A Clear Steer on Stott Roger Steer “Inside Story. The life of John Stott”

A Clear Steer on Stott Roger Steer “Inside Story. The life of John Stott” (IVP: 2009) A Review: by Simon Vibert

There have been lots of worthy tributes of John Stott, a man of God whose influence was felt throughout the latter half of the 20th century and resonating around the world. I am sure there will be much synthesis and analysis of his 50 books, strategic thinking, insightful logic and godly influence.

Roger Steer’s book belongs in this genre. Although it was published in 2009, in Stott’s 88th year, the biography covers his last public speaking event in Keswick in July 2007 and concludes with comments and appreciation from leaders around the world. Among many other positive comments about the book, “Inside Story” belongs among the first of such tributes and reflections on this great man of God.

On Steer

“Inside Story” provides lots of insights gleaned from Stott’s personal diary and notes, interviews with friends and careful conversation. In fewer than 300 pages Steer has managed a distillation of 90 years and 50 books. He combines biography and bibliography!

He has similar gifts of succinctness and clarity which are so admired in John Stott. For example, in summarising Stott on Evangelical Christianity, he says: Evangelicals held the three “R’s” – revelation, redemption and regeneration, associating revelation with the Father, redemption with the Son, and regeneration with the Holy Spirit. Yet the more the three persons of the Trinity were glorified, the more completely human pride was excluded. To magnify the cross of Christ was to confess our utter lostness without it. To magnify the regenerating, indwelling, and sanctifying role of the Holy Spirit was to confess our abiding self-centredness without it. (p.250).

Though in every respect a saint – a man who took holiness seriously – Uncle John would have hated hagiography. Steer has succeeded in being honest and at the same time deeply appreciative and respectful.

At times there are some clunky gear changes. The transitions from one chapter to another feel a bit arbitrary and the book tends to list rather than critique (e.g. the Peter Forster and Jim Packer comments on “double listening” on p.237 could do with some evaluation).

Nevertheless “Inside Story” is a very valuable addition to the many past (and no-doubt forthcoming) appraisals of John Stott’s ministry. Steer regularly succeeded in causing me to pause and pray; to give thanks and ask to be Christ-like in the way John Stott was. This was the fitting theme of his final Keswick appearance in June 2007: “God wants us to become like Christ. Christ-likeness is the will of God for the people of God.” (p.271).

On Stott

The John Stott we meet in “Inside Story” could be summarised as follows: He was a man of incredible self-discipline. He took seriously the challenge of Isaiah 1:18 “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord”, and was sometimes accused of “evangelical tidy mindedness”. But this gift of succinct clarity is unsurpassed in evangelical writing.

He also allowed himself to be challenged and to change, a point which Steer brings out very well. In early years, his self-discipline was perhaps in danger of leading him to an individualistic private pietism. He was challenged to learn to really listen and ultimately developed the notion of “double listening” as a model of faithful biblical preaching. His vision for setting up organisations and evangelical bodies (e.g. , EFAC, CEEC, Langham Partnership), and critical and costly intervention in the 60’s tension between Anglican Evangelicals and the Westminster Fellowship under Martyn Lloyd Jones, has implications even for today.

There is so much more to say, but not to be over-looked was Stott’s personal interest in helping the poor and downtrodden. This was eventually worked out in a thorough evangelical conviction about social concern and evangelism. I was interested to note that both Steer and Stott considered “The Cross of Christ” as his finest and most important book. Of course, the contribution this book makes to a clear understanding of penal substitution as central to the many faceted ways in which the cross may be viewed and the penetrating application of the Scripture’s teaching on what was achieved by God through the work of the cross must not be denied. However, I wonder whether enough has been made of the huge impact of “Issues Facing Christians Today” in encouraging a biblical vision for the poor and the alienated alongside the need for effective evangelism. I know that for me, reading “Issues” was a life transforming experience.


So many people will want to add their own testimony to the influence of John Stott on their life. For me, there at least four things with which I resonated strongly in Roger Steer’s book.

Firstly, I am inspired by Stott’s amazing self discipline over a lifetime matched by a willingness to change. He stayed faithful and grew in stature and wisdom. He exemplifies what Eugene Peterson calls “A long obedience in the same direction”, which is indeed a challenge to much modern, instant and “quick fix”, spirituality.

