Listening to Two Worlds
One Monday morning in the late 1960s, at an All Souls Church staff team meeting, Ted Schroder, one of John Stott’s curates, blurted out, “John, you’re not listening!” Stott recalled blushing because “he was quite right.”1 Stott saw it as a formative moment in more ways than one.2 It was the beginning of the recognition that his wider interests meant he could no longer give All Souls the attention it required. But it was also part of a movement in Stott’s thinking.
Schroder was a New Zealander who broke the mold of previous curates, all of whom had shared Stott's social background, and all of whom had been somewhat in awe of him. Schroder felt Stott was not really addressing the concerns of the younger generation and so encouraged Stott to engage more with the wider culture. Stott started going to the theater and cinema—practices he had initially renounced as worldly after his conversion. Whereas previously Stott had turned to contemporary culture merely to illustrate sermon points, he now began to engage more deeply with its assumptions and address its concerns. His sympathy with the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s (along with his critique) is evident in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. “Christians find this search for a cultural alternative,” he writes, “one of the most hopeful, even exciting, signs of the times.”3He subtitled the book Christian CounterCulture in a deliberate echo of the counterculture movement. It was the beginning of what became a central characteristic of Stott’s theological approach: double listening. Here is the idea in Stott’s own words:
Double listening . . . is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission.4
I believe we are called to the difficult and even painful task of “double listening.” That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.5
We have to begin with a double refusal. We refuse to become either so absorbed in the Word, that we escape into it and fail to let it confront the world, or so absorbed in the world, that we conform to it and fail to subject it to the judgment of the Word. Escapism and conformity are opposite mistakes, but neither is a Christian option.6
More Than a Homiletical Practice
Double listening is an approach to preaching, as the US title of Stott’s book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, makes clear.7 The preacher engages in a process of listening to the world and the Word with a view to bridging the gap “between two worlds.” As early as 1952, Stott’s notes for lay training included an exhortation to “know your audience as well as your Bible”—an early expression of double listening.8
But double listening is bigger than a homiletical process. It describes an orientation of the Christian life. “Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission. It is only through the discipline of double listening that it is possible to become a ‘contemporary Christian.’”9In The Authentic Jesus, he says it is “essential to Christian maturity.”10
Nowhere is double listening modeled more clearly than in The Contemporary Christian. Again and again Stott presents a secular standpoint or issue in the best possible light, even though he may reject it. He looks for what is good in it. He particularly hears its challenge to Christianity. Only then does he move to critique and biblical reconstruction.
In chapter 14, for example, on secular challenges to the church, he outlines with great depth and sensitivity the contemporary quest for transcendence, significance, and community.11It is clear Stott believes modern people are looking for these things in the wrong place. But there is no sense of dismissal or scorn. Instead the overriding tone is empathy. There is also a humility, for Stott recognizes that while it might be assumed that transcendence, significance, and community would readily be found in the church, we have weakness in each area.12
In chapter 21, where Stott commends incarnational mission, he suggests that adopting a lifestyle that identifies with the poor may go too far and become inauthentic. He commends, instead, getting inside the thought-world of those we aim to reach.13It is what we might call an “incarnation of the mind” on which he focuses.
In the prelude to a resolute defense of the uniqueness of Christ, Stott first asks, “What is it about ‘pluralism’ that many find attractive?” “We shall not be in a position to respond to them until we have listened to them and struggled to understand and feel the appeal of their arguments.”14Stott then outlines a number of reasons why people find pluralism attractive. He describes each case as accurately as he can and expresses sympathy for certain aspects of what is being said before finally offering a gospel response.15
An Asymmetrical Process
It is important to recognize that for Stott the purpose of double listening is not to make the gospel more palatable to modern ears, still less to adapt it to modern sensibilities. Quite the opposite. While it is true that double listening enables us to connect the gospel to people’s deepest longings, it also enables us to bring clarity to the call to repentance. So double listening is an asymmetrical process.
