Just listening with John Stott | On revisiting Issues Facing Christians Today (1/4)
LICC’s founder John Stott called us to triple listening – to the Word, the world, and one another – in our particular time and place. As we do this, we become wise peacemakers: followers of Jesus who embody his just way.
In this introductory piece, our Culture & Discipleship Director Dave Benson revisits John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today, and why its call is as important now as ever.
This four-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Just Listening, in which each of the authors delivers a TED-style talk on their topic. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.
Almost a timeless classic
‘Issues Facing Christians Today was this eye-opening, massive work. It wasn’t so much the content – though the content was brilliant – but the way that Stott did it. He brought biblical integrity and biblical wisdom, then looked at what was happening, and then brought those things together, integrating them, coming out with thoughtful Christian responses to it. I found that so enlightening and so significant. And that really began to shape how I went forward.’
– Kara Martin, Business Lecturer and author of Workship
Issues Facing Christians Today is a landmark book, and praise like Kara Martin’s isn’t hard to find.
Her connection to the book is personal: as she shared in our 2021 centenary event on John’s Life and Legacy, her journalism degree was steeped in Marxism and damning of the church, so she ‘struggled to have a good voice in that space’. Up to that point, few modern Christian writers had offered a model of thoughtful engagement to help people apply their biblical faith to everyday life. Without a larger picture of God’s mission and how it integrated with the messiness of our broken world, Kara found it hard to act wisely and speak truthfully on her course.
But help was at hand. Emerging from John Stott’s lectures at the founding of LICC in 1982, Issues Facing Christians Today guided Kara through her first career in public relations. She initially worked for a mining company and tried to imitate Daniel, bringing change to the Babylonian beast from within. Kara tells of how her marketing manager required her to plant a false story in the papers to boost their perceived value as they negotiated a deal with Chinese customers.
In deep thought, conversation, prayer and leaning on frameworks supplied by Stott, she discerned a plan to offer her manager’s boss the tools to write the media release for himself, but said she couldn’t in good conscience write the story. And she courageously warned them of the consequences for all involved if this ever got out. Consequently, the story wasn’t printed, and she was never asked to be unethical again. Character and truth prevailed that day, at least in part because of Issues Facing Christians Today and Stott’s legacy.
Over twenty-plus years, culminating in the 2006 fourth edition, Issues Facing Christians Today has been a wellspring of wisdom for countless Christians seeking to engage important current issues with biblically-informed thinking. While Stott spoke of ‘double listening’, in reality he practiced triple listening – to the word, the world, and one another in community, that we might live more fruitfully as whole-life disciples on our diverse missional frontlines.[i]
And the scope of this project was impressive. Over 500 pages of small-print text, Stott addresses contextual issues like our pluralist world, global issues like human rights, social issues like the world of work, and personal issues like abortion and euthanasia. Seventeen jam-packed chapters in all, emerging from conversation with recognised experts.
John never purported to be an expert himself. But he was dedicated to bringing his best so that people could develop a Christian perspective for all of life. In his words: ‘what I am venturing to offer the public is not a polished professional piece but the rough-hewn amateur work of an ordinary Christian who is struggling to think Christianly, that is, to apply the biblical revelation to the pressing issues of the day.’[ii] His passion was that we may all ‘live under the Word in the world’.[iii]
While orthodoxy has a history and dogma does develop, the trustworthiness of God’s nature means there is long-lasting wisdom in what Stott wrote.[iv] And yet we follow Christ into a world in flux, where the details of our frontlines radically shift over time. Working out how to live ‘Christianly’ in a changing world requires ongoing dialogue – the issues facing Christians today are different again to those tackled in each of the four editions of Stott’s book.
As he noted in his preface to the 1999 version, ‘a third, revised edition is already overdue. It is extraordinary that in the topic of every chapter the debate has moved on, and in some cases the situation has changed significantly.’[v] Specialists in each field were hired to inform and check his work, bringing it up to date so Issues would continue to guide readers like Kara into a brave new world. By the time John endorsed the final reworking of the book, he offered his ‘prayerful hope that it will stimulate a new generation of readers to think Christianly about some of the big issues of our day.’[vi]
The fresh call to ‘just listening’ today
Which brings us to the present. Fifteen years on, a lot’s changed. While the word and our call to righteousness remain the same, our cultural context and people’s everyday lives have radically altered. We need to listen to the Spirit afresh as we seek wisdom to follow Christ right now, in the face of forces like racism, consumerism, and global warming. As we engage with the challenges facing whole-life disciples right now, what does it take to listen well, imagine a kingdom response, create change, and communicate the gospel as good news in this cultural moment?