Secondly, as a preacher, Stott’s rigorous study of the text alongside the gift of succinct clarity is desperately needed in our pulpits and something which I want to be the hallmark of mine and a new generation of preachers.

Thirdly, despite the caricatures of stuffy upper class Brit (possibly justified in his early years), Roger Steer has done a good job bringing out his great interest and love for all kinds of individuals. Evangelical ministry is about application of the Word of God to people.

Finally, John Stott was a strategic thinker working with the structures of Anglicism but also with the cross-denominational networks. Here is a great lesson from Stott: work out the things you do well, hone those gifts and skills, and spend a lifetime doing them.

So, thank you Roger for a good Steer on Stott!

“I/thou” relationships in the electronic age

“I/thou” relationships in the electronic age – is the internet the preacher’s friend or foe?

 When Jewish theologian Martin Buber published his famous book “Ich und Du” in 1923 he made the important point that Christian faith is based not on “I/it” but the more interpersonal language of “I/thou”.  Existence is encounter.  God is not an object but He is a person.  We relate to God in this way because God internally relates within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  At the heart of the universe is an interpersonal God and all human relationships which flow from this foundation.

I have been thinking quite a bit about the role of modern technology and the preacher’s role.  As I have done so, Buber’s important book has been ringing in my ears.  A couple of recent encounters have stimulated my thinking.

The Medium and the Message

First, at the Evangelical Homiletics Society meeting which I attended in Chicago recently there were a number of good papers on the relationship between the preacher’s task and the use of the internet.  For some, relationship is so important that even recording sermons, let alone uploading them for a world-wide audience, spoils the preaching beyond redemption.  I partially agree.  Preaching is intended to be relational.  If, as Marshall McLuhan famously stated, The Medium is the Message then the medium of the internet has deleterious effect on preaching.  The message communicated by the internet is one of passivity, ultra-selectivity and independence.  Preaching should engage, it should interact, it should connect with people!  Thus, for some, the internet is an enemy of good preaching.

On the other hand, some have emphasised the pedagogical benefit of the internet.  After all: reading is a highly selective and individualistic activity.  But most don’t see reading as an enemy of preaching, but rather, for most people, it is a supplement to preaching.  Although, in passing, remember that for years Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones refused to allow the printing of his sermons and then only if the full unedited text was published in order that the reader could at least attempt to hear the message.

Perhaps the danger from the internet is more subtle.  After all, something is always “lost” (as well as gained) when we make use of media.  McLuhan argued that the media is an extension of the self.  Media are not just a means to an end, but they encapsulate the personality and body of the person who uses them.  They are a message in and of themselves.  McLuhan’s concern was to warn of the costs of unthinkingly using the technology, for there is always a cost involved in using such means of communication.

The “i-age”

Secondly, the highly individual nature of modern communication was observed in an article in The BBC News magazine (26.10.10) entitled i – how can one letter mean so much?  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11625862.

Commenting on the recent launch of the Independent Newspaper’s “i” edition they speculate over what it is that is so attractive about the “i”.  Apple has added to their increasing array of gadgets from the imac; to the ipod; to the iphone; to the recent ipad.  Now, the magazine notes onto the market have sprung the idog and the iteddy toys alongside their own BBC iplayer.

The new Independent, aiming at a younger audience claims to communicate concepts such as intelligence, incisiveness, interest, influence and ideas.  Young people want things to be personalised (using “my space” and personal branding, for example); they want their information to be instant, headline grabbing and easily digestible.

So, what might this all mean for today’s preachers and congregations?

Is the internet the preacher’s friend or foe?

For years I had read the (poor) translation of Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” (NIV ) in highly personalised terms:  God’s word living in my heart,  that is what keeps me on track, I had thought (of course there is some defence for this view in Psalm 119:11 “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you”).  I had a serious “aha” moment when Peter Adam rightly pointed out that the “you” is plural, and of course, the admonishing and teaching role which follows in the rest of the verse is something which happens in the corporate gathered community.  The Word of God at work among God’s people.  That’s the preacher’s task!

In a highly individualistic, web-surfing, “i” world I offer the following cautious advice for preachers using the internet:

  • beware of the disembodiment of the preacher from the hearer; and the listener from the wider body of Christ.  Christian learning happens in Christian community; 

  •  beware of pulpit plagiarism, or, more subtlety, the “drag and drop” approach to sermon preparation.  Serious thought militates against web surfing.  Books – with margins – foster deeper thought.   

