The publishing house that gave us John Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP) in 1975 now considers this slim volume to be a “classic;” reading through the book, it is not hard to see why. Stott’s take on the mission of the church is memorable because of his brevity and clarity.
A helpful guide to issues related to Christian engagement of contemporary society, Stott’s work focuses on biblically defining five important words: mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. Let’s take a brief look at Stott’s work and then examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of his proposal.
Christian Mission in the Modern World begins with questions every generation must wrestle with:
“What should be the church’s relation to the world? What is a Christian’s responsibility toward his non-Christian relatives, friends, and neighbors, and indeed to the whole non-Christian community?” (19).
In tackling these questions, John Stott turns to a number of important words and seeks to define them biblically.
Stott begins with “mission.” He contrasts the older view of mission (exclusively evangelistic with mercy ministry or social work relegated to “platform” status for the evangelistic outreach) with the newer, ecumenical view (focused on the creation and development of peace on earth, a model in which the world sets the agenda for the church).
Stott believes both these approaches are deficient, and so he offers a third way. Downplaying the Great Commission text in Matthew 28, Stott lifts up the scene in John 20 where Jesus sends out the disciples in a way that makes Christ’s mission the model of ours:
“He came to serve. He gave himself in selfless service for others, and his service took a wide variety of forms according to men’s needs… He served in deed as well as in word, and it would be impossible in the ministry of Jesus to separate his works from his words… Our mission, like his, is to be one of service” (39).
Stott believes social action is a “partner of evangelism” in that “both are expressions of unfeigned love” (43). The Great Commission to go and make disciples is a more narrow command of Jesus than the Great Commandment to love one’s neighbor.
Therefore, “mission” does not describe everything that God is doing in the world, but rather describes “everything the church is sent into the world to do,” and this necessarily includes mercy ministry, not just gospel proclamation (48).
In defining evangelism, Stott points out wrong turns evangelicals sometimes take in our evangelistic efforts (such as, defining evangelism in terms of the recipients of the gospel, or in terms of results and methods). Instead, evangelism must be defined in terms of proclaiming the message of the gospel.
What is the gospel? At the most fundamental level, “God’s good news is Jesus” (68), but the apostolic presentation of Jesus included five elements: the gospel events, the gospel witnesses, the gospel affirmations, the gospel promises, and the gospel demands.
Evangelism, properly understood, is the Christian’s proclamation of the gospel message, though this proclamation certainly takes into account the Christian’s presence in the world (87).
Next, Stott turns to the question of dialogue, and he addresses concerns that dialogue is a gateway to compromise. Stott recommends dialoguing with those of different faiths or those of no faith because dialogue is the mark of authenticity, humility, integrity, and sensitivity.
Salvation and Conversion
The rest of the book focuses on two important words – salvation and conversion.
In speaking of salvation, Stott concludes that even if the gospel has ramifications for all of society, the kind of salvation described in the Bible “concerns persons rather than structures. It is deliverance from another kind of yoke than political and economic oppression” (142). Stott does not downplay the importance of seeking justice and liberation for the oppressed, and yet he does not consider deliverance from unjust social structures to be “the salvation which Christ died and rose to secure for men” (148).
Regarding conversion, Stott defines the term as “the response which the good news demands and without which salvation cannot be received” (162). The reality of conversion cuts against the kind of syncretism and universalism currently popular among those in Western cultures.
John Stott’s stature in evangelical thought and life is well deserved, as his work is almost always biblically sound, mindful of historic and contemporary debates, and positioned in a way that avoids unhelpful extremes.Stott’s legacy could be summed up in the words “biblical” and “balanced,” since his proposals are self-consciously rooted in the text and his recommendations avoid reductionisms that harm the church.
Keeping the many strengths of Stott’s approach in mind, there are places where his proposal on mission could be improved.
Downplaying the Moment?
One area of weakness is in Stott’s treatment of conversion and regeneration. Stott is right to point out the inseparable nature of these two events, regeneration being God’s act and conversion being the human’s response. Though I differ with Stott on the ordo salutis, I agree that salvation begins with God’s initiative and that the events of conversion and regeneration are simultaneous in a temporal sense.
The bigger issue is that Stott denies the human’s subjective experience during the moment of regeneration.
“Regeneration is unconscious, whereas conversion is normally conscious… The actual passage from death to life is not a felt experience… Its consequences, however, are plain” (170-1).
He then adds:
“The reason we may know we are born again is not because we were consciously aware at the time of what was happening, but because we know that our present Christian self-consciousness, or rather God-consciousness, being a mark of spiritual life, must have originated in a spiritual birth” (171).
It is difficult to understand the reason why Stott feels it necessary to separate the experiential aspects of regeneration and conversion if these events are indeed simultaneous. I fear this position downplays the moment of conversion, as is proven by Stott’s next point, in which he describes conversion as “more a process than an event” (171).
It is true that one cannot reduce every Christian conversion to a one-size-fits-all, dramatic event of embracing salvation. Conversion experiences come in all shapes and sizes.
But Stott’s overemphasis on gradual conversion undercuts his earlier insistence that evangelism is primary in the mission of the church. How? By diluting the evangelist’s reasons for issuing the gospel demands to repent and believe at a particular point in time. Downplaying the moment of conversion could lead to an expectation of gradual enlightenment that keeps Christians from urging people to “cross the line” from darkness to light.
Maintaining Evangelistic Priority
A second weakness in Stott’s proposal is the expansion of mission to “everything the church is sent into the world to do” without offering suggestions as to how to keep evangelism at the forefront of our activity.
At a fundamental level, Stott is right in his definition of mission and the primacy he gives evangelism. But when it comes to church practice and the choices of church leaders, there is little here to help us discern the way forward in embracing social ministry as a partner to evangelism while still maintaining evangelistic priority.
Is Stott referring to the mission of the church gathered or the church scattered?
Is he referring to Christians in their individual vocations seeking to be salt and light in the world or is he referring to the church as a corporate witness?
Not only does Stott not answer these questions, but he also muddies the issue considerably by rejecting ulterior (evangelistic) motives in social ministry. He writes:
“To sum up, we are sent into the world, like Jesus, to serve. For this is the natural expression of our love for our neighbors. We love. We go. We serve. And in this we have (or should have) no ulterior motive. True, the gospel lacks visibility if we merely preach it, and lacks credibility if we who preach it are interested only in souls and have no concern about the welfare of people’s bodies, situations and communities. Yet the reason for our acceptance of social responsibility is not primarily in order to give the gospel either a visibility or credibility it would otherwise lack, but rather simple uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself. It merely expresses itself in service wherever it sees need” (47-8).
On the one hand, this appeal to compassionate motivation is indeed correct. Christians ought to never see their work in the world as merely a tool for evangelism, as if a lost person is their project.
On the other hand, the implication of this point of view is that the ulterior motive of evangelism necessarily dilutes “simple uncomplicated compassion” and leads to the “smell of hypocrisy” around our philanthropic activities (41).
To this we must ask: What could be more simple and compassionate than serving a person physically with the hopes of also serving them spiritually? Christian compassion must not and cannot be reduced to physical assistance; otherwise, we fail to provide what Stott himself considers to be the “new and urgent Christian dimension” to neighbor-service and neighbor-love (46).
Overall, Christian Mission in the Modern World is a thoughtful, balanced approach to issues related to mission, evangelism, and social work. Though there are places where Stott’s desire for balance could prove problematic in practice, this book is an invaluable introduction to contemporary engagement of our world with the gospel.