This four-part blog series and associated Wisdom Lab event are an experiment to find a way forward in this contested time and place. Through the articles and discussion, you have the chance to learn from Tearfund’s Ruth Valerio on simplicity, generosity, and contentment; A Rocha’s Dave Bookless on caring for creation; and Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, Leicester Cathedral’s Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic Mission and Ministry Enabler, on celebrating ethnic diversity.
We as the church need to continually reform ourselves for faithful and fruitful witness, positioning ourselves in our particular time and place for triple listening to the word, the world, and one another. By taking part in these kinds of conversations, with the Spirit’s leading we may become wise peacemakers on our diverse frontlines – whole-life disciples who embody the kingdom’s just way.
The God of justice and justification
I suspect John Stott would wholeheartedly approve. He was dedicated to dismantling the tragic divide between gospel proclamation and good works, binding them together with his Latin American colleagues in the Lausanne Movement as ‘integral mission’.[vii]
As he said, ‘Our God is a loving God who forgives those who turn to him in repentance, but he is also a God who desires justice and asks us, as his people, not only to live justly but to champion the cause of the poor and the powerless.’[viii] This is because ‘the living God is the God of justice as well as of justification’.[ix]
Stott never peddled a ‘social gospel’, sanctifying secular humanism to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth by our own political efforts. Rather, he prophetically called for ‘social responsibility’ under God as a response to taking seriously the ‘social challenge of the gospel of the kingdom’.[x] Our transformative action through works of mercy and the quest for justice in the present is a sign of the just world God himself will bring in the fullness of time.[ix] It is prayerful through and through, humble and hopeful in posture, wise and worshipful in programmes, and always emerging from vital union with Jesus as Lord of all:
‘Here, then, is the living God of the Bible. His concerns are all-embracing – not only the “sacred” but the “secular”, not only religion but nature, not only his covenant people but all people, not only justification but social justice in every community, not only his gospel but his law. We must not attempt to narrow down his interests. Moreover, ours should be as broad as his.’[xii]
Our brave new world
John Stott was truly a conservative radical. As he wrote, ‘Every Christian should be… conservative in preserving the faith and radical in applying it.’[xiii] As such, ‘Christians should be careful not to “baptize” any political ideology (whether of the right, the left, or the centre) as if it contained a monopoly of truth and goodness. At best a political ideology and its programme are only an approximation to the will and purpose of God.’[xiv]
On this point, I suspect we all need reminding. In recent years, believer and unbeliever alike have become fixated on our ‘shared life under the sun’.[xv] Forgetting that God’s gracious work in our fallen world is ultimately beyond our control, we’ve made our own visions of what ‘your kingdom come’ means into idols. We want the kingdom, but rarely submit our plans prayerfully to Jesus as King. And this goes for both ends of the rapidly polarising political spectrum. Left and right alike are using dirty tactics. Many citizens are growing in rage as their differently-orientated neighbour disagrees with their vision of the good life, making utopia seem that much further out of reach.
This is the age of echo chambers and virtue signalling. We’re witnessing the rise of ‘woke capitalism’ where companies fuse consumerism with social justice tropes to sell a product and signal just how virtuous their business truly is. It’s the time of intersectionality, as society increasingly recognises and reifies the significance of every aspect of our personhood – gender, sexual orientation, race, class, (dis)ability, age, religion.
Complex cultural conversations like these require Christians to think carefully. We mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, launching tirades against progressive politics to enshrine the status quo. We should be concerned that polarisation has become par for the course, irrespective of one’s ideological persuasion. Compared to even a decade ago, we have become quick to take offence but relatively slow to listen, think, and love.[xvi] My point here is not to take a side. But it is to warn that unless we find a way to better converse, we’re in serious danger of lasting division.
Keeping Christians together with a better conversation
‘So what?’, you may ask. ‘What difference does this make for my frontline?’
Well, take Kara, whose story opened this piece. It was complex enough discerning what to say to her dodgy manager two decades back. As good as Stott’s guidance in Issues Facing Christians Today was back then, as new issues arise, we need new thinking to help us engage with them in a Christlike way.
