John Raleigh Mott was born today (May 25) in 1865 and died in 1955. Mott had a motto: The Evangelization of the World in This Generation.
The motto was controversial, and sounded far too optimistic and imperial to its critics. But as Mott patiently explained in numerous books and countless conference talks, he meant for it to be optimistic, because as he read the world situation, he saw a perfect window of opportunity for the churches to spread the gospel. By “evangelization” Mott didn’t mean conversion –as if the entire world could be converted in this generation– but exposure to the gospel.
Even in Mott’s lifetime, the motto was widely disparaged. Critics were sure it must mean a widespread, shallow broadcasting of a simplified version of Christian faith. But Mott meant no such thing, as he tirelessly explained, and as his work in the harvest field showed.
Stephen Neill has said,
The slogan was based on an unexceptionable theological principle –that each generation of Christians bears responsibility for the contemporary generation of non-Christians in the world, and that it is the business of each such generation of Christians to see to it, as far as lies within its power, that the Gospel is clearly preached to every single non-Christian in the same generation. This is a universal and permanent obligation… If the principle is to be rejected, the New Testament must first be rewrittten.
An interesting side note on Mott’s career is that he made a strong impression on the young Karl Barth. Shortly after the 1910 Edinburgh conference on missions, Mott came to Geneva where Barth was serving as assistant pastor. Barth was still a young man who hadn’t had his liberal seminary education beaten out of him by the twentieth century yet. According to his biographer, Barth had a few “serious reservations about the way in which Mott acted rather like an American businessman.” But Barth’s general response was positive:
He has only one tune… but it’s a a good one: evangelization, mankind for Jesus and Jesus for mankind… One can detect a strength and a concentration of religious experience, the superiority of which we should be glad to recognize; just as our principles of individual and socila morality may seem to be somewhat colourless against the relaity which encounters us in Mott… He is a personality; the reason why we give speeches and write books… That is what I felt when I listened to his lectures in Geneva.