Why John R. Mott is My Role Model for Missional-Ecumenism

Yesterday I referred to the life and witness of John R. Mott (1865–1955). Mott personifies the vision and passion of my life. He is, as I indicated, my most important role model for what I call missional-ecumenism in my forthcoming book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church (Zondervan, April). 

Oliver Tomkins says a plausible legend exists that Mott laid out a railway line as a boy that formed a vast continental railway system. This was, of course, long before such existed. I can identify. I recall sneaking into the attic of my boyhood home and playing with maps and globes and photos of the world and reaming about how to reach the multitudes. (I still regret that I could not have been a foreign missionary!)

While a student at Cornell University John R. Mott moved from agnosticism to vibrant living faith in Christ. Shortly after his conversion he signed the Student Volunteer Declaration, a commitment to world missions. I too made a commitment at age 14, in a strong world missions context. I felt God was calling me to the nations.

Mott became a traveling secretary of the YMCA and in 1895 participated in a gathering in Sweden out of which the World’s Student Christian Federation (WSCF) was born. I did not participate in such events but I became a church planter and have never gotten this passion out of my system.

Mott saw students as the lever by which he could tug the world toward Christ and his kingdom. I felt the same when I came back “home” to Wheaton to be a pastor in 1976. I wanted to be near students so I could impact their lives for Christ and his kingdom. Mott did his most effective work with the WSCF and served as its general secretary from 1895 until he became chairman in 1920. For 33 years he gave his life to this cause.

The famous Edinburgh Conference of 1910 may have done more for world missions than any event in the twentieth century. Mott was the chairman. He helped create a follow-up committee, later called the International Missionary Council (IMC). He was associated with the IMC until the end of his life. Mott was a tireless worker and Tomkins writes that he was as “urgent” as the apostle Paul. I only wish I could even remotely approach Mott in this way but the sad truth is he remains a role model, not someone I have been able to follow. He traveled to Asia and Africa long before air travel. (I have traveled to South American and Asia but not Africa!) These adventures allowed him to take long trips where he wrote and studied deeply. He was highly disciplined. (I wish!)

In his travels he carried a heavy trunk in which he had history books, government reports, biographies and much else relating to his destination. He studied people, governments and culture in order to relate to those he was to meet. I actually did the same when I went overseas, spending long hours in the library seeking to understand all I could about the people I would meet. Mott’s goal: to harness all the power and energy he could for the cause of the kingdom of God.

Mott’s dictum, borrowed I sincerely believe from William Carey and maybe others (and slightly altered), was simple: “Plan as if there were no such thing as prayer. Pray as if there were no such thing as planning.” Mott would rehearse his messages with his interpreter in hopes of getting the very nuance of his message across to diverse audiences. Before I knew anything about Mott I was trying to do the same on my trips to various lands and cultures. The demands of this work are huge. I cannot fathom how Mott did it and produced so much for the kingdom at the same time. Again, I can only look at his life as a great role model.

But the area where Mott most impresses me, and shines light on my journey, is his love of Christian unity. He soon realized that the Edinburgh Conference in 1910 implied much more than cooperation. Like me Mott was not a champion of calls for unity at first. He was a passionate evangelist first and foremost. But in time he saw that the two had to be linked as one. What changed?

Through his work with the WSCF Mott met students from the Eastern Orthodox churches. There he met student Christian movements which were solidly confessional in character, which differed profoundly from his own pietistic background. But he also saw true love for Christ and mission. This led to the effort in 1925 at a meeting in Nyborg to create confessional student movements as a part of the growing ecumenism of the time. This was followed by the first two world conferences on faith and Order (Lausanne 1927, Edinburgh, 1937). From these events the rise of what I call missional-ecumenism developed and grew.

Mott wrote:

Genuine cooperation seems to be absolutely essential to ensure the giving of full-orbed expression to the message of the Church of Christ. Christ has not revealed Himself solely or fully through any one nation, race or communion, still less through any one individual or group. No part of mankind has a monopoly of His unsearchable riches. The help of all who in any part of the world bear His name and who have experience of Him, is necessary adequately to reveal His excellences and to communicate His power.