  • value the plethora of good models of preaching which can be heard with the click of a mouse (my forthcoming 12 Things Good Preachers do Well has a positive take on this modern benefit).  But use resources wisely and discerningly.
  •  don’t binge or snack on homiletical fast food.  Feast and savour.
  • words matter; images are liable to distort.  Do all you can to foster the primacy of words and the Word.

 I am sure there is more.  These are my first thoughts and I would value and further discussion.   Overall, being “all things to all people in order that we might win some” seems to be a good maxim for the internet.  But be a critical user and shun the standardising individualism of our age, preferring rather to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (1 Cor 9:22; Rom 12:1-2).

uniting the rocket scientist the whale and hollywood

I have just got back from a week in Los Angeles.  I was there with fellow Wycliffe Tutors Richard Turnbull and Peter Walker.

First we led a day’s Preaching Conference at St James’ Newport Beach for local clergy, then an overnight teaching event for the congregation at St James’.  I preached the three morning services on “the ordinary and extraordinary nature of Paul’s conversion”  (1 Timothy 1:12-17).  Listen here http://stjamesnb.org/content/sermon-rev-dr-simon-vibert

I spent a very fruitful and encouraging time with Professors at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles discussing mutual interest alongside the possibility of Wycliffe being a home for American postgraduates studying in the University (http://www.biola.edu/).  

Next, a short visit to the marvellous “Ecclesia” Church which meets in a theatre on Hollywood Boulevard – what a great location to reach out with the Gospel (see http://www.churchinhollywood.com/).

Church politics is complex!  St James’ has left the Episcopal Church and is now  part of the Diocese of Western Anglicans, in the Province of the Anglican Church in North America under the oversight of Archbishop Robert Duncan.  They are in protracted legal dispute over rights to the property.  Horrible.  But it is so heartening to meet prayerful, godly, sacrificial people in this congregation who are keen to look outwards with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I hope we encouraged them in this great mission.

I left the West Coast with a sense of thankfulness that the Gospel of Jesus Christ unites believers across cultures and down the ages.  Links with Wycliffe are further encouraged by several members who have been to our Summer Schools and the possiblity of Seminarians coming here for short study stints (www.wycliffe.ox.ac.uk)

And, oh yes, I had a great sail with courtesy of a retired rocket scientist and, along with dolphins, sea lions and pelicans, got a brief glimpse of a Whale!

12 Things Good Preachers Do Well

A composite picture of a good preacher

(Summary of the forthcoming IVP book)

The 12 things good preachers do well may be summarised as:

  • apply ancient truth using contemporary engagement;
  • be aware of cultural and philosophical challenges to the Gospel;
  • inspire a passion for the glory of God;
  • let the Bible speak with simplicity and freshness;
  • be a Word and Spirit preacher;
  • use humour, anecdote and stories to generate enthusiasm and dismantle barriers;
  • create interest; apply well;
  • make much of Jesus Christ;
  • be urgent and fervent in reaching the lost;
  • persuade people by passionate argument from the Bible;
  • teach with directness, challenge and relevance;
  • preach the whole counsel of God.

 If we add to this Jesus’ authoritive sermons, Paul’s passionate plea for faithful preaching (2 Tim 4:1ff), and Barack Obama’s contemporary use of ancient rhetoric, we may state that good preaching requires the following:

 Be relevant and show how the Bible is of direct interest and application to this to your congregation today.  Immerse yourself in God’s word so that you are speaking from his agenda and not your own, and in order that people sense that God’s agenda is controlling what you are saying.

 Use humour and story, show your humanity but in a way that helps the congregation see that you have found your joy, purpose and meaning in God.  Give the congregation food for thought and send them away fed on God’s word, but at the same time wanting more.

 Work hard to make your sermon clear, simple, and memorable using repetition, alliteration, rhetorical techniques etc which work for you.  Use language and words as the well sharpened tools of your trade.  Communicate the weighty importance and urgency of what you are saying, allowing it to move you and your congregation.

 Be familiar enough with your material to speak naturally and in a way that shows that this message has already impacted you.  Don’t be bookish, but be people-ish!  Don’t disconnect with people in order to prepare a sermon.  Rather prepare sermons by loving, praying for and rubbing shoulders with the people to whom you are preaching.

