John Stott is well known as an evangelist, preacher and writer, and a major influence of contemporary evangelicalism. But he was also a passionate bird-watcher. As a child, he collected butterflies. But, in the midst of a sibling squabble, a cushion landed on his collection. It was destroyed. So Stott turned to birds. The church council at All Souls wisely insisted that whenever he traveled overseas he take some time out to go bird-watching. He was known for his ability to wait patiently, sometimes lying flat to the ground, while looking at birds.
Over the years Stott clocked up sightings of over 2,500 different species of birds (out of an estimated total of 9,000). But one bird had a special fascination for him: the snowy owl which, as the name suggests, is a large white owl. It’s found in the arctic tundra of Alaska, northern Canada, and Eurasia—it’s a bird you have to go out of your way to see!
Stott undertook a number of bird-watching trips in the hope of spotting a snowy owl, but it remained persistently elusive. In July 1979 he flew by helicopter to a stretch of remote Arctic wilderness where a pair of snowy owls were known to being living, but returned disappointed. In the summer of 1991, during a camping trip on Victoria Island off the northern coast of mainland Canada, he caught a fleeting glimpse of what might have been a snowy owl about half a mile away. He was initially elated but left unsatisfied.
Five years later in July 1996, he returned to Victoria Island. Soon after their arrival, Stott and his friends drove out into the wilderness in an old truck. “We’d only gone three or four miles,” Stott wrote in his diary, “before we’d seen our first pair of Snowies and were walking across the tundra to its eggs. There they were—eight off-white shiny oblong or pear-shaped objects. No! Wait a moment, there were seven, and the eighth was a newly hatched little chick!” Somewhat tongue in cheek, he wrote, “I felt I could now say my Nunc Dimittis, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . . for my eyes have seen . . . ” (Luke 2:29-30). They erected a hide and Stott spent the next few days watching and photographing the nest, sometimes for several hours at a time. You can see one of his snowy owl photos on the cover of his book, The Birds our Teachers.
Stott’s obsession with the snowy owl was more than a charming eccentricity. It reflected some important themes in his theology.
1. Stott was a great advocate of what he referred to as BBC—“balanced biblical Christianity.”
He avoided polarization whenever possible. But this was not a limp attempt to please everyone at all costs. Instead, he refused to sacrifice one aspect of biblical teaching in order to affirm another. He refused, for example, to choose between evangelism and social action, but instead affirmed both with passion.
This balance was also reflected in his life and ministry. He poured out his life, preaching and teaching around the world, and rose at 5am every day to pray. But he also recognized the importance of rest and recreation. Asked whether he had ever felt like giving up his ministry, he replied: “I have tried to maintain a disciplined life, ensuring adequate sleep, food and exercise.” He then commended bird-watching for the physical exercise and mental relaxation it provides. “I don’t think bird-watchers get nervous breakdowns,” he added.
2. Stott’s interest in ornithology also reflected his commitment to living all of life under the lordship of Christ.
He firmly rejected any divide between the secular and the sacred as if Christ was only interested in the interior or “spiritual” aspects of our lives. Stott encouraged Christian scientists, lawyers, doctors, artists, teachers—every trade and profession—to see their work as part of their service of Christ and to think through how their professional life should be shaped by God’s word. This was why he established the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Its primary concern was not to train people for leadership within the church, but for ministry in the wider world.
3. Stott was a passionate advocate of the care of creation—long before it was trendy!
He was, for example, an early supporter of Peter and Miranda Harris, the founders of the pioneering Christian conversation charity, A Rocha. In one of his final books, The Radical Disciple, Stott highlights eight aspects of discipleship he fears are neglected. They include themes one might expect like maturity and Christlikeness. But among the eight are what Stott calls “creation-care.” “Of all the global threats which face our planet,” he says, “[climate change] is the most serious.”
Tim Chester is the author of Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds.