Earlier this month I had the privilege of preaching the sermon at the John Stott Memorial Service in New Zealand. I closed my message from Jeremiah 23 by speaking of the sadness of Stott's death - but also of a deeper sadness.
The deeper sadness is that John Stott visited our country only three times and the most recent visit was in 1969. If you do the number-crunching this means it is unlikely that there are many Kiwis under 60 who have any memory of his ministry on NZ soil. That is incredibly sad...
"There will be lots of reasons for this - some excusable, some inexcusable."
The thing that impacted me is that when you look at Stott's life and what he stood for and then look at the landscape of NZ church life over the past generation or two, that absence shows up and led me to ask some questions:
"Why do we struggle to save words like ‘evangelical’ and ‘exposition’ from extinction, burdened as they are by stereotype? Where are the evangelistic missions on our campuses? What has been happening at our seminaries – is it a ‘making’ or is it a ‘marring’? Where are the crowds hanging out at Bible teaching conferences? Why does maturity not attract the same attention as mission? Why do we not confront false teaching courageously – yet graciously? Where are the home-grown biblical scholars in that ‘Bible Speaks Today’ mould? What does hearing a leader say “I am no good with names?” – say about their prayer lives?"
Then I went on to suggest that the answers are coming. There are encouragements. "The sprouts are appearing in our land, but they need nurture."
Let me give some examples.
Take 'seminaries', or theological training. There is plenty of 'making' going on - and far less 'marring' than there used to be. When you consider the current state of Carey and Laidlaw, for example, one can only conclude that the state of theological education in NZ has never been better. (NB: I have blogged on this subject recently here). There is now no reason whatsoever for a Kiwi to go overseas for their primary theological education.
Related to this, take the question about the lack of home-grown biblical scholars. New Zealand can point to historians and theologians and sociologists of an evangelical persuasion who have completed doctoral study in New Zealand. But biblical scholars? The sprouts are tender but they are coming along. I think of Martin Williams with a PhD on Salvation in 1 Peter from Otago which is to be published by Cambridge University Press (as I understand it). WOW! And there are a growing numbers of others: Dr Mark Keown comes to mind (Philippians), as does soon-to-be Dr Sarah Harris (Luke) - but I better stop before I start missing people out!
One more example of an answer to one of the questions above. Take this area of evangelistic mission on our campuses. For a generation or two the church in NZ has tended to turn its face away from our universities. There has been an inability to prioritise how "your mind matters" (as Stott put it) and that an engagement with the students and departments of the university is critical to any mission strategy. And so, with the passage of time, the secular and the pagan and the godless in our universities has become more and more intimidating and in the face of it, an evangelistic impulse or strategy has been dulled - if not dried up altogether.
But the sprouts are there! Year-by-year it is so exciting to see the Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship (TSCF) - aligned as it is with the global body (IFES) to which John Stott gave so much energy - build up some momentum. A steady trickle of conversions is now a feature of their work on campuses. Ben Carswell has been set aside as a National Outreach Coordinator. And now there is the boldness and freshness of Godzone, a rugby-themed presentation of the Gospel of Luke, complete with testimonies from leading rugby players and developed in an indigenous Kiwi format. It is so encouraging. My understanding is that something like 8000 of these were distributed in the first week of availability.
You can order your own multiple copies online for friends here - at a cost of $2 plus shipping.