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Lessons from John Stott

What Greg Scharf learned working with a preacher known for breathtakingly clear exposition.
John Stott was committed to being mastered by the text of Scripture.

PreachingToday.com: Greg, give us the background of how you ended up working with John Stott.

Greg Scharf: When I was a senior at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1970s, John was invited to teach preaching. I wasn't originally in the course, because I registered later than some others, and I went to the registrar and said, " Who do I have to bribe to get into this class? " He said, " If you get the instructor's signature that would be okay. " So I took it to Uncle John, as many of us in our generation refer to him — I didn't then but I do now — and asked him to sign that. He said sure. So I got into his class and in that class got to know him.

One of his grad assistants had spent time with Campus Crusade in Britain and arranged for me a 15-minute appointment with John. He said, " We're establishing an internship at All Souls, and I'd be happy if you applied for that. " Having done that I went over immediately after finishing the M.Div. in 1973 and was there for a year as an intern. Then they asked me to join the staff and work with university students, and I was there for a further two-and-a-half years, so three-and-a-half years altogether in the mid '70s.

How did this name Uncle John come about?>

All of us who know John Stott hold him in such reverence that overfamiliarity was a bit awkward, and he, being a proper British man, also wasn't comfortable with that. So we needed something between Dr. Stott and " hey, you, " and Uncle John became his preferred form of address.

Working with John Stott as you did for several years, were there any particular stories that typify who he is?>

There were a number of fun stories about Uncle John because of his discipline as a person. He was able to do whatever he needed to get done what he needed to get done. A number of us had lunch together in the basement of the rectory. After lunch one day I asked him, " Do you have a moment? " And his answer was, " Just. " He meant it, and I took it and nothing more, because I knew he was a disciplined person.

Tell us some of the things you saw in him that make him the excellent preacher he is.>

There are many of these. At 82 years young, he's still very sharp and disciplined as a thinker and preacher. One of the major things is his commitment to being mastered by the text of Scripture. He wrote early on, " The real secret of expository preaching is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions. " So his fundamental commitment is that it's not a matter of methodology but of theology. That has transformed the way he approaches the task of preparing to preach.

He wrote about the nature of exposition. I'm quoting now from Authentic Christianity from the writings of John Stott. It was put together by Timothy Dudley Smith and published in 1995 by IVP:

Christian preaching is not the proud ventilation of human opinions. It's the humble exposition of God's Word. Biblical expositors bring out of Scripture what is there. They refuse to thrust into the text what is not there. They pry open what appears closed, make plain what seems obscure, unravel what is knotted, and unfold what is tightly packed. In expository preaching the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different topic nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but a master which dictates and controls what is said.

It's that understanding of what preaching is that shaped everything Uncle John does when he preaches.>

And yet, he wouldn't want to leave the impression that it's just a matter of us and the text. It's really us and the Lord. In fact, he wrote somewhere else:

It seems to me that one might well single out freshness of spiritual experience as the first indispensable quality of the effective preacher. No amount of homiletical technique can compensate for the absence of a close personal walk with God. Unless he puts a new song in our mouth, even the most polished sermons will lack the sparkle of authenticity.

One funny story about him in this regard was when he was preaching at some event away from London and took the train to this other British city. He had a few moments at the rail station after he got there. He wanted to prepare himself spiritually and recognized he might not have the time or freedom to do that once he was at the venue of his preaching opportunity, so he went over into a corner and silently began to meditate and pray, facing the corner. And when he finished his spiritual preparation, he turned around and there was a crowd of people staring at him, wondering what this strange man was doing looking at the wall.

Spiritual preparation and spiritual freshness were always key. I remember many times he would pause significantly in silence before leading prayer in public as well as in smaller gatherings, and it was a great reminder and example that prayer is coming into the presence of the holy triune God and is not to be done frivolously or less than thoughtfully.

Give us some other things you saw in John Stott.>

I mentioned his commitment to hard work. He is a disciplined person. John Stott on a bad day is way ahead of most of us on a good day. He's right there intellectually. A lot of that is God's grace and the fruit of much hard work.

Some people say you don't need to prepare; just rely on the Holy Spirit. He himself was a diligent preparer. And he wrote about that:

There's no need for me to prepare before preaching, someone argues. I'll rely on the Holy Spirit to give me the words. Jesus himself promised that it would be given to me in that hour what to say.
Such talk sounds plausible until we remember that the misquotation of Scripture is the devil's game. Jesus was referring to the hour of persecution, not of proclamation, and to the prisoner's dock in a law court, not the pulpit in a church. Trust in the Holy Spirit is not intended to save us the bother of preparation. The Holy Spirit can indeed give us utterance if we are suddenly called upon to speak and there has been no opportunity to prepare, but he can also clarify and direct our thinking in our study. Indeed, experience suggests that he does a better job there than in the pulpit.

So John was committed to disciplined study. He also made his routine work for him. As many disciplined people, he had a routine in life. For a number of years he took Tuesday off. His plan was to handle routine administrative things on Monday. We had staff meeting on Monday mornings, and then there were letters to write, responses to be made to people's inquiries. But his commitment was to do something on Sunday's sermon on Monday, even though he had all these other administrative things to attend to. He would take Tuesday off and then come back and hit it hard on Wednesday, developing through the week his preparation for Sunday morning. Then Saturday morning was sacrosanct — he spent that time in focused, undistracted work on the preparation for Sunday morning.

Sounds as though he preached once a week.>

His commitment was to try to preach no more than once a week on a regular schedule. I remember him saying that preaching Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night was not the best for the preacher or the congregation. Obviously, he was aware that many people like Luther and Wesley and others preached many more times than that, but he was committed to looking deeper into a single text if possible. Of course, All Souls had many who preached. When I was there, there were a dozen of us who shared the preaching. Many of us of course don't have that luxury of being able to dictate the number of times we expound God's Word, but that was the pattern there.

So you preached some sermons he heard there at All Souls.>

It was a daunting experience to preach with John Stott there. Because I'd had him for preaching class and he critiqued my messages at Trinity, I knew sort of what would happen. I can remember like it was yesterday the first sermon I preached that he critiqued. He was exceedingly gracious and helpful, pointing out such things as my words needed to be more concrete and less abstract. I suffered from what most newly minted M.Div.'s suffer from, which is wanting to say everything we know in every message we preach, and also using language that sounds more like the academy than the street corner or the marketplace. He helpfully pointed that out, and I began to work on that.

Another thing about John Stott was his undistractability. After a service when people would queue up in the foyer of All Souls to speak with him, a bomb would almost have to go off for you to be able to get eye contract with him unless you were the person he was committed to speaking to. Thoroughly undistractable, a great example of pastoral focus. But this also was part of his preaching. He knew how to get to the point, to focus. Analysis of the text he was preaching was so rigorous he could get into that and then preach it through to the heart.

Another thing I would say about Uncle John's preparation is that preparation wasn't just what he did that week but it's what he did the whole of his life. He remains a reader of all kinds of literature. Part of this is his commitment to what he calls dual listening — listening to the text of Scripture and listening to those in the world who are articulating for our day what the problems are that the gospel addresses. He did something I greatly valued and consider wise for any pastor, and that is to start a reading group of likeminded people to read contemporary books and discuss what they learned from those books. He's had such a group as long as I have known him, and I was grateful for that example and was part of such a group most places I have been. The value in that is that preaching functions, as John Stott refers to it, as a bridge. It gets us from the biblical world into the contemporary world. And if we don't know where the contemporary end of that bridge is going to touch down, it's not going to be an effective bridge. So this is the business of dual listening, letting our contemporaries tell us where their hearts are and what their needs are, so when we've been into the biblical world we can get across that bridge with the truth that's there.

How did you see the effect of that in his sermons?>

His sermons were riveting not only because of their clarity but because of their spiritual insightfulness. He quoted not as widely as some do, because he had this conviction that a sermon with too many illustrations is like a woman with too many jewels. He didn't overdo illustrative material, but every illustration he used counted and a number of those illustrations were contemporary but not superficial or flimsy.

That's an interesting observation. How many illustrations on average would he use in a sermon? Like one or two contemporary illustrations and the rest exposition and application?>

That wouldn't be too far off. It was sparse by many people's reckoning, because John Stott is a Bible teacher. So a good part of the time would have been spent digging into the text. This was a great thing for me, having gone to serve there in London just after finishing my M.Div. I was still in the process of putting my theology together. I had lots of pieces, lot of resources, plenty of good tools, but I needed to put it together. So hearing him preach and pull things together from the text of Scripture was especially rich in that respect.

Was there anything else about his sermons that made them characteristically John Stott?>

I remember hearing a number of those messages when the clarity of it, just as clear as crystal, stood out so dramatically I found myself wondering, Could it be any clearer than this? Could the text of Scripture be more powerfully spoken than this?

One time I remember sitting after a service letting the Word sink in. It wasn't quite an out-of-body experience, but it was certainly an out-of-the-ordinary experience. It was a wonderful time of letting the Word get through by virtue of its own power, reinforced by the authenticity of his life, honed by the discipline of his careful preparation, and driven home not by meaningless repetition but by forceful, clear statement.

There are a number of other things from which we could learn. One of these was John Stott's excellent diction. He articulated carefully. He paced himself well. But these things never had the feel of affectation. They were an overflow of who he is as a person.

I'm also encouraged by how pastoral ministry and preaching go together. John Stott said pastors always make the best preachers because they know the people to whom they are preaching. This has been my experience, having pastored for 25 years but now being at Trinity on the faculty in practical theology. It's much more difficult for me to preach by invitation at places where I don't know the people than to preach week-by-week in a setting where I know and love the people. And there's another reason why pastors are the best preachers, which is the understanding of Scripture, digging in to get the theology of it, must of necessity relate to the needs and challenges and daily lives of the people to whom they're preaching, and it forces us to ask quality questions about the text that may not even occur to people who are studying it for other reasons.

Another habit Uncle John had was to get feedback on his sermons from the sharpest people in the congregation. He tended to ask medical students to give him feedback on his messages, because they were trained in analysis and observation.

