The writer of Hebrews charges every new generation with the task of remembering past leaders: "Remember your leaders who first taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and trust the Lord as they do" (Hebrews 13:7 NLT).
Ray Stedman was one of the great pastors and leaders of a generation of evangelicals that is quickly passing away. From a secular standpoint, Tom Brokaw calls this "the greatest generation." Whether or not Ray Stedman's generation of evangelicals was the greatest, they certainly leave a legacy that today's generation cannot afford to neglect.
When asked why a biography of Ray Stedman should be written, Ray's longtime friend Howard Hendricks responded, "We're living in a generation in which the pedestals are empty. . . . One of the disadvantages of our generation is that it's called the 'Now Generation' because the past is irrelevant, the future is uncertain; therefore they live for the present. The result is they have historical amnesia and need to know the men of the last generation, upon whose shoulders we stand today. Ray certainly qualifies, I believe. He was a much more important leader in evangelicalism than most Christians would know, because of his incredible humility. He was never a self-promoter. He never sought high positions. But everywhere I go, to this day when I mention Ray Stedman's name I get an incredible response. . . . He would be a candidate, in my mind, for a position on the Mount Rushmore of evangelicals." ( Howard Hendricks, interview by author, Summer 200l.)
J. I. Packer also recognized Ray as one of those great leaders. In an endorsement of an expositional commentary written by Kent Hughes, Packer made the following reference to Stedman: "Throughout the Christian centuries, from Crysostom and Augustine through Luther, Calvin, and Matthew Henry, to Martin Lloyd-Jones and Ray Stedman, working pastors have been proving themselves to be the best of all Bible expositors." (R. Kent Hughes, Colossians and Philemon, The Supremacy of Christ, 2nd edition (Westchester: Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, 1995). Quotation is from the back of the book jacket.)
Is Packer right in placing Stedman among the likes of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin? Consider his legacy:
In 1948, when Ray Stedman came to what was then called Peninsula Bible Fellowship (later to become Peninsula Bible Church), he began what became a prototype for the first "seeker sensitive" church. When I arrived at Peninsula Bible Church (PBC) as a new Christian in 1974, it was packed with teenagers. Having been raised in a Roman Catholic home, this was the first Protestant church I had ever entered; yet I felt immediately at home. The building was simple, and the style of the worship service was casual. Blue jeans were the norm, and contemporary music filled the place with praise. Ray encouraged people to stand up and share about their struggles and sins so the body could "bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2 NASB)
In one important sense, however, Ray's ministry was unlike the modern seeker-sensitive movement, which often abandons biblical exposition in favor of topical preaching that seeks relevancy by focusing on "felt needs." Ray believed that nothing could be more exciting and more relevant to the needs of people than the Scriptures being taught as they should be. Throughout his ministry, he remained committed to biblical exposition, but did so in a way that communicated clearly even to those without any religious background. When Ray preached, unchurched people felt he was talking to them. In other words, Ray believed biblical exposition is the most seeker-sensitive thing a preacher can do!
Stedman's high regard for the Word of God and biblical exposition was at the heart of what he believed the church is all about. "I'm very much persuaded that the power of preaching is, by God's design, the most powerful motivation of a congregation that you will ever see," he said. "Nothing turns people on like God's truth, and when they see the remarkable plan of God for the functioning of His people, they can hardly wait to find opportunity to put it into practice. And much of the artificial prods that we use today to get people going are simply a confession on our part that we have not found the way to motivate people by the power of the preaching of the Word of God." ( Lecture at Glen Eyrie, unpublished article, n.d.)
Though conservative in his theology, Ray Stedman was a radical in the area of ecclesiology. At PBC, Ray birthed many of the things we take for granted in the evangelical church today and chronicled it all in Body Life, his seminal book on the church. In this book, which has sold thousands of copies since it was first published in 1972, Ray applied the New Testament vision of the church as the body of Christ to a new generation. He believed the work of the ministry should be done by people in the pews rather than by professionals and that the role of pastors is to equip the saints to use their spiritual gifts. In keeping with this conviction, Ray deplored all things ecclesiastical, even refusing to be called the senior pastor of PBC. He avoided anything that promoted hierarchical separation in the church, and he insisted that the church be led by servant-leaders (called elders) who were responsible to Christ, the Living Head of the body.
Ray's commitment to equipping the saints also extended to the training of pastors. He loved mentoring young men who desired to teach the Scriptures, and he believed that pastors should be trained in the local church rather than in the seminary. Along with David Roper, Ray started Scribe School, a two-year internship program with heavy emphasis on biblical languages, where many pastors were trained over the years. Ray's vision to train pastors also found expression in a successful pastors' conference where for years he and his colleagues taught the principles of Body Life to hundreds of Christian leaders. It is a testimony to the success of Ray's vision that when he retired there was no need to hire a pastor to replace him. Several men already on staff were well prepared to preach and lead the church. And today, many Scribe School graduates, including myself, minister throughout the nation and the world.
One of the men profoundly influenced by Ray Stedman was Charles Swindoll. At one point in his life, after he and several pastors had met with Ray, Swindoll reflected, ''As we said good-bye to Ray, I walked a little slower. I thought about the things he had taught me without directly instructing me and about the courage he had given me without deliberately exhorting me. I wondered how it happened. I wondered why I had been so privileged to have my 'face' reflected in his 'water' or my 'iron' sharpened by his 'iron' . . . I found myself wanting to run back to his car and tell him how much I love and admire him. But it was late, and after all I'm a fifty-five-year-old man. A husband. A father. A grandfather. A pastor. . . . But as I stood there alone in the cold night air, I suddenly realized what I wanted to be most when I grow up." ( Charles Swindoll, Of Servants and Mentors, unpublished article, n.d.)
It is my hope that this biography of Ray Stedman will provide a new generation of evangelicals a refreshing and relevant model of what to be when they grow up.