From a document written by John Stott in January 1992, entitled, “The Langham Trust’s Strategic Vision”
A new mission situation is developing in today’s world, which demands a revolution in our traditional thinking. The churches of the Third World [now called the Majority World] are growing more rapidly than in the west. Many of them are more vibrant and vigorous, and soon their missionaries will outnumber those sent out from the west. Already a majority of the worlds’ Christians are non-western and non-white.
The question is what we in the west may be able to contribute (with a love that is genuinely fraternal and free of paternalism) to the continuing growth into Christian maturity of the burgeoning churches of the Majority World.
Many Majority World Christian leaders would reply that the greatest need is for more pastors who take their teaching and preaching responsibilities with due seriousness. If it is true (as Jesus said quoting from Deuteronomy) that human beings live not on bread alone but on God’s Word, it is equally true of churches. Churches live, grow and flourish by the Word of God, and they languish and die without it. This is a lesson from history. As Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones put it, ‘the decadent eras and periods of church history have always been those in which preaching has declined.’ Conversely, whenever the Word of God is faithfully expounded and applied, congregations grow in both size and depth.
If the great need is a rise in the standards of biblical preaching, how can we help to ensure a steady supply of better preachers? The Langham Trust [now called Langham Partnership] has felt called to focus on two. These concern:
Here is the logic as I see it. First, churches depend very largely on their pastors. Secondly, pastors [those who are able to be trained in seminary] depend on their seminaries, where they are either made or marred, either equipped or ruined. Thirdly, seminaries depend on their faculty, who influence their students for good or ill by their teaching and example. Fourthly, these faculty members need to be well qualified, both in academic ability and in spiritual maturity. In these four simple steps we have traced the welfare of local churches back to the quality of seminary teachers. That is the logic of the Langham Scholars programme. Our vision should be unashamedly to help capture the seminaries of the world for the gospel. And in order to do this, we have to ensure (as far as we can) that the world’s seminaries are staffed by scholar-saints – that is, by men and women who combine in themselves academic excellence and personal godliness.
How much our books mean to us in the affluent west! We could hardly contemplate life without them. Yet I have been in a number of pastors’ homes in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in which the total number of visible books was barely a dozen. I also remember a Christian worker from Soweto whose eyes glistened when he was given a book: it was the first which he had ever possessed, apart from his Bible.
But good preaching is impossible without study, and study is impossible without books. So the Evangelical Literature Trust [now Langham Literature] was formed to make reliable books available to pastors, scholars and seminary students and libraries in the Majority World, either free of charge or at greatly reduced prices.
It is important to understand that John Stott did not think that it was only the Majority World church that was in need of greater maturity and growth with depth. He considered it to be a global phenomenon – affecting the west as much as the rest. This extract from another Personal Vision statement from 1996 makes this clear.
The statistics of church growth are enormously encouraging. But it is often growth without depth, and there is much superficiality everywhere. As in first-century Corinth, there is a tension between the divine ideal and the human reality, between what is and what ought to be, between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’. Thus the church is both united and divided, both holy and unholy, both the guardian of truth and prone to error.
Everywhere the church boasts great things, and everywhere it fails to live up to its boasts. Its witness is marred by conspicuous failures – for example by litigation in India (Christians taking one another to court, in defiance of the plain teaching of the apostle Paul), by tribalism in Africa (so that appointments are made more according to tribal origin than to spiritual fitness), by leadership scandals in North America (revealing a lack of adequate accountability), by apathy and pessimism in Europe (the consequence of 250 years of Enlightenment rationalism), by hierarchy in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures (which owes more to Confucius than to Christ), by anti-intellectual emotionalism in Latin America, and everywhere by the worldly quest for power, which is incompatible with the ‘meekness and gentleness of Christ’.
All sorts of remedies are proposed for the reformation and renewal of the church, and for its growth into maturity. But they tend to be at the level of technique and methodology. If we probe more deeply into the church’s sickness, however, we become aware of its need for more potent medicine, namely the Word of God.
Jesus our Lord himself, quoting from Deuteronomy, affirmed that human beings live not by material sustenance only, but by the spiritual nourishment of God’s Word (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4). The Apostle Paul wrote something very similar. He defined the goal of his ministry in terms of presenting everybody mature in Christ. How did he hope to attain this goal? Answer, by proclaiming Christ (Col. 1:28-29). It is when people see Christ in his fullness that their faith, obedience and worship are stimulated and so they become mature. It is the Word of God, confirmed and enforced by the Spirit of God, which effectively matures and sanctifies the People of God.
If God reforms his people by his Word, precisely how does his Word reach and transform them? In a variety of ways, no doubt, including their daily personal meditation in the Scripture. But the principal way God has chosen is to bring his Word to his people through his appointed pastors and teachers. For he has not only given us his Word; he has also given us pastors to teach the people out of his Word (e.g. Jn. 21:15-17; Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 4:13). We can hardly exaggerate the importance of pastor-preachers for the health and maturity of the church.
My vision, as I look out over the world, is to see every pulpit in every church occupied by a conscientious, Bible-believing, Bible-studying, Bible-expounding pastor. I see with my mind’s eye multitudes of people in every country world-wide converging on their church every Sunday, hungry for more of God’s Word. I also see every pastor mounting his pulpit with the Word of God in his mind (for he has studied it), in his heart (for he has prayed over it until it has inflamed him), and on his lips (for he is intent on communicating it).
What a vision! The people assemble with hunger, and the pastor satisfies their hunger with God’s Word! And as he ministers to them week after week, I see people changing under the influence of God’s Word, and so approximating increasingly to the kind of people God wants them to be, in understanding and obedience, in faith and love, in worship, holiness, unity, service and mission.
An ambiguous church – needing the Word of God – dependent on faithful pastor-preachers to bring it to them. What can we do to implement this vision, and specially to multiply the number of faithful biblical preachers in the pulpits of the world?
I end where I began, with the Word of God. How do we respond to the spiritual need of the people of God?
First, we have a vision of pulpits which are occupied by faithful preachers, who expound the Word of God.
Secondly, we have a vision of seminaries, which are staffed by scholar-saints, who permanently influence their students for good.
Thirdly, we have a vision of books, which will stimulate and facilitate the biblical study and teaching of pastor-preachers.