Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook: Wisdom and Prayers from the Pen of John Stott
By John Stott. Bellingham: Lexham Press, Illustrated edition, July 15, 2020.
Book Review by Scott Lucky
Published by Themolios: An International Journal for Students of Theological and Religious Studies Volume 47 Issue 1, April 2022
If we preachers are to grow in our preaching, we must master basic homiletical skills and repeatedly put those skills into practice. Through our hard work and the patience of the congregations we serve, we become more profitable servants of our Master and his people over time. However, as the saying goes, good preaching is both caught and taught. Therefore, in addition to skills and hard work, we need to find examples worthy of imitation. Renowned English evangelical preacher, John Stott (1921–2011), is one such example. Gaining insight into his interests and habits will be helpful to those desiring to preach better.
Stott was one of the towering Christian leaders of the twentieth century. In 2005, Time Magazine recognized him as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Stott spent twenty-five years serving as rector of All Souls, Langham Place, London. His desire to see every pastor in every church around the world equipped to preach the Bible led him to begin the Langham Partnership in 1969. Stott was the principal framer of the Lausanne Covenant in 1974 and the author of over fifty books, including the homiletical classic, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), which continues to be studied in the field of preaching forty years later.
In Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook, Mark Meynell assembles a compilation of Stott’s notes, quotes, and illustrations on many subjects. (Note: A broader selection of this material appeared in digital form in The Preacher’s Notebook: The Collected Quotes, Illustrations, and Prayers of John Stott [Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018]). Meynell was the right pick to introduce and edit this latest anthology. He knew Stott well from their time serving together on the senior ministry team of All Souls, and currently serves as the associate director of Langham Preaching for Europe and the Caribbean.
Readers need to approach this book like stumbling upon someone’s commonplace book—a notebook where someone jots down an assortment of tidbits on various subjects, including thoughts, quotes, or ideas. Marcus Aurelius, John Milton, Mark Twain, and Bill Gates, among others, have all profitably used commonplace books as a device to understand and catalog the world around them. Meynell notes: “Instead of using notebooks, he jotted down a whole range of thoughts on 4×6-inch index cards, which he arranged under various topical headings or biblical references” (p. xiv). If Stott were preaching today, he might use Apple Notes or Evernote instead of index cards.
Meynell believes there are three reasons for publishing these notes: “(1) They are fascinating, insightful, and occasionally provocative. (2) They reveal a great deal about John Stott’s evolving working methods. (3) They model a deep and broad engagement with both Scripture and the contemporary world” (p. xiv). From this collection, readers gain “genuine insight into the workings of his mind and the discipline of his scholarship” (p. xiii). Meynell has done the hard work of collecting and sorting the notecards into seventy-eight different subjects, divided into three parts: (1) God and Gospel; (2) Church and Christian; and (3) World and Worldviews. In part 4, Meynell includes thirty-five short prayers that Stott wrote for special occasions on various subjects.
A few cautions are necessary before the reader attempts this compilation. First, Stott did not write these notes for public consumption. Stott did not have you in mind when he scribbled these notes by hand—he had no idea someone would put this tidbit into a book. Second, not all the notes are equally fascinating. While there is gold in this volume, it does take some digging to get to the buried treasure. Third, some of the notes are antiquated, and preachers may struggle to see how these notes might help them preach better. If readers grow frustrated, they should remember that Meynell “attempted to capture the breadth and depth of the full archive” of the thousands written (p. xviii). He also omitted many notes because they were too parochial, dated, or obscure. Fourth, while it was helpful to see what some of Stott’s handwritten notes looked like, it would have been better to see those ten pictures together in one place or on the opposite page of the type-written notes for comparison purposes.
Cautions notwithstanding, preachers will benefit from reading this book for several reasons. First, the book’s structure assists the reader in finding what they desire. The table of contents and the subject and name indexes will prove beneficial for the reader trying to locate one of the many memorable quotes they found in their reading.
Second, Meynell’s introduction is lucid and thought-provoking. He commends Stott’s practice of “double listening,” which, as Stott explains, means that preachers need to comprehend their contemporary culture so they can “present the gospel in such a way as to speak to modern dilemmas, fears, and frustrations … equally determined not to compromise the biblical gospel in order to do so” (p. xv, citing Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World[Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992], 13). Meynell points out that these notes reveal that Stott was an avid listener to the surrounding culture, which he used effectively to build a bridge from the biblical text to his listeners. Preachers in the West will do well to practice Stott’s double listening as they engage a post-Christian culture with the gospel.
Third, this book gives readers insight into the workings of the mind and study habits of an excellent expositor. The clarity of Stott’s teaching was the result of deep thought and vigorous study. Meynell says: “Clear communication requires deep levels of comprehension” (p. xiii). Stott’s example should motivate preachers to work harder at communicating with clarity. Preachers would also do well to imitate Stott in noting the date and venue they use illustrations or outlines, so they save themselves embarrassment in awkward repetition.
Finally, Stott’s generosity in the heat of controversy is a needed correction to contemporary cancel culture. So many pretend to be courageous behind a keyboard in our social media age. It is so easy to vilify our neighbors instead of loving them by listening to them with respect. Stott, however, shows us a different way. He was “determined to do justice to opponents’ views, which sometimes caused him real intellectual turmoil when he wrestled with complex problems. Moreover, he would not let disputes in one area prevent him from being willing to learn from a person in another area” (p. xxii). Like Stott, critical thinking and charitable engagement should mark pastor-theologians.
Those desiring to learn more about the life of John Stott should pick up Timothy Dudley-Smith’s two-volume biography—John Stott: The Making of a Leader: A Biography of the Early Years and John Stott: A Global Ministry: A Biography of the Later Years (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 2001). As a preacher, Stott was primarily concerned with faithfully expounding the inspired biblical text so people could hear God’s voice and respond in trust and obedience. Those desiring to imitate the extraordinary example he has set will only benefit from reading these Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook.