Monday, February 2, 2009

Book Review: The Living Church by John Stott

Stott, John. The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008. Jacketed hardcover, 192 pages.

(Review copy courtesy of InterVarsity Press.)

Purchase: IVP | WTS | Amazon | CBD

Reviewed by Don Palmer

John Stott celebrated his 86th birthday in 2007, and this, his latest book has the sub-title "Convictions of a lifelong pastor." However, at no point does this book slip into the realms of mere nostalgia.

His preface explains that the book’s purpose is "to bring together a number of characteristics authentic or living church." His style of writing is delightful, and consists of alternating compound sentences and short pithy statements. As one would expect, it consists of a doctrine of the Church or "Ecclesiology" that is dynamic and engaging. It does not consist of relating the latest sociological, demographic or philosophical changes in the West that impact on the Church and its effectiveness or otherwise. Instead, Stott concentrates on a concise and memorable analysis of modernism, and post-modernism and draws us back to Biblical perceptions of what the Church of God is, the task God calls us to, and what should characterize us. At a time when we are beset with the cult of the individual, in which truth is relativized, when absolute truth is replaced by "your truth" and "my truth," it is a call to live under the authority of God’s truth. Believing without belonging is not an option. Stott characteristically speaks of "that grotesque anomaly, an unchurched Christian." Yet there is nothing tired about Stott’s perceptions of the Church, no idealizing of the Early Church, but a measuredness that is both constructive and critical.

As ever, his analysis is practical. In writing about the fellowship of the Church Stott draws out the importance of the small fellowship. "There is always something unnatural and subhuman about large crowds. They tend to be aggregations rather than congregations - aggregations of unrelated persons." This is so fundamental when we look at our Lord’s own ministry. This characterized, for example, early Methodism, yet it has often been neglected. Bonhomie is never confused with fellowship in prayer and Bible study. Indeed the chapter on Koinonia teases out the life of the Christian within the body of Christ: a fellowship which engages and relates around the scriptures, but encompasses prayer, mutual service and support. It is always sad when a church degenerates to the level of a "collective" in which sectional interests, be it the choir, the fund raising group, or the Women’s Fellowship only relate to each other in an entirely superficial way.

Other sections in the book expound worship, evangelism, models of ministry, preaching, principles of giving, and the importance of Christian distinctiveness. At a time when we are celebrating the bi-centenary of the passing of the act to end the British slave trade, Dr. Stott’s little book challenges us to bring Christian perceptions and values into the arena of public life. Example, apologetics, ethical thinking and action are advocated together with focused prayer.

Three historical appendices appear at the end of this useful book, and touch on personal experience and convictions over a period of thirty-five years. They are a fitting ending to an expository work with a lightness of touch and easy-to-follow headings.

John Stott’s work covers a very broad remit in just 160 pages plus appendices. It deserves to be widely read, studied, and prayed over by both individuals and groups of Christians. It is itself a Vision Statement, written by one who has exercised a worldwide ministry and has all the hallmarks of a man of scholarship: a superb wordsmith who has lost none of his vitality.

Don Palmer lives in Toronto, is the Sr Pastor of Forest Brook Community Church, and is completing MDiv studies through Tyndale College & Seminary.