 There are a number of things which we have not said about preaching in this book:  We have said almost nothing about prayer and very little about the godliness and integrated life of the preacher.   We have concentrated on the act of preaching itself and noted the good things which preachers do well.  In fact none of the things listed above will be accomplished in preaching if the preacher is not growing as a Christian and deeply committed to preaching as a spiritual task. 

 The word that it sometimes used to describe such preaching is sometimes is unction:

There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh, but with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections and comes immediately from the Word; but if there be any way to obtain such a thing, it is by the heavenly disposition of the speaker. [1]

Unction is the word that is used to describe the extraordinary way in which God transforms the human words of the preacher in such a way that they come with the full force of God’s word: challenged the spirit and giving the hearer the sense that the living God has personally addressed me today.  I long for more of that preaching today, don’t you?

[1]  Attributed to E.M. Bounds, http://www.reformationandrevival.org.uk/5.html

Preaching Survey – The results are in!

Many thanks to all who responded to my two questions:

1.  Who is your most favorite living preacher(s) to listen to?

 2.  Can you name what it is that they do that makes you listen?

I polled students and those on my email address book; I also received a number of results via my Facebook page.  So far, over 200 people have replied.  I do not intend to produce a “most favorite preacher” list (which would be unedifying).  Moreover, my survey was intended to give a “gut” reaction rather than a scientific survey.

The purpose of the survey is twofold

  • It assists me in writing the book “Things which 12 popular preachers do well”;
  •  The observations made about preaching and preachers will end up becoming part of a soon-to-be launched website on preaching and preachers.

I shared the following comments with my students recently:-

1.  Good preachers manifest Humanity (vulnerability, empathy, warmth), Humour (Story-telling, insight); Holiness (Spirit’s presence, unction, awe, Christ-centered); Heartiness (anointing, urgent, passion). As Jonathan Edwards put it: there is Heat & Light.  This is not the totality of things which good preachers do well, but they certainly feature highly in the congregations sense that the preacher has enabled them to meet with the living God through their sermon.

2. Whilst some of the top preachers include, in no particular order (although I now feel like one of X Factor judges!): John Piper, Simon Ponsonby, Mark Driscoll, Rico Tice, Christopher Ash, John Stott, Tim Keller, Dick Lucas (and there were many more!) – I agree with the comment that someone made:  “I would put down (…) as my favorite ‘big name’ preacher, but in fact, the faithful week-in-week out preaching of my local Vicar is what nourishes me as a Christian.”  I am not interested in starting a guru mentality or personality cult, but rather, I would like us to learn from those who preach well and understand why they connect with us.

3.  Finally, I think Tim Keller is spot on when he says to preachers:

If you put in too much time in your study on your sermon you put in too little time being out with people as a shepherd and a leader. Ironically, this will make you a poorer preacher. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be–someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership (along with private prayer) are to a great degree sermon preparation. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Through pastoral care and leadership you grow from being a Bible commentator into a flesh and blood preacher.

I have much more to say in this topic, so watch this space!

Make a house a home

Make a house a home

 Some thoughts on preaching which hits home

We are preparing to move house again soon (2 miles across the other side of Oxford).  As we prepare for the process of transporting all our possessions from one house to another my thoughts turned to what makes a house a home?  The bare structure and location of a property only becomes home when it feels lived in and starts to reflect the personality of its inhabitants.

The same could be said to be true of preaching.  Many sermons which I listen to show evidence of structure, design and effort.  But they often don’t feel lived in.  They lack the warmth and personality which only comes when the preacher has inhabited the text for themselves and taken it home.

What are some of the errors which sermons make?  You can probably think of more, but these few thoughts came to mind.


When you first move into your new house boxes get emptied and mounds of clothing, books etc. await proper ‘filing away’.  Should someone come to visit the chances are their coat will need to be draped over a chair or put on the bed.  Hopefully, in time, pegs will appear upon which you may hang your coat.

In a similar way, many sermons which I hear offer nowhere to ‘hang your hat’ so to speak.  There is content, but it lacks pegs.  Without this attention to structure, the hearer can struggle to navigate their way through the sermon.  Without pegs it is unlikely that hearers will be able remember salient points of the sermon for the week ahead.