Here is someone who is an eminence as a great preacher, and yet he's still seeking feedback.>

Absolutely. I recommend that highly and was grateful that in my own ministry a young graduate student named Todd Rasmuson came to do a masters in communication in our community. He's now the president of Mission: Moving Mountains. I said, " Let's do a trade here. I'll disciple you if you'll critique my sermons. " Fortunately we met on Wednesdays for that purpose, so I was emotionally less raw, and he gave me good feedback. But I probably wouldn't have asked for that if it hadn't been for the example of John Stott asking for feedback on his messages.

He wrote one of his great quotes on the glory of preaching in 1992:

I pity the preacher who enters the pulpit with no Bible in his hands, or with a Bible which is more rags and tatters than the Word of God. He cannot expound Scripture, because he has no Scripture to expound. He cannot speak, for he has nothing worth saying. But to enter the pulpit with the confidence that God has spoken, that he has caused what he has spoken to be written, and that he has this inspired text in our hands, ah, then our heads begin to swim, our hearts to beat, our blood to flow, our eyes to sparkle with the sheer glory of having God's Word in our hands and on our lips.

There is this conviction that the Bible is the Word of God and that it still speaks. The New Testament commentaries of which Uncle John is the series editor are called The Bible Speaks Today, because this conviction runs deeply. John would now, I think, prefer to define preaching as opening the Word of God so God is heard to speak and God's people obey. Again, it's this emphasis not on the details of methodology or the technology of preaching but on the spiritual reality of what we've got in our hands.

When John Stott would go into the pulpit, which was one of these affairs with stairs, he would go up into the pulpit, kneel down, and pray right there for everybody to see. And there was a little brass plaque on that pulpit: " Sir, we would see Jesus. " It was evident from his demeanor and from his commitment to prayer that he wanted people to see Jesus and to hear Jesus.

He often prayed a prayer at the beginning of every message that would have been repetitive if it wasn't so basic and profound, asking the Lord Jesus to be our teacher and the Holy Spirit to be our guide. I'm not quoting it with precision, but it was fundamental that he expected God to speak by his Holy Spirit through the Word. That's why he could go into the pulpit with such joy and confidence and yet with profound humility.

Did he ever give coaching or mentoring with you in which he would bring out some of these principles with special force?>

I met with him after I preached every time, and he would give me specific feedback on the weaknesses and challenges of that message. But most of his teaching during my time at All Souls was by example. I do remember being with him at another church event where someone theologically misrepresented the person of the Holy Spirit, and he shook his head and said, " Years of teaching down the drain. " He was sensitive to the fact that preaching needs to be theologically accurate every time it's presented. This was a celebrity sort of an individual whose word might have been elevated to a status that was unfortunate when he was wrong about this particular thing.

I also remember once praying with John Stott and the choir before going to the service. He turned to me just before the service and asked if I would pray. As I did so, I inadvertently referred to the Holy Spirit as it rather than he. And as he prayed before the sermon before the whole congregation, he spoke of referring to the Holy Spirit always as he, never as an it . That impressed upon me indelibly the importance of theological accuracy not only in what we say when we're preaching but in our prayers and, indeed, in our casual conversations. There was reinforcement from all sorts of angles, but the training was primarily by example during the time I was at All Souls.

How did you see his theological depth? What was the root of that?>

He reads widely, including non-evangelicals, and interacts alertly with them. His book on the cross is perhaps the one that stands out in that respect. And of course, his theological training at Trinity College, Cambridge, a place which was not known as a bastion of evangelical theology in the 1940s when he was a student there, prepared him for that kind of robust interaction with people who didn't read the text as evangelicals would.

But the major thing was his humble submission to the text of Scripture itself and reliance on the Holy Spirit speaking through it. I remember when we would be having a Bible study as a staff his patience in waiting on the text. He reminds us in one of his books that we must patiently wait on the text to disclose its point to us, not rushing it but just waiting, looking, meditating until the focus of that text emerges and is clear. I know he often studied the Scripture on his knees, and he recommended that at least figuratively if not literally we are in submission to the text. That's a great thing about his preparation for preaching that overshadows any of the other more technical things.

Preaching comes out of the soul and the spirit of a person.>

A person humbly submitted to Scripture, so the Scripture has spoken what it is saying first to the preacher and then through the preacher to the people, so when they hear the voice of the preacher, they actually hear God speaking.

In 1982 John wrote:

Word and worship belong indissolubly to each other. All worship is an intelligent and loving response to the revelation of God, because it is the adoration of his name. Therefore, acceptable worship is impossible without preaching, for preaching is making known the name of God, and worship is praising the name of the Lord made known. Far from being an alien intrusion into worship, the reading and preaching of the Word are actually indispensable to it. The two cannot be divorced. Indeed, it is their unnatural divorce which accounts for the low level of so much contemporary worship. Our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor, and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor. But when the Word of God is expounded in its fullness and the congregation begins to glimpse the glory of the living God, they bow down in solemn awe and joyful wonder before his throne. It is preaching which accomplishes this, the proclamation of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. That is why preaching is unique and irreplaceable.

Greg Scharf is the professor emeritus of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of Prepared to Preach (Christian Focus).

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