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Honest Reflections From an Evangelical Pastor: It Was Never About Saving Souls

bruce-gerencser-street-preaching-september-7-1990

Let me share a dirty little secret with readers about Evangelicals who are actively involved in what is commonly called “public evangelism.” Door-to-door evangelism, street preaching, handing out tracts, standing on street corners with Bible verse signs — why do some Evangelicals do these things? Is the grand goal to win as many souls as possible before Jesus returns to earth? Is the notion that Hell is hot and death is sure what drives these evangelizers to make a public spectacle of themselves? Is everything they do driven by a love for the lost souls? Surely, these people are True Christians, right? The overwhelming majority of Evangelicals never verbalize their faith to someone else. Yet, these zealots go out of their way to confront non-Christians with their peculiar version of the Christian gospel. Surely, they are the “real” Christians of our day, right? 

I was an Evangelical pastor for 25 years. I spent my formative years in churches that were quite aggressive evangelistically. I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in the 1970s. Midwestern was known for producing soulwinning pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. As a pastor, I certainly followed my training, using the techniques I was taught to harass as many people as possible for Jesus. Yet, despite my on-fire, aggressive soulwinning efforts, few people asked Jesus to save them as a direct result of my efforts. Yes, hundreds of people were saved after listening to me preach, but the number of people saved outside of church services was few. You see, the goal of such efforts was not to win souls, as much as it was:

  • To been seen as a prophet by the community; to be seen as one willing to publicly take a stand for Jesus
  • To been seen as a preacher different from and superior to the other preachers in town; I was the one who cared for their souls, not their pastors
  • To been seen in the same light as the Apostle Paul and other first-century Christians; to say to the communities where I pastored that my churches were the real deal, cut from the fabric of the churches found in the Bible
  • To be seen as being “right,” right about God, Jesus, salvation, the Bible, and New Testament Christianity

Most Americans don’t want to be bothered by Fundamentalist evangelizers. Let me share a soulwinning story from years ago that I think aptly illustrates this fact. One Saturday, Greg Carpenter (Please see Dear Greg.) and I were knocking on doors in Junction City, Ohio. At the time I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry. It was a bitterly cold Ohio winter day, but warm on the inside with love for souls, we started out going door-to-door, looking for people who would let us share the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) gospel with them. We finally came upon a young woman who was willing to “listen” to us. She wouldn’t invite us inside, so we stood on her porch as Greg attempted to win her to Jesus. I still can picture in my mind this woman today. She had no coat on, yet there she stood freezing her ass off as Greg took her through whatever evangelism plan we were using that day. When Greg asked her if she would like to ask Jesus to save her, she said yes! Greg led her in the sinner’s prayer, and the woman was wonderfully and gloriously saved. We heard the angels in Heaven rejoicing over another lost soul being rescued from the clutches of Satan. 

After praying the sinner’s prayer, the newly-saved woman closed the door and we went on our way looking for more victims, er, I mean, lost souls. She was the only soul that was saved that day. Later attempts to get the woman to be baptized and attend church proved futile. You see, the only thing she got saved from on the cold winter day was Greg and Bruce. She just wanted to shut her door and be left alone. 

Winning this woman to Jesus fueled our pride, reminding us that we were doing a great work for the Lord of Lord and Kings and Kings. We were, in fact, bugging people who didn’t want to be bothered. But, since when have Evangelical zealots cared about what non-Christians thought? I didn’t. I was a God-called preacher of the gospel. I was determined to tell others the “truth” even if they didn’t want to hear it. 

“I told them, Lord! The results are up to you,” I told myself. Yep, I sure told them. Part of the deconversion process for me was coming to terms with why I did what I did as an Evangelical pastor. I concluded that I deep down really didn’t care of souls were saved. “That was God’s business,” I thought. This was especially the case after I became a five-point Calvinist. What was most important to me was looking the part; being perceived as a man of God who loved sinners and would go to great lengths to win them to Jesus. 

During the eleven years I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist, over 600 hundred people made profession of faith in Christ. Some Sundays, the altar was lined with people getting saved and getting right with God. Success was measured by altar response. Yet, few of these “converts” became active, long-term church members. 600+ conversions, yet attendance was, at its highest, a little over 200. 

