A few days ago (April 27) friends on Facebook remembered that it would have been John Stott’s 100th birthday if he had not returned to the Lord in 2011. I realised I had never written about my debt to him. Like many evangelicals in my time, we received very little direct personal mentoring but we were mentored through reading the books of saints like Stott. He had the gift of making spiritual truth accessible and, because it was accessible, it could do its work of shaping your heart in Christlike directions. I think I heard him live once, when he gave a series of lectures at Trinity Theological College in Singapore. It was located on Mount Sophia then and I was a young dental graduate.
The Lord called me to a church-related vocation, specifically in the area of Bible teaching, and I found myself patterning my ministry after Stott’s. I realised that I wasn’t gifted to be a scholar, breaking new ground in biblical and theological studies. But I could be a populariser, making biblical truth accessible to the man in the pew. I saw Stott doing the same and I wanted to be like him. I guess we occupied the same part of the ministry sky though it must be said he was a bright and shining star and I was a twinkle, twinkle little star. He showed the way and he inspired me.
I will always be grateful for his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981). His basic thesis was that in preaching, the preacher builds a bridge between two worlds, the world of the Bible, and the world of the hearer. For the bridge to work, it must be securely anchored at both ends. Anchored in the world of the Bible, the sermon must be a product of sound exegesis that treats a text seriously, grappling hard to discover what God had in mind when He inspired the original writer to write to the original audience. But an effective sermon must also take seriously the world of the hearer. As I always ask myself when preparing a sermon — what does God want to say to this audience at this time through this sermon? To answer this question I must know something of the people I am preaching to. Indeed I must surround the whole exercise from beginning to end with prayer, asking the Lord to help me work carefully at both ends of the bridge.
Bridge building is not easy. Some speakers are excellent communicators who easily command the attention of their audiences. But sometimes I wonder if the points they are expounding arise from the text they are preaching from? On the other hand, there are speakers who are careful teachers who make sure that what they preach is what the text said but stop there, and the congregation is left wondering what the text is saying to them: What is God saying to them in real time through that passage? Preaching is very hard work. But we must be clear as to what we are working at. For this, I am indebted to the teaching and the modelling of Stott.
I met Stott personally only once. I was on my way back from Vancouver, having finished my studies at Regent. We stopped by London en route to Malaysia. I visited the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity and was received warmly by the folks there. Had a brief chat with Stott as he was making his way to a meeting. I thanked him for the warm British hospitality I had experienced at his school. He replied, “Well, I hope it was also warm Christian hospitality.” It was. So, thank you sir for the warm welcome I received from you and the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity community. And so much more.