“Christian Mission in the Modern World” by John Stott


John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008). $8.00, 191 pages.

In 1975, InterVarsity Press published Christian Mission in the Modern World by John Stott. It recently reissued the book as part of the IVP Classics series. Like almost everything Stott has written, the book repays careful reading.

Stott, who is British, is the type of evangelical Christian that we do not often see in America. In America, evangelicals generally work outside the structures of the so-called mainline churches. Stott is a priest of the Church of England and a participant in ecumenical dialogues. He is a pastor, theologian, activist, bridge-builder, and public intellectual. American evangelical leaders tend to specialize in one or two of those areas. Indeed, I cannot think of a precise American counterpart to Stott.

Christian Mission in the Modern World grew out of the 1975 Chavasse Lectures in World Mission that Stott delivered at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. It investigates the meaning of five words in conversation with then-current trends in both evangelical and ecumenical missiology: mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. As should be expected in a book published more than thirty years ago, some of the persons, events, and documents Stott discusses are no longer current. Even so, however, Stott’s insights into the meaning of these words still provoke thought. Let us briefly take a look at them.

First, mission: What is the mission of the church? It is common to distinguish evangelical and ecumenical missiologies by saying that the former is concerned with evangelism and the latter with social action. There is an element of truth in this, although Stott points out that evangelicals are concerned with social action and ecumenicals with evangelism—at least according to the leading documents of their respective movements. Turning to John 17:18 and 20:21, Stott argues that Jesus sends the church into the world to do the same kinds of things the Father sent him into the world to do. Stott therefore defines mission as “Christian service in the world comprising both evangelism and social action.”

Second, evangelism: If Christian mission comprises both evangelism and social action, is there nonetheless a priority between them? Stott argues that there is, specifically, that evangelism takes priority over social action. But what is evangelism? Stott defines it as “announcing or proclaiming the good news of Jesus.” This proclamation centers around five things: (1) the facticity and significance of certain events, namely, Christ’s death and resurrection; (2) the reliability of the witnesses of these events—both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles; (3) the affirmations that Jesus is both Savior and Lord because of these events; (4) the promises Jesus makes to those who come to him in faith; and (5) the demands of repentance and faith that Jesus requires of those who come to him in faith.

Third, dialogue: Given that evangelism is announcement or proclamation, is there any room for religious dialogue in evangelical missiology? That all depends on what you mean by dialogue. As an evangelical, Stott argues that entering into dialogue with others is a mark of authenticity, humility, integrity, and sensitivity. Dialogue neither requires us to abandon Christ or our faith, but it requires us to identify ourselves as sinners and the people we are evangelizing as the image of God. The goal of dialogue is “mutual understanding,” but for the Christian dialogue is also “a necessary preliminary to evangelism.”

Fourth, salvation: The crucial issue in both evangelism and dialogue is salvation, but what is salvation? Stott begins by stating that it is not psychophysical health or sociopolitical liberation. These options were common among non-evangelical theologians in the late 1960s and early 70s. Rather, salvation is “personal freedom” along the following three spectra: “from judgment for sonship,” “from self for service,” and “from decay for glory.” I think it appropriate to use the theological terms justification, sanctification, and glorification as synonyms for what Stott is talking about when he uses the words salvation or personal freedom.

Fifth, conversion: Pluralism is the religious attitude of both modernity and postmodernity. Such an attitude has, as Stott puts it, a “distaste for conversion.” But the message of Jesus was conversionist in nature. He preached, “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Biblical conversion, according to Stott, has five elements: repentance, church membership, social responsibility, cultural discernment, and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit.

As an Assemblies of God pastor, I find Stott’s discussion of Christian mission useful as a corrective to missiological tendencies within my own fellowship that privilege evangelism at the expense of social action. Moreover, the theology that underlies Stott’s missiology refuses to accommodate itself to a narrow understanding of conversion that focuses on decisions for Christ at the expense of discipleship in Christ. God’s grace requires a two-fold response of faith and works, for authentic Christian belief produces changed behavior.

By the same token, however, I believe that ecclesiology is the missing element within Stott’s formulation of Christian mission. It is not merely the individual Christian’s mission to serve the world through evangelism and social action; it is the church’s. It is not merely the individual Christian who practices evangelism and dialogue; it is the church. And when individuals receive the gift of salvation and choose conversion to Christ, they do so within the context of a church. The church, in other words, is God’s mission. It is both the effect of God’s mission to the world through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and the agent of Christ’s continuing mission in the world.

Ecclesiology was not as prominent an issue in the early 1970s when Stott wrote Christian Mission in the Modern World. Thirty-four years ago, the church was still a quasi-Constantinian institution in both England and America; in other words, it was a respectable pillar of society. In 2009, we can no longer make that assumption about the church’s role. Consequently, we must focus on the churchly character of mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. But of course, no one should anachronistically fault Stott for failing to take into account these new conditions.

11 thoughts on ““Christian Mission in the Modern World” by John Stott

Add yours

  1. Never heard an AG’er critique and Anglican for faulty ecclesiology! Dig it.

    I know he’s been up in Canada, but would J.I. Packer, another Anglican I might add, qualify for an “American” counterpart to Stott?

  2. Had to think about Packer for a moment. My personal opinion is that Packer’s too overtly Reformed, that he’s not identified with any social activism, and that his bridge-building efforts (with the exception of Evangelicals and Catholics Together) has been too conservative. That’s why he’s not an American counterpart. Of course, there’s the secondary fact that he’s also British and the tertiary fact that he’s in Canada.

    Richard John Neuhaus is a better candidate for an American counterpart, except for the fact that he’s Catholic.

    Charles Colson is a bridge-builder, activist, and public intellectual, but not a pastor or a theologian.

    Brian McLaren incorporates some of the five characteristics, but he’s so identified with the evangelical far left that he cannot be a uniter like Stott is.

    Maybe Ron Sider?

    Anyway, Stott is unique.

  3. Yeah it’s a shame about McLaren and Tony Jones. I feel that they could have been uniters, but both have become lightning rods of controversy. Not that it is all their faults, certainly the over-reaction of the conservative reformed have helped mar the image.

    But, McLaren has been all over in the ‘global north’ of the Anglican world and has proved helpful there. As his ‘evangelical left’ is still right in the middle range of Anglicanism, he has really encouraged TEC to give itself over to evangelism again.

  4. I don’t think either McLaren or Jones could ever be uniters. They’re a bit too outre when it comes to mainline evangelical theology, if we can speak of such a thing. Actually, perhaps that’s a useful distinction. They’re evangelical mainliners, while Stott is a mainline evangelical. I think it’s a distinction with a difference, although I’m not sure I could define the difference precisely.

  5. Too much a theologian, not enough enough of a pastor, activist, or bridge-builder. Hey, why aren’t you commenting on this over at AGThinkTank? No one but you reads my blog.

  6. Hi George,

    Couldn’t find your email address, so I’m using this.

    Thanks for your many reviews. I enjoy reading, info, but am not the fast reader you seem to be.

    Enjoy Patterson!

    I enjoyed some fun conversations with your Dad when he was in Costa Mesa and knew the people at the law firm at which I used to work. Now I pastor as well.

    Shalom,
    Ken

  7. Hello George,
    Greetings to you in the name of our lord Saviour Jesus Christ.First iam introducing my self.My name is Rev.Ch.John babu working as a missionary kuchipudi and surrounding villages of India.We the Living Light Urban & Rural Development Society(LLURDS) is established in 1999 with our govt.regd no:39/1999.Present We have 27 orphans.We need to give food,clothing,Medicine and shelter.Each orphan needs 25$ for month.So $25*27(orphans)= $675 for month.Get a fledge to support your child.We do the Gospel and Social works. We have 25 co-workers are engeaging in 50 rural villages.We are completely depending upon faith.We need to give food,clothing,Medicine and shelter.Each evangelist family maintenence $50.So 50*25(evangelists)= $1250 for month.Now we immediately support for Orphans and evangelists.Get a fledge to support GOD’s work.For more information please visit our ministry website: http://livinglightmin.blogspot.com .Till today we didn’t get any support from anywhere in the world.We are waiting for your positive reply.May GOD Richly Bless you.

    Thanking you,
    Yours in Christ,
    Rev.Ch.John babu
    Founder & President of LLURDS India.

  8. My dear brothers and sisters in christ Love.
    Welcome and greetings to you and your family and all your ministry members from pastor N.John, India, i request you to please pray for our area poor pastors and Orphan children,
    Thank you all
    your brother in christ,
    Pastor. N.john
    E-Mail, johnnamavarapu@yahoo.co.in

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