I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio for eleven years, from 1983-1994. I started the church in a storefront with 16 people. The church later grew to over 200 people. In 1989, after stopping our multi-county bus ministry due to costs, I started a tuition-free non-chartered Christian school for church children.
For five years, Polly and I, along with a handful of dedicated church members, got up early each morning and made our way to Somerset Baptist Academy (SBA) to teach our church’s children. Best described as a one-room schoolhouse, SBA had fifteen students. Most of the students were lacking academically, and though in retrospect some aspects of our school program were lacking, when it came to the basics, we excelled.
During this time, I was introduced to street preaching by Evangelist Don Hardman. Annually, Hardman would come to our church and hold a fifteen-day protracted meeting — the highlight of the church calendar year. Hardman and I later had a falling out due to my embrace of Calvinism. (Please see the series, My Life as a Street Preacher.)
Several times a week, I would take the church children with me to Newark and Zanesville where I preached and they handed out tracts and attempted to evangelize passersby. After a few years of doing this, I stopped due to increasing criticism from locals, suggesting that it was wrong (cultic) for me to use the children in this manner. While I wholeheartedly objected to their assertions — how was selling school raffle tickets any different? — I recognized that their continued participation was harming the church’s “testimony.”
What follows is a story written in 1990 by then Newark Advocate writer Kathy Wesley (behind paywall). The main character in the story is Shawn Nelson, a ninth-grade student at Somerset Baptist Academy.
You Never Realize How Wicked the World Is by Kathy Wesley, a features writer for The Advocate. Published September 16, 1990
NEWARK– The summer breeze is playing tricks with Shawn Nelson’s sandy hair, blowing it to and fro like wheat straw.
The sun is bright, the afternoon warm, the streets full of people. But Shawn sees darkness around the Courthouse Square.
“You never realize how wicked the world is until you get out there and see it,” the 14-year-old says, glancing around. “You see women in these short skirts, and men wearing no shirts at all, yelling and cussing at their kids.”
While many of his friends are back on the public school playground tossing footballs or dribbling basketballs, Shawn is toting his well-worn Bible in a race against evil on the Courthouse Square.
He spends three hours a week on the streets of Newark and Zanesville with 11 classmates from Somerset Baptist Academy, handing out tracts and opening their Bibles to anyone who will listen.
“It’s fun,” he says, shifting his Good Book from one hand to another and fingering his quarter-inch-thick packet of tracts. “You get to show people how to go to heaven.”
A well-dressed woman passes by, brusquely refusing Shawn’s tract, which asks on its front cover, “Where are you going to spend eternity?”
“It’s OK,” he says afterward. “You get used to it.”
Shawn’s been on the streets since May, when a traveling evangelist sold his pastor, the Rev. Bruce Gerenscer [sic], on street ministering. It felt strange at first to walk up to complete strangers and push Bible tracts into their hands, but Shawn is now a pro.
The latter-day apostle knows all the ropes: don’t give people a chance to say no, don’t step off the sidewalk. “As long as you’re on the sidewalk,” he explains, “you’re on public property and no one can arrest you.”
Like the other children, ranging in age from 9 to 16, Shawn has a Bible marked at the two verses they are to show to people who might stop to ask them for spiritual guidance: John 3:16 (” For God so loved the world … “) and Revelations [sic] 3:20.
In four months on the street, nobody’s asked Shawn to show them the way to salvation, but he’s ready. He’s in the midst of memorizing his Bible.
“I want to memorize the whole thing,” he says. “That way, when someone asks you a Bible question, you’ll immediately know the answer.”
There’s not a lot of Bible quizzes given on the streets of downtown Newark, but Shawn seems fairly confident already. His answers to questions of faith spill quickly from memory with childlike enthusiasm.
“In the old days religion was different,” he says. “Then men decided they wanted new religions, which had nothing to do with the Bible.”
“The Mormons and Presbyterians, among others, are in trouble with the Bible,” Shawn says. “They believe in a different way to go to heaven. Some say you have to work your way to heaven … but the Bible says the only way to heaven is through the Father.”
He’s not sure what it is to be a Christian, “except that you should obey the Bible and you shouldn’t sin.” But the details of those requirements seem to be a little hazy.
With the exception of his ambition to memorize the Bible, Shawn’s future is likewise fuzzy. He hasn’t thought about a career, although he acknowledges he has a fondness for automobiles and engines.
It’s fun for him to be on the street; he recalls with delight the lemonade a Zanesville street vendor gave him one day. But behind it all is his deadly serious mission.
Unlike his predecessor Paul, who spread the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the streets of downtown Ephesus in the First Century, Shawn doesn’t have to dodge spears and unfriendly government officials. He just has to put up with the rejection of people who walk a half block out of their way to go around him, and the taunts of children his own age who pass on bicycles.
“Sometimes they ride by and they mock us,” Shawn says, “and I don’t like it.”
But not, he says, because they hurt his feelings.
“I don’t like it,” he says quietly, with the firmness of childhood certainty, “because I know they’re going to die and go to hell.”
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.
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