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A Powerful Preacher Who Tries to Deflect Public Acclaim

March 8, 2006, New York Times, A Powerful Preacher Who Tries to Deflect Public Acclaim, By Michael Luo.

When the stooped preacher, influential around the world, climbed to the pulpit at St. James Episcopal Church on Sunday, few in the small Manhattan congregation had any idea who he was.

"I had never heard of him," said Bettina Jackson, one of about 250 parishioners at the service. "It was just in the program that we were having a special presenter."

But the frail man with the surprisingly stern voice at the lectern was the Rev. John Stott, 84, considered by many as one of the two or three most important figures in evangelical Christianity over the last half-century.

Mr. Stott delivered a brief but trenchant sermon on Christian maturity from the Book of Colossians. Afterward, in the church basement, he shared with a small crowd details about the work he has chosen to devote his remaining days to — training pastors in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where Christianity is exploding in popularity.

Less than a year ago, Billy Graham, the celebrated evangelist to whom many compare Mr. Stott, came to New York City for what he said was his final visit amid much hoopla. In contrast, Mr. Stott's visit this week was striking for its lack of fanfare.

In an age of mega-church pastors and media-driven religious celebrity, Mr. Stott, an Anglican clergyman from London, is a throwback of sorts, a giant in Christendom who is also virtually anonymous outside evangelical circles.

Instead of addressing huge crowds like Mr. Graham, Mr. Stott, who now walks slowly with a cane and needs help to clamber to the pulpit, spent most of his time in the city speaking in front of small groups about the work of his organization, John Stott Ministries.

The group, which has a budget of about $2.5 million and just three full-time staff members, sends books to pastors in the developing world and awards scholarships for them to come to the West to earn their doctorates and then return to their home countries to train others.

"I declare myself an impenitent believer in the power of preaching," he said, explaining his organization's purpose to one group. "The pew cannot rise higher than the pulpit."

Part of the reason for Mr. Stott's low public profile is that he is best known for his books, through which he pioneered an erudite, thoughtful brand of evangelicalism. He has written more than 40 books, including the classic, "Basic Christianity," which was first published in 1950 and remains popular in evangelical circles.

"Almost anyone who is a leader in American evangelicalism has read those books and been shaped by them," said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, an evangelical publication.

As a result, Mr. Stott remains immensely influential. He was in the news last summer when he and Mr. Graham joined in an open letter sent by the Rev. Rick Warren, the author of the best-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life" and the pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., to President Bush calling him to sign on to Bono's "Make Poverty History" campaign.

But it has also always been Mr. Stott's style to deflect public acclaim and its various accouterments, said David Jones, president of John Stott Ministries.

Mr. Stott, who has never married, still lives in the two-room flat in London that he has occupied for decades. He writes his books in longhand in a cottage in Wales that was not outfitted with electricity until 2001.

His organization's board had to wait until Mr. Stott missed a meeting to change the group's name, from the Langham Foundation, named after the street where Mr. Stott's church in London, All Souls, meets, to John Stott Ministries, Mr. Jones said, because Mr. Stott would have strenuously objected.

"Pride is without doubt the greatest temptation of Christian leaders," Mr. Stott said in an interview. "And I'm very well aware of the dangers of being feted and don't enjoy it and don't think one should enjoy it."

Mr. Stott occasionally speaks to large crowds. Last October, he shared the stage with Mr. Warren at Saddleback Church, which draws more than 20,000 on weekends.

But on this trip to the United States, Mr. Stott spoke to about 300 at a retirement home outside of Chicago, where one of the board members of his organization lives. And on Monday, Mr. Stott delivered a short homily to a crowd of about 50 at a midday service at the historic Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.

James Nardella, 28, was among the smattering that came. The lack of pomp surprised him, he said, adding, "It was just this man who came to preach at a church."

Later that evening, Mr. Stott spoke to a gathering of several hundred from Redeemer Presbyterian Church. After Mr. Stott delivered his message, this time on prayer, those in the audience, mostly young people, stood and applauded for him.

He rose from his seat on stage and waved for them to stop. But they continued to clap.

The New York Times Company

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