The Living Church

The Living Church by John Stott is an excellent book for pastors and would be a helpful read for many congregations.  It is an accessible book on the life of the church, where John Stott shows again why he has influenced evangelicalism for decades.  His writing is clear, biblical, and urges strategic risk-taking for Christ’s mission of making disciples.

His introduction begins with a survey of ’emerging churches.’  Like Jim Belcher he urges cooperation between emerging churches and tradiationalists without condoning the movement carte blanche (15).  Tongue-in-cheek, Stott calls for more “R.C.” churches, that is “radically conservative” churches which “conserve what Scripture plainly requires, but [are] ‘radical’ in relation to the combination of tradition and convention which we call ‘culture'” (15).  In this way, Stott purposes, “to bring together a number of characteristics of what [he] call[s] an authentic or living church” (15).  I appreciate Stott’s willingness to listen and be radical, while maintaining a solid grasp of Biblical truth that undergirds his book and shapes his analysis.  To that we turn.

Chapter 1 lists a number of church ‘essentials.’  Drawn out of Acts 2, Stott suggests that the church must be a learning, caring, worshiping, evangelizing body of believers.  The ebb and flow of church life is going out with the message of the gospel and then coming together to teach, love, share, and worship collectively.  Chapters 2-8 unpack these living essentials. 

In chapter 2, Stott explains that genuine worship is fourfold.  It must be biblical, congregational, Spiritual, and moral (think: pure and holy).  This is a powerful chapter and one that undoes the idea that contemporary worship revolves around competing styles and certain kinds of music.  True worship is something far more substantial (see David Peterson’s Engaging With God for more on this).  Honing in on music, Stott writes, “what is essential…is the biblical content of hymns and songs” (43).  I couldn’t agree more.

Chapter 3 follows with an every member ministry approach to evangelism that challenges the entire church to be on mission with/for Jesus.   Recognizing personal evangelism and mass evangelism as viable and biblical means of sharing the good news, Stott points to a better way, the church itself, as the venue for the most effective evangelism (49).  In theory, Stott asserts that every church must understand itself theologically, organize itself structurally, express itself verbally, and be itself morally and spiritually. (Stott unfolds these with greater precision in the chapter).  In very practical terms, Stott lists a number of evaluative questions to help assess the local mission field of any church as well as discerning the kind of resources a church has for evangelistic outreach.

Chapter 4 continues Stott’s emphasis on ‘every member ministry,’ though he turns to consider further the pastoral responsibilities in the church.  He reminds pastors that their primary focus is teaching and that pastoral leadership is a shared assignment–the church benefits from multiple pastor/elders.  (As a point of disagreement in this chapter, Stott gives permission for women to teach men (83), when the Bible explicitly teaches in 1 Timothy 2 that God has called men to be leaders and teachers in the local church.   This is not culturally conditioned; it is established in creation (1 Tim 2:11-15)  See Wayne Grudem and John Piper (eds.),  Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)

In Chapter 5, Stott unpacks his understanding of fellowship in general and small groups in particular.  Biblically, he argues that it is not good for man to be alone and it is good for the people of God to gather together in one another’s homes.  Historically, there has been tremendous fruit that has grown out of prayer groups, Sunday Schools, and other small groups.  And practically, smaller groups facilitate relationships, sharing, and caring for one another that larger settings disallow.  Simple, yes; but still this kind of ministry lacks effective application in so many churches.

Chapter 6, which is on preaching, surely draws from Stott’s larger work on the subject, Between Two WorldsStott likens preaching to bridge-building, as he does in BTW and lists five paradoxes.  The preacher must Biblical and Contemporary, Authoritative and Tentative, Prophetic and Pastoral, Gifted and Studied, Thoughtful and Passionate.  These polarities are challenging for even experienced preachers, and surely motivating for preachers who want to engage the people of God with the Word of God.  One instance worth nothing, that struck me as useful, has been Stott’s participation in a reading group since 1972.  These men read non-Christian books that help them better understand the culture.  Surely Stott’s ability to apply the Bible to the world is in part a fruit of this discipline.  He suggests that all preachers should do something similar, while not letting go of God’s Word.

Chapter 7 gives 10 priniciples about giving from the book of 2 Corinthians.  This is Stott at his finest, engaging the text in order to draw out practical examples and principles for Christian living.  This would be a great meditation for anyone considering how to think biblically about finances.  (Cf. Randy Alcorn’s The Treasure Principle).

Finally, Chapter 8 challenges the gospel-telling church to simultaneously be salt and light in the world (Matt 5:13-16).  Stott makes it a point to show how salubrious salt and light are and how the impact of local churches benefit the communities in which they reside.  Practically speaking, he gives 6 weapons for cultural engagement: (1) prayer, (2) evangelism, (3) example, (4) [apologetic] argument, (5) action, and (6) suffering.  This is one of the areas that the neo-evangelical movement and now the emerging church is right to challenge the church.  We must be better at loving and serving our communities, and yet we cannot hide the gospel or muffle its message of salvation and judgment.

Overall, Stott’s book is a fine treatment on the local church.  Engaging, missions-minded, biblical, and wise are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe it.  However, in the American, baptist (SBC) context in which I live and minister, I was a little disappointed; not because I devalue Stott’s Anglican heritage, in fact, I am thankful for it, but because the numerous parochial examples relating to commission reports and decisions within the Anglican church would be confusing to many in my church.  Again, I commend the book to pastors without reservation, but I would be slower to recommend it for use in every congregation.  You simply have to know your flock, and judge accordingly. 

Soli Deo Gloria, dss