Why were so many people saved under my preaching, yet I failed so miserably in my soulwinning efforts outside of the church? I was passionate both inside and outside of the church. Why the disparate numbers? First, people were attracted to my preaching. By all accounts — just ask former congregants — I was a skilled, winsome preacher. Sunday after Sunday, my sermons were well received. Well, there was that mess of a sermon from Hosea. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was talking about. People drove for miles to hear me preach. I believe this affection for me personally drove the high number of conversions. Once outside of the church, I took on the traits mentioned above. I was more concerned about being a prophet, a beacon of rightness than I was helping others. The good news is that over time I lost my zeal for winning souls, choosing instead to engage people relationally. I suspect Calvinism played a big part in how I viewed the eternal destiny of other people. I left the soul-saving up to God. I just expositionally preached the Bible and left the results up to God. I can count on one hand the people who were saved during the seven years I pastored Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio. Congregants — most of them, anyway — loved me, I loved them back, and we all were quite content to let the world go to Hell. This post is me being brutally, openly honest about my life as an Evangelical pastor. I am sure that my critics will see what I have written here as more proof that I wasn’t really a Christian; that I was a false prophet. To that I say, whatever. I suspect what I have written here will resonate with a lot of Evangelical preachers. They know, deep down, that I am telling the truth.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    I remember when my husband, as a ministry student, and I participated in an outreach. A minister came in to save people, and lead them to our version of Christianity. Well, in the end the pastor insisted on baptizing one woman who he said knew what she was getting into, but she didn’t. And she never attended church afterwards.

    The nice part was at the church afterward, there was a potluck and I met an interesting woman whose son enjoyed the series. She was Islamic and quite refined, had left Iran in the 80s. It was Ramadan too, so she couldn’t eat. That was the best part of my memory, meeting a very nice Islamic lady who was open to her son’s interests.

  2. Avatar
    Julie S.

    Bruce, you are so so right. With Evangelicals/IFBs/Fundamentalists/et-al, it is simply about playing a part that you’re expected to play in order to appear to be a good Christian. Nothing more.

  3. Avatar
    John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    In Perth, Western Australia, there is a Fundamentalist Jehovah Witness “Kingdom Hall” not far up the road from my place. These god pests keep on knocking on my door to try to evangelize me for their sect. I used to waste time picking holes in their perspective, but now I just go out for a cup of coffee and meet with other people who aren’t religious pests.

    May you and your family have a great day, Bruce!

    • Avatar
      Matilda

      A commenter on a Patheos Non Religious blog said that when JWs call, he says ‘Sorry no kids here for your leaders to sexually abuse and then cover up.’ I was dying to try this, they only come once a year where I live, but eventually they came to my door. I said ‘Sorry, wrong house, no kids here.’ JW replied ‘Oh the bible’s not just for children.’ I said I could never join any organisation that covered up child abuse by its leaders. She looked shocked and said ‘We’d never do anything like that.’ I leaned in confidentially and said ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard of that new-fangled thingy called ‘the internet’, well there’s a thing on it called ‘Google’ I recommend you go home and use it.’ I swear she opened and closed her mouth silently and then backed off, nearly falling down the four steps up to my front door, her buddy never said a word!

  4. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    It’s ironic how the sola fide crowd sure works hard to be seen in their piety and sure do harp on people’s actions (i.e., are they following the sect’s rules). It seems like they would make a better impact by going out and actually helping people – serving at food pantries, etc. But what do I know, I am just a heathen.

  5. Avatar
    mary

    it does seem to be about the attention. my parents got an emotional rush from church and preaching. while eating lunch after sunday church, they used to discuss how people reacted and who would be convinced to join/work and who would be moving on. those who joined were valued, the ones who moved on were considered not saved or confused. had to unlearn basing people’s worth on their religious views or activities. ironically the pentecostals like us considered you baptists unsaved and a social club. little did we know it was all the same nonsense. thanks for sharing and shedding light on all of this.

  6. Avatar
    dover1952

    I have never liked street preachers. They seem to go out of their way to be impolite and treat people in a mean-spirited way. It is the kind of behavior that would get a person booted out of most other sociocultural circumstances, such as a party at a person’s house, a somber funeral, or a spot of tea with friends on the patio at 4:00 p.m. I wonder if many street preachers have psychological issues that involve pent up anger and whether street preaching is seen as an appropriate channel to purge out that anger onto other people?

    The next time a street fundie preacher asks you if you know where you would go if you die tonight, tell him the autopsy table down at the morgue or the funeral home. Tell him that even if you are already a Christian. If he persists, tell him the hearse. The casket. The cemetery lawn. The grave. Sheol. Never give him a penny of what he wants from you. End your conversation by saying that Jesus seems to have been a really nice person. Remind him that he—-personally—-is nothing like Jesus.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser