with the deep and calm virtue of a man who has, for more days than can be counted, found his refreshment lying beside the quiet waters of our Lord: Humility. Balance. Carefulness. Love. Tenderness. And somehow, despite the many reasons for cynicism age gives, a childlike Hope.
The nearly ninety-year-old Stott begins The Living Church by observing the phenomenon of postmodernism and the rise of the emerging church. He does not appear threatened by either but instead calls the traditional church to learn from the emerging church and the emerging to learn from the traditional. He also credits Mark Dever's Nine Marks of a Healthy Church as offering an overall vision similar to his own.
In chapter 1, he lists four essential marks of a church based off of Acts 2:42-47: churches should be characterized by learning, caring, worshipping, and evangelizing.
Chapters 2 through 8 then reflect and expand on these four essentials with chapters devoted, respectively, to worship, evangelism, ministry, fellowship, preaching, giving, and impact. He devotes the conclusion to calling for a new generation of Timothys.
And then three interesting historical appendices are included, including one called “Why I am still a member of the Church of England,” which gives the answer he provides to anyone who asks him whether he has changed his mind since the famous 1966 debate with D. Martyn Lloyd Jones (his answer: no).
Unlike some of the more imbalanced “missional church” formulations, Stott’s vision of a living church is directed both upward and outward—toward worship and toward mission. The two wonderfully reinforce one another:
If we truly worship God, acknowledging and adoring his infinite worth, we find ourselves impelled to make him known to others, in order that they may worship him too. Thus worship leads to witness, and witness in turn to worship, in a perpetual circle. (52)
Stott is also mindful of the church’s call to both inward and outward care. The chapter on giving presents an exposition of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, which calls Christians to give sacrificially to one another. The very next chapter on impact considers Jesus’ call to be salt and light to the world around the church by doing good and bringing the values of the kingdom to bear in every domain of life.
If, in fact, I were to use one word to summarize The Living Church, it would be the word “balance.” Stott continually looks to strike a balance between two extremes. For example,
- He wants neither the ingrown “religious club” nor the “secular mission (or religionless Christianity); he wants an “incarnational Christianity” that’s mindful of the church’s “double identity”—we’re called simultaneously out of the world and into the world (53-55).
- He encourages churches to articulate the gospel in a way that doesn’t fall into “total fixity,” that is, an over-reliance on certain words or formulae; nor into “total fluidity” by abandoning the gospel’s concrete truths. Rather, we should find the “middle way” that’s mindful of both “content and context, Scripture and culture, revelation and contextualization” (66-68).
- A kind of clericalism that puts preachers on a pedestal and an anti-clericalism that knocks them off (80).
- Even his reason for remaining within the church of England is explained as the middle way between the extremes of “separation or secession” and “compromise and even conformity,” the way he calls “comprehensiveness without compromise” (171-77).
Examples of this kind of dialectic can be found on almost every page. John Stott is clearly the ultra moderate, constantly in search of the synthesis. He even states in the preface that what evangelicals need are more “Radical Conservative churches”—radical in responding to culture and conservative in remaining moored to the unchanging truths of Scripture (17). In another place he calls for “holy worldliness” (55)!
And often, his non-threatened, non-strident balancing acts—that is, his ability to find good things from multiple perspectives—struck this young, often overly-strident reader as the wisdom which gracefully crowns the heads of only those who have walked with God for years.
Beyond this, there are countless places where Stott’s vision of the living church needs to be heard: true worship begins with hearing the word of God (36-37); churches should recover a vision of corporate worship and corporate witness (39-42; 51-52); and so on. He even tells Christians to bring their Bibles to church (37)!
If reading The Living Church is like having a conversation with a venerable and godly grandfather, offering any critiques about the book feels about the same. Both of my grandfathers were pastors and godly men, whom I respected to no end when they were living, even though both of them held to views that I do not embrace, as with the one grandfather who was a pastor with the Salvation Army. Critiquing such sages for our differences would almost seem irreverent.
Still, as with my grandfather who belonged to the Salvation Army, there are several places where I see things differently than the older and far wiser Stott. To note a few: I’m not sure it would be advisable for a larger city church to break itself into several homogeneous sub-churches through the week so that Christians can worship both with people like themselves and people different than themselves (42). I wouldn’t follow his attempt to “reconcile” the egalitarian and complementarian postions on female elders by seemingly allowing for them (81-82). I don’t believe “Small groups are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity” (93), and I wouldn’t want to ground the bulk of the church’s fellowship in and through them (ch. 5). And I’m not sure I understand his distinction between a “national church” like the Church of England and a “state church” like the Lutheran state churches on the Continent (169-170).
In fact, sometimes I found myself disagreeing because finding the right “middle way” presumes you have correctly painted the two extremes or two poles to begin with. But what if one end of the spectrum, which sometimes felt caricatured, is the balanced middle of the real and even larger spectrum? Wouldn’t the apparent balance then be an under balance? I wondered this a little bit with his picture of the “religious club” church, or with the “separation” position on the Church of England. The former especially felt a little caricatured.
THE EXEMPLAR PASTOR-THEOLOGIAN
Still, my purpose here is not to make much hay from these points of disagreement. Ultimately, I found myself deeply encouraged by the reflections of this life-long pastor, who has been such a clear gift to Christ’s church. Like either of my grandfathers, and probably more so, frankly, I can only beg the Lord to make me such a careful and balanced student of Scripture and such a wise, thoughtful, and loving pastor.
He is one of the exemplar pastor-theologians for our times—a theologian who writes pastorally and a pastor who writes about theology. We have much to learn from him.
*Page numbers in this review refer to the British paperback version, not the hardback American version, which has 180 pages.