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Fish emphasizes personal evangelism

SAN ANTONIO (BP)–Roy Fish, retired professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed hundreds of people attending his “Equipped for Fruitful Evangelism” breakout session June 11 at the Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference in San Antonio.

Fish cited a Methodist author, W.E. Sangster, who said that the easiest way to embarrass 20th-century Christians is to ask them two questions: When was the last time you personally led someone to Jesus Christ? And when was the last time you tried?

“As a denomination, are we taking these questions seriously?” Fish asked.

When the Southern Baptist Convention had 8 million members back in the 1950s, it took about 20 Southern Baptists a whole year to win one person to faith in Christ, Fish said. Nowadays, when the SBC has more than 16 million members, it takes 44 church members a whole year to win a person to faith in Christ, thus supporting Fish’s assertion that the SBC isn’t getting any stronger in evangelism and baptisms, and is probably getting weaker.

Noting some reasons why the Southern Baptist Convention is “not the denomination with the evangelistic impact that we were at one time,” Fish said personal soul-winning is on the decline because American culture has changed “so drastically since the 1950s” from being “Christian-friendly” to “Christian-indifferent” to “Christian-hostile.”

There is also a “growing universalism in the United States” that Fish said he saw coming in the 1960s when he attended “a congress on evangelism” that had a breakout session where he heard four supposed Bible-believing evangelicals read their position papers on the destiny of non-Christians, and not one man mentioned hell.

“I mean, there wasn’t even a Hades, a Gehenna or a Sheol,” Fish said to the laughing crowd. He said that ripple of universalism “has become a sizable wave in our time.”

“Very little will stultify evangelism and missions any quicker than the belief that nobody is really lost and everybody is going to make it to heaven sooner or later,” Fish added. “Why go across the sea … or across the street with the message of Jesus if everybody is either already saved or everybody will make it to heaven, ultimately, anyhow?”

Another hindrance to evangelism in the SBC is a “distorted Calvinism,” said Fish, who holds a Ph.D. in church history.

“I know that basically our theology as Baptist people over the years has been Calvinistic,” he said.

“And the most virile kind of evangelism has been moderately Calvinistic,” he said with reference to George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards — “some of those heroes of the first Great Awakening, particularly” in American church history whose Calvinism wasn’t “the distorted kind.”

“What I’m talking about is what happened in this country among Baptists in the 19th century in what historians call the anti-mission movement. Really, it was the first major controversy among Baptists in the United States,” Fish recounted, when Baptists of that day were wondering whether evangelism should be part of their ministry.

Such a sentiment may have come from an associational meeting in England when William Carey, who was concerned for the lost souls of India, proposed that the Gospel be shared with them, Fish said.

“John Ryland Sr. said to him, ‘Sit down young man. If God wants to evangelize the heathen in India, He will do it without you or me,'” Fish said. This kind of “distorted Calvinism can be a very serious enemy to evangelism in our churches.”

A third hindrance to evangelism is “moral and spiritual relativism,” Fish said, noting that 70 to 80 percent of college freshmen do not believe in moral absolutes.

Fish offered several ways that Southern Baptists can become more effective in evangelism, suggesting that God’s basic way is one-to-one evangelism, or personal or relationship evangelism.

Saying that many years ago he didn’t believe in relationship evangelism , Fish cited the time in Baptist life when Baptists would canvass a neighborhood, knocking on the doors of strangers and sharing the Gospel.

“And if people let us in, we’d try to win them to Jesus,” he said. “It was just cold turkey, but God honored it. We saw some people saved.”

But about 20 years ago, Fish said, he became a convert to relationship evangelism when he realized “the best personal evangelism is moving along the lines of relationships,” and “the place we ought to start is our own neighborhood.”

Fish cited organizational evangelism, saying there is “no greater mission field in the United States than the church,” and challenging churches to deliver Gospel truths to their congregations clearly and often.

“I know there are lost church members,” he said, “because I was one of them.”

“Capitalize on seasonal events,” Fish advised, noting the success of churches that use the 4th of July and a singing Christmas tree to reach lost people.

Fish said theological evangelism must emphasize “sowing as well as reaping.”

“When I was growing up, the hero was the soul-winner … and I heard very little about sowing or even cultivating,” he said.

Fish said Southern Baptists must make use of literature in a new way. He referred to a lawyer friend who called him and related that he believed in God but not the life and work of Jesus Christ. Fish purchased a copy of Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” The lawyer called Fish some time later and said he had become a Christian because of the book and that he was sending a copy of his testimony along with copies of the book to 12 of his lawyer friends.

Pulling a Gospel tract from his coat pocket, Fish said, “Let’s get the Word of God into the hands of people because it is still sharper than any two-edged sword.

“We’ve got to major on children and youth, friend, or we’re not even going to be here in 50 years as Southern Baptists,” he said.

“I want to know what you are doing with athletic events,” Fish said. Using sports events evangelistically provides “ways you haven’t explored yet” to reach your neighborhood with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, said Fish, who noted that 90 percent of Americans are affected by sports every week.

Reiterating a previous point, Fish said, “We must remain dogmatic at the point of insisting that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. That’s a point at which we cannot compromise.”

Fish said he believes that God has “raised us up primarily for the purpose about which I am talking to you today — to get a saving message out to a lost world — and we’re not doing it. I don’t know whether we realize what is at stake or not.

“The glory of God is vitally tied into our reaching lost people for Jesus,” he said. “We ought to be motivated, we ought to leave this place with fresh commitment to sharing the world’s greatest love story and the most exciting story this world has ever heard.”

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  • Norm Miller