I am not suggesting that we should listen to God and to our fellow human beings in the same way or with the same degree of deference. We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathize with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it.16
At an IFES European Conference on Evangelism in 1988, Stott told a thousand students:
We are fooling ourselves if we imagine that we can ever make the authentic gospel popular. . . . It’s too simple in an age of rationalism; too narrow in an age of pluralism; too humiliating in an age of self-confidence; too demanding in an age of permissiveness; and too unpatriotic in an age of blind nationalism. . . . What are we going to share with friends? The authentic gospel or a gospel that has been corrupted in order to suit human pride?17
Double listening enables us to connect the gospel to people’s deepest longings.
One way Stott put the discipline of double listening into practice throughout his ministry was by convening a reading group of young professionals. Every six weeks for over twenty years, they met to discuss a contemporary book or film. He explains, “Then we ask ourselves, (1) What are the main issues which this raises for Christians? and (2) How does the gospel relate to people who think and live like this?”18David Turner, a lawyer who went on to become a circuit judge, was a member of the reading group.
We read novels, watched films, scanned magazines and tried to unpick their assumptions and world views. We read Castenada and Fowles, Pirsig and Potok, Golding, Roszak, and dozens of others. We wrestled with Cosmopolitan magazine. We found ourselves cringing with embarrassment at some risqué film, and standing baffled at the Tate gallery while one of our number enthused about Mark Rothko’s “Black on Maroon.”19
Later Turner joined another one of Stott’s double-listening groups, a group known as “Christian debate,” for more senior figures including Christian politicians, church leaders, and academics. “Again, papers were read, books discussed, contemporary and theological themes and authors occasionally interrogated in person.”20
Double listening is a discipline not just in relation to the world but also within the church. “Thank God,” says Stott, “that he has given us two ears, so that we may engage in double listening, and may pay careful attention to both sides of every question.”21Stott concludes The Contemporary Christian with an appeal for what he calls “Balanced Biblical Christianity.”22I do not claim any close personal acquaintance with the devil. . . . But what I do know is that he is a fanatic, and the enemy of all common sense, moderation and balance. One of his favourite pastimes is to upset our equilibrium, and tip Christians (especially evangelical Christians) off balance. If he cannot induce us to deny Christ, he will get us to distort Christ instead. In consequence lopsided Christianity is widespread, in which we over-emphasize one aspect of a truth, while underemphasizing another.23We need to develop this balanced, biblical Christianity, Stott says, “by combining truths which complement one another and not separating what God has joined.”24
- Stott, John.The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992, 103.
- Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott, vol. 1, The Making of a Leader(Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999), 2:28; and Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982. UK edition entitledI Believe in Preaching. London: Hodder, 1982., 12.
- John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount: Christian Counter-Culture (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 16.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 29.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 13.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 27.
- The UK edition is entitled I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder, 1982).
- John Stott, Parochial Evangelism by the Laity(Westminster: Church Information Board/London Diocese, 1952),15.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 29
- John Stott, The Authentic Jesus: A Response to Current Scepticism in the Church(Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1985), 15.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 222–38; see also Stott, The Living Church, 45; and Stott, Why I Am a Christian, 104–19.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 236
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 357–60
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 298
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 304
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 28
- John Stott, “The Crucial Decision,” IFES Overview, 1988/1989, cited in Dudley-Smith, John Stott, 2:267.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 215; see also Stott,The Living Church, 107; and Stott, Between Two Worlds, 194–99.
- David Turner, in John Stott: A Portrait by His Friends, ed. Chris Wright (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011), 83.
- Turner, in Wright, John Stott, 84.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 375.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 375, 643; see also chap. 6 of John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living(Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010), 87–102.
- Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 375; see also Stott, The Living Church, 117.
- Stott, The Living Church, 116–17.
This article is adapted from Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds by Tim Chester.
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