Fish cautions of path of ‘discernible deterioration’
By Susan Mires
ST. LOUIS—Old traditions are stifling creativity and may prove terminal to Southern Baptists, one of the convention’s leaders warned.
Roy Fish, longtime evangelism professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered a solemn sermon Oct. 28 to Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) messengers at the annual meeting in St. Louis.
“We simply cannot, if you please, do church today essentially as we have done it in the past,” Fish said.
He compared church bulletins from a recent service to one 30 years ago and found the order of service nearly identical.
“In some churches, we love our way of worship more than we love the Jesus whom we worship,” Fish said. “We are still altogether too bound to the traditions of yesterday.”
He cautioned equally against becoming “denominational arsonists,” burning down things merely because they are old.
“We have to be sensitive when making change,” Fish said. “It can be done too abruptly. Do you look to the Word of God to direct you how you ought to worship him?”
MBC President Gerald Davidson said he took every course Fish taught at Southwestern.
“He was my professor and I love him dearly. He is a great man of God,” Davidson said. “He chaired that chair of fire at Southwestern for so many years, setting fires of evangelism all across the country.”
Fish pointed to statistics that show a disturbing trend for Southern Baptists. Annual growth was at 4 percent in the 1950s, then slipped to less than 2 percent in the 1980s and has been negligible since 1990.
“Southern Baptists are on the path of slow but discernible deterioration,” he said.”
But he’s still proud to be part of the denomination.
“Someone once asked, ‘What would you be if you weren’t a Southern Baptist?’ I said, ‘I’d be ashamed,’” Fish said. “I’m one of us. When I speak to us in this way, it’s because I love my denomination.”
Baptists have always been a people of optimism, ready to charge hell armed with water pistols, he said.
“I like that about us, but we must be realistic about today if we can be optimistic tomorrow,” he said. “We can be sure of a bright tomorrow only if we are headed in the right direction today.”
With I Kings 13 as his text, Fish preached about the dangers of becoming sidetracked and shelved. Another problem facing the denomination is when men of God compete rather than cooperate, he said, and attacks within the convention have become personal and not controlled by love.
Keeping faith in an inerrant Bible is essential to accomplish God’s mission, he said.
“I am not ashamed of the fact that I have been a supporter of what we call the resurgence,” Fish said. “But how tragic if it leads to little more than cold orthodoxy, full heads and empty hearts. I’m not suggesting that biblical orthodoxy will always lead to church growth, but there certainly won’t be church growth without it.”
Partial obedience could also lead to being sidetracked and shelved, Fish said. Christians do have a responsibility to influence the culture, he said.
“But if our commission to win people to Jesus is not being obeyed, whatever else we’re doing is only partial,” he said. “Most of us realize Southern Baptists are not God’s last hope for the world. God may raise up another people with a burning commitment to accomplish His will.”
Fish said the annual meeting, held to transact business, could be a place where Missouri Baptists grasped a fresh command to march forward.
“Friends, let’s cheer up. Let’s look up; let’s step up; let’s pray up; let’s rise up until the devils in hell tremble, hell shakes and we become a denomination of conquest once again.”