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Richard Fisher: The Most Dangerous Trend in the Church Today

The second Saturday speaker at the Discern 2010 conference at Calvary Santa Fe was G. Richard Fisher, board member of Personal Freedom Outreach [link] and former pastor of Laurelton Park Baptist Church in Bricktown, New Jersey. His topic was “The Most Dangerous Trend in the Church Today” [mp3|stream]. This was an excerpt or reworking or something of his Quarterly Journal Volume 26, Number 3 article “You Lose! The Detrimental Effects of the Decline of Doctrine” [journal index PDF]. Unfortunately issues of The Quarterly Journal itself are not available online.

As I have mentioned earlier, talks at this conference were at different points on a continuum from a lecture to a sermon; this was one of the most sermon-like talks. A casual reader of the conference schedule would have had no idea from reading the title of Fisher’s talk what it was about: in his opinion there is more than one dangerous trend at work in the Church today, and this unnamed trend is the most dangerous, but the title gives no clue as to what it is.

It turns out the most dangerous trend is the decline of doctrine. Or possibly the decline of discernment. Or maybe the emerging/emergent church. It wasn’t clear from what Fisher said whether these three things were the same thing or different things. Whatever it is, it is more dangerous than any of the alternatives he named: prayerlessness, materialism, pornography, and decadent worldiness. I really don’t know how one decides what is or isn’t a trend in the church (is “hipster Christianity” a trend? Church foreclosures? Casual dress? etc.), much less how one measures the relative danger of a given trend. I didn’t get the impression that Fisher actually meant what he said that way: what he meant was “doctrine is important.” Although it wasn’t really clear which doctrines. Or whether what was important was the production of new doctrines, the expression and application of accepted doctrines in new ways, or just the acceptance and defense of established historical doctrines.

I have been grappling with the lecture/sermon distinction lately, trying to find a way to describe what really distinguishes one from the other, and why one is to be preferred over the other. I think the distinguishing characteristics are these:

  • Linearity: does the speaker lay out a series of points that follow one from another? Does he connect the points for his audience?
  • Authority: does the true-ness of the discussion lie in the facts presented? In the speaker? In some unquestionable external source? Does the speaker use Scripture to bolster his points? Or does he read verses of Scripture in context and see what they have to say first?
  • Argumentation: does the speaker rely on formal or informal fallacies to make his points? Does the speaker feel the need to remind his audience that he and they are on the same side against some common enemy?
  • Relevance: does the speaker pepper his presentation with possibly amusing but not necessarily relevant stores?
  • Literality: how literally can you take what the speaker is saying? Do you have to agree with him regarding the interpretation of a metaphor for his presentation to make sense?

I’m inclined to see these two extremes as being part of different schools, or from different periods in Church history. At the risk of being heavy-handed, I tend to see the sermon presentations as being premodern and the lectures as being modern: the lecture trusts the listener to think for himself (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) while the sermon will do almost anything to persuade the listener to believe, preferably without thinking anything that might clutter neat agreement.

I think it would be helpful to listen to Fisher’s presentation back-to-back with either of the opening arguments from the White-Sungenis predestination debate. By comparison Fisher is dogmatic and seems almost incoherent.

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