So imagine her story took place today. Given the instability of the stock market since the global financial crisis, detached from real material value and driven more by fear and greed, what does it mean for her to be truthful in communications? Post-Covid, with anti-Asian hate crime on the rise, might her superiors’ attempt to price-gouge the Chinese company raise concerns of racism? Besides, is it even appropriate for a disciple to work for such a money-hungry industry, when so many are living in abject poverty? And what of mining’s ecological devastation and global warming? Can’t we mould culture by pivoting towards renewable energy?
Our cultural moment is disorientating. And it impacts not just where you work, but your sporting club, local shopping centre, university campus, homeless shelter, and apartment complex. We desperately need insight to make sense of our confusing times, to know how to work for the holistic flourishing of all around us – living in right relationship with God, our neighbour, nature, and ourselves.
As Stott did for a previous generation, we must find a faithful way right now to bind ‘biblical justice’ and ‘social justice’ back together, without losing our bearings.[xvii] For unless we can agree on a larger narrative of who we are and why God has us here, our ethical disagreements, and even foundational definitions of ‘justice’, entirely miss each other like passing ships in the night.[xviii] We need distinctively biblical wisdom for the way of following Jesus in our particular time and place.
And this requires a better conversation. A messier conversation where we hear voices that at times draw out our ‘Amen!’ and at other times challenge us to think differently.
Just listening as the way forward
At LICC, I’m dedicated to hosting spaces where those who might see themselves as opponents gather at the foot of the cross and learn to reconcile. For only when Christians discover how to work together across lines of difference will we bear good news for a divided world.[xix]
In that spirit, in each of the next three long read articles you’ll hear from a faithful and thoughtful Christian, writing to spark that better conversation. On the thorny issues of economic, climate, and racial justice, they’ll pick up where John Stott left off with Issues Facing Christians Today. They’ll bring each related chapter into the present, fifteen years on, and offer wisdom so we might continue to hold the gospel and social action, justification and justice, together as one.
As the series unfolds, I invite you to wrestle with what each author says, running it through Stott’s ‘fourfold framework’ to form a clearer picture of the kind of ‘justice’ the Lord requires of us on our particular frontlines (Micah 6:8).[xx]
- Through creation, may we see the good of a world made for holistic flourishing where each creature matters, every person bears the image of God, and we’re all held responsible for treating others with the dignity they deserve.
- Through the fall, may we see the evil of individuals and institutions taking advantage of others for selfish gain, enshrining inequity in unfair systems which destroys the harmony for which we were created.
- Through the redemption of Christ, may we see the new reality of a family brought together by Christ to seek restorative justice and righteousness, especially for the most vulnerable, using the power we have to lift up the downtrodden as a demonstration of God’s grace.
- And in the consummation of God’s plan, may we see the perfect shalom toward which we’re headed, where unrepentant oppressors are finally judged with fairness, and the righteous rule the city, their pursuit of justice causing all to celebrate.[xxi]
This framework doesn’t yield simple answers, but it guards against distortions. Dwelling in this story helps us all to conserve the good order God created, but pursue justice as we progress together toward a world where everything is set right.[xxii]
Alongside becoming just, my hope through this series is that we will learn to truly listen. To God, of course. And yet, throughout Scripture we notice that God especially bends his ear to wounded creation (Isaiah 24:4–5; Jeremiah 12:4; Romans 8:19–23)[xxiii] and the cries of those with less power, suffering because of unfair treatment by taskmasters (Exodus 3:7). God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11–16), and calls us to listen with his ears, so we may respond with his love.[xxiv]
Call it what you will – biblical justice, social justice, generous justice, or justice in love[xxv] – God would have us be a people who seek first the kingdom of God and his just-righteousness (Matthew 6:33). And this can only begin when we are ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry’ (James 1:19). As we address issues facing Christians in this day, together let’s practice ‘listening to the voice of God in Scripture, and listening to the voices of the modern world, with all their cries of anger, pain and despair.’[xxvi]
My prayer is that through this conversation we may cultivate just listening with fidelity and sensitivity on our diverse frontlines, that our just God is made known. Will you join us on this journey?
Dr Dave Benson
Culture & Discipleship Director, LICC
[iii] Issues, 10.
[iv] See Numbers 23:19; Matthew 24:35; Hebrews 13:8.