Rhetoric gets a bad name today. But the later Greek sophists (Isocrates. Cicero etc.) believed Rhetoric to be the ability to speak with such clarity that the audience would be persuaded.  Philosophers think clearly.  Rhetoricians think clearly out loud.  Preachers should be doing the same.  This will in part be reflected by careful attention to the structure and form of the sermon.


It takes time for a house to become a home.  Over time the inhabitants will begin to stamp their own personality on their property – hanging curtains, arranging flowers, decorating to taste etc. 

Many sermons I hear lack personality.  Phillip Brooks’ now famous comment that preaching is “communication of truth through personality” is exactly right.  Obviously we don’t want the sermon to be littered with personal anecdotes and stories.  It is not supposed to be a talk about them.  However, congregations listen when they can see that for the preacher the message has hit home personally.

They have been moved by the message they are preaching.  They have made the connections as to how it applies to their own life.


Sermons which hit home are those which apply pertinently and pointedly to today’s world.  They are illustrated in real life.

Too many sermons I hear leave me only in the world of the text.  Now, of course, this is not the worst problem, there are equally many messages that never take me to the world of the text and only start in the world of today.  I guess the former may be the weakness of evangelical expository preaching; the latter is the weakness of liberal preaching.

John Stott has regularly repeated the need to engage in “double listening” – Hearing the voice of the text; hearing the voice of the world. 

When you move into a new house you are inclined to think: however did they live with that wallpaper?  How come they didn’t modernise the bathroom suite etc.  But of course, it is very difficult to see your environment and culture from the fresh perspective of an outsider. 

As preachers we need to retain the fresh “eyes” of an outsider, someone who has not spent the whole week labouring over the text, and who can see the difficult punchy questions which might need addressing.

At home in the sermon

By this expression I don’t at all mean that preaching should be psychologically therapeutic, only comforting and devotional.  What I think I mean is that I expect preaching to give me pegs (to help me recall and apply the bible to my life in the week ahead); personality (so I feel that the preacher has met with God in his preparation); punch (I see the issue with a freshness and pertinence for the week ahead).

Feeding your soul and weeding out sin

I was preaching on Matthew 5:27-30 today and used an extended illustration of the health of the lawn being analogous to the health of the human heart.


I know it is hard to imagine this at the moment but try to think back to the hot summer months in sultry heat (!), enjoying the lushness of the garden, with a gentle hum of electric fly mowers in the background.


It can be quite irritating to have the peace and quiet of summer shattered by lawn mowers, but I suspect that many people mow their lawn frequently as a fairly fool proof way of making the garden look nice and well tended.


At the heart of the growing season, if you leave your lawn for little more than a week tell-tale signs of its true nature will be revealed.  This is certainly true in my case.  If I fail to mow regularly, the apparently lush, well tended lawn shows its true nature – dandelions begin to sprout yellow and eventually shower umbrella seed replicating themselves all over the lawn.  Big green dock leaves shade the delicate grass.  Untendered weeds spoil what initially appeared to be a lush lawn.


You see the problem with only cutting the grass is that it deals superficially with the weeds.  It doesn’t deal with root causes.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount tells me that I must not live the Christian life at the level of superficial appearances.  I can fool other people most of the time; I can fool myself some of the time; but I can never fool God


There are two more fundamental care issues related to my lawn which need attending to if I am going to have a healthy lawn – they involve feeding the soil and weeding out the roots of the intruder!


Feeding your spiritual lawn means tending your heart.  Psalm 119:9-11 this:

How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.  I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.  I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (NIV)


Tending to the state of the heart needs to happen in order for the Christian to be healthy and pure and not controlled by lust.


Weeding your spiritual lawn requires pulling out sin at its source

Behind adultery lies lust (And behind murder lies anger).  In order to deal with  lust radical action is required – metaphorically gouging out eyes and chopping of wayward hands.  Controlling what we watch and controlling what we do with our hands is necessary for a godly Christian life.  If I make myself blind, deaf, mute and paraplegic, yet retain my soul then I am of greater value than if I have a beautiful body and prefect facilities yet corrupt my soul…


As ever, Jesus’ words challenge and provoke.  But a godly life is a healthy life and, moreover is the only way to avoid hell!


See www.simonvibert.com for full sermon.