In 1938, Time magazine honored E. Stanley Jones with the distinction of “world’s greatest missionary evangelist.” Time‘s laudatory expression was not an isolated one. Christians and non-Christians celebrated the multi-faceted contributions of this visionary man. For instance, his missionary work in India coupled with his outspoken efforts for Indian self-determination in the early decades of the 20th century caused one Indian government official to say Jones was “the greatest interpreter of Indian affairs in our time.”
However, Jones regarded his chief calling as being an evangelist of Jesus Christ. He fulfilled that calling by preaching to hundreds of thousands of people in countries in every part of the world in his 88 years of life.
E. Stanley Jones was born in Clarksville, Md., in 1884. He became a Christian by responding to an altar invitation as a teenager in an evangelistic meeting and testified to a dramatic conversion. He attended and graduated from Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky., and in 1907 was sent by the Methodist Episcopal Church to India to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
His missionary evangelism was a call he readily embraced. He was consumed with sharing the good news of Jesus. After several years of unsatisfying ministry and limited success in which Jones labored almost exclusively with the low castes of India, he said he felt “strangely drawn to work among the educated high castes, the intelligentsia.” In working with the upper class of India, he came to see the message of Christ had become tangled with Western history, capitalism and imperialism in the minds of Indians.
He saw that one of his chief responsibilities in proclaiming the gospel to India was to disentangle Christ from Western culture and make the gospel of Christ available to the people through the lens of their own cultural understanding. In 1925, Jones published his groundbreaking book The Christ of the Indian Road, which described his own evolution in proclaiming the gospel to India; in it, he laid out a strategy for Western Christianity to share the gospel with humanity who had suspicion and animus toward the West. His book sold more than a million copies and became a template for western Christians engaging the world for Christ. The conclusions he reached in ministry to the Indians, which he recorded in his book, deeply influenced his preaching ministry for the rest of his life.
Jones the Preacher
E. Stanley Jones noted that non-western critics of Christianity attacked it on one of three fronts. They either attacked the claims of the Old Testament; attacked Western civilization, which they saw as synonymous with Christianity; or they attacked the political, social and economic systems of the West, which they saw as an extension of Christianity. Jones determined that none of the above was Christianity. He believed Western civilization and its systems often behaved badly, subsequently not reflecting Christianity, and that the claims of the Old Testament culminated in Jesus Christ. Therefore, to focus on the Old Testament’s claims was evangelistic folly because the full expression and ultimate interpreter of the Old Testament—Jesus Christ—is available.
So, Jones’ preaching de-emphasized the above three elements and capitalized on the centrality of Christ in which all matters were explained and all problems answered. In other words, Jones was not an expositor of Scripture. He did not attempt to discern the particular voice of each part of the Bible and convey that truth for the edification of the body. He preached instead as an evangelist. He utilized texts that allowed for a robust assertion of Christ’s sufficiency to meet every human need. Jones noted that his decision to focus on Christ in his preaching—rather than getting mired in texts that might create questions for hearers—simplified and vitalized his preaching6. It liberated him to do the work of an evangelist in proclamation, and it muted his critics because Jesus Christ is universally admired, even if the manifestations of Christianity aren’t.
Jones’ preaching dealt with the existential plight of human beings. He often used the language of psychological pain to describe the human condition without Christ. Words such as emptiness and neurosis were sprinkled liberally through his sermons. He certainly believed in personal sin and its eternal consequences, but was inclined to speak of the effects of sin being intrapersonal disorientation and interpersonal dysfunction. While he painted a bleak existence without Christ, he also offered the most optimistic possibilities of abundance in Christ.
Jones’ preaching appealed to the intellect. His preaching was in conversation with the major thinkers of his time, as well as seminal thinkers throughout the history of the world. It was not uncommon for him to refer to the likes of Jung, Rousseau or Socrates in demonstrating his own intellectual relevance. He had the ability to be erudite without appearing elitist. He often demonstrated how important ideas either collided with Christ or confirmed Christ.
E. Stanley Jones preached for a verdict. There was a gentleman’s urgency to his call. He wanted each person to know the Christ he knew. In shaping the claim to his hearers, he made his argument persuasive with sound propositions and with tender solicitation. He spoke with a staccato enunciation that was bold and certain, yet elegant. It was a mix of folksy rhetoric for broad appeal and sophisticated argument for the more intellectually predisposed.
While he engaged in ministry during a time when American Christianity was polarized with the modernist-fundamentalist controversy Jones’ preaching rose above denominational partisanship and sought unity in the body of Christ.
E. Stanley Jones was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was an advisor to presidents and prime ministers, influenced such luminaries as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and wrote 29 books selling more than 3 million copies. Yet it was his ministry as an evangelist that most defined him and blessed the world.