[v] Issues, 13.
[vi] Issues, 19.
[vii] See section 5 of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant on ‘Christian social responsibility’, in between ‘The Nature of Evangelism’ and ‘The Church and Evangelism’. The Lausanne Movement’s ‘Freedom and Justice’ and ‘Integral Mission’ networks carry this work forward today.
[viii] Issues, 24.
[ix] Issues, 51. See Psalm 146:7–9, which Stott cites, calling our community life to be characterised by justice: ‘He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.’ Similarly, Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto (Luke 4:18–19; fulfilling Isaiah 61:1–2) bind salvation with social care and action.
[x] Issues, 29–32.
[xi] Issues, 35–36.
[xii] Issues, 52.
[xiii] John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 27.
[xiv] Issues, 42. See also pages 67–69 on the possibility of social change given humankind continues to bear the image of God (albeit marred), as well as the piecemeal progress we can expect given our fallen self-centredness. Stott avoids the cynicism that gives up before even trying for justice in this life, as well as the easy humanist optimism that we can secure heaven on earth by our own efforts. Later he writes, ‘We need to renounce both the naïve optimism and cynical pessimism and replace them with the sober but confident realism of the Bible’ (498).
[xv] See James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). The teacher’s use of ‘under the sun’ in Ecclesiastes 1 is close to Taylor’s notion of ‘the immanent frame’.
[xvii] Exploring the different visions of biblical and social justice from the right and left, respectively, and looking for a faithful path to synergy, see: Tim Keller, ‘A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,’ Gospel in Life Quarterly no. 3, August 2020; and David Fitch, ‘On the Idea of Social Justice and the Christian,’ Scot McKnight’s ‘Jesus Creed’ blog, August 24, 2020.
[xviii] On the breakdown of ethical reasoning and the necessity of a coherent story, see the work of Alasdair MacIntyre: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008); and After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Duckworth, 2006), 216. For an excellent exploration of this framing story, and how it is theologically and philosophically coherent, see: John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); also Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). As for defining ‘justice’ in a faithful way, see Just Love, ‘What do we mean by Justice?’ (n.d.): ‘God’s justice is about putting to right all that is wrong in creation; mending all that has been broken by sin. This justice is active, it means struggling against injustice, it is shaped by love, and its goal is a world of righteousness – right relationships in every dimension – between God, people, and creation. That world of perfect justice is something that only God can bring about. He has done so in Jesus, and he will do so in the new creation age to come. By grace, our task is to join in with that mission of putting right what is wrong – pointing back to the cross and forward to new creation.’ See also the Bible Project’s video on Justice.
[xix] This pattern was set by Stott from LICC’s outset: ‘People prefer to shout at one another than to listen to one another. Yet only when both sides are willing to sit down together, put aside their prejudiced positions and listen does any possibility of reconciliation emerge.’ See The Contemporary Christian, 107–109.
[xx] Issues, 62–64.
[xxi] See Proverbs 11:10; 31:8–9; Jeremiah 22:3; Psalm 146:7–9; Matthew 6:33; 2 Peter 3:13. Amy Sherman’s reflections on the tsaddiqim as God’s just-righteous people in right relationship for the flourishing of all creation, particularly through our work, is especially helpful. See her book, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: 2011), 15–63.
[xxii] To deepen your understanding of the biblical story, see Just Love, ‘Theology of Justice’ (n.d.): ‘To summarise, we do justice because it is one of the greatest themes in the Bible. God is just, God does justice, and God calls his people to do justice. We live justly as a response to the grace shown to us in Jesus, and in anticipation of the new creation where all injustice will be put right.’ See also Tim Keller, ‘Justice in the Bible’, Gospel in Life Quarterly no. 3, September 2020.
[xxiv] See Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 213, 222: we must ‘listen to [the world’s] many discordant voices, its questions, its protests and its cries of pain; and to feel a measure of its disorientation and despair. For all this is part of our Christian sensitivity. … unless we listen attentively to the voices of secular society, struggle to understand them, and feel with people in their frustration, anger, bewilderment and despair, weeping with those who weep, we will lack authenticity as the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, we will run the risk (as has often been said) of answering questions nobody is asking, scratching where nobody is itching, supplying goods for which there is no demand – in other words, of being totally irrelevant, which in its long history the church has often been.’
[xxvi] Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 12.