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From Evangelicalism to Atheism — Part Four

creamery road zanesville ohio
Creamery Road, Zanesville, Ohio

Repost from 2015. Edited, updated, and corrected.

After two short stints pastoring Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas (1994) and Olive Branch Christian Union Church (1995) in Fayette, Ohio, I started a Sovereign Grace Baptist congregation in West Unity, Ohio called Grace Baptist Church. Several years later, we would change the church’s name to Our Father’s House to better reflect our inclusiveness.

When I started Grace Baptist Church, I was a five-point Calvinist, not much different theologically from my description in part three of this series. I remained a Calvinist until the late 1990s, at which time my theology and political beliefs began lurching leftward. The church changed its name and I began to focus more on inclusivism and good works. During this time, my theology moved from a Calvinistic/Reformed viewpoint to more of a liberal/progressive Mennonite perspective. Much of my preaching focused on the good works every Christian should be doing and the church’s responsibility to minister to the sick, poor, and marginalized.

As my preaching moved leftward, so did my politics. By the time I left Our Father’s House in July of 2002, I no longer politically identified as a Republican. The single biggest change in my beliefs came when I embraced pacifism. The seeds of pacifism were sown years before when the United States immorally attacked Iraq in the first Iraq War. I opposed this war, and as I began reading authors such as Thomas Merton, Dorothy DayJohn Howard YoderGandhi, and Eileen Egan, I concluded that all war was immoral.

By the time of the Y2K scare:

  • I was preaching inclusivism, encouraging interaction and work with all who claimed the Christian moniker.
  • I was preaching a works-centered, lifestyle-oriented gospel. Gone was the emphasis on being “born again” or making a public profession of faith. In particular, I focused on the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
  • I believed the institutional, organized Christian church was hopelessly broken and increasingly indifferent towards the needs of the poor and marginalized.
  • I was a committed, vocal pacifist, opposing all war on moral grounds. I remain a pacifist to this day.

In 2003, I pastored Victory Baptist Church — a Southern Baptist congregation in the central Michigan community of Clare — for seven months. Both Polly and I agree that we never should have moved to Clare.  It was a wasted seven months (more on that in a future post) that ended with me resigning from the church. This was the last church I pastored.

While I was pastor of Victory Baptist, a friend of mine from Ohio came to visit us. From 1991-1994, he had been a member of the church I pastored in Somerset, Ohio. After listening to me preach, he told me that he was astounded by how much my preaching had changed, how liberal it had become. And he was right. While my preaching was orthodox theologically, my focus had dramatically changed.

In 2004, Polly and I moved to Yuma, Arizona. We lived in Yuma for almost seven months. We then moved to Newark Ohio, where we lived for ten months. In July of 2005, we moved back to the northwest Ohio community of Bryan. In May of 2007, we bought a house in Ney, Ohio where we currently live.

As you can see, we did a lot of moving over the course of four years. We were restless seekers. Every place we lived, we diligently, Sunday after Sunday, Wednesday after Wednesday, visited local churches in hopes of finding a spiritual home. Instead of finding a home, we increasingly became dissatisfied and disillusioned. We came to the conclusion that, regardless of the name over the door, churches were pretty much all the same. Dysfunctional, incestuous, focused inward, entertainment/program driven, resembling social clubs far more than the church Jesus purportedly built. This would prove to be the emotional factor that drove me to investigate thoroughly the theological claims of Christianity and the teachings of the Bible. This investigation ultimately led to my deconversion in 2008.

From 2004-2007, Polly and I visited over a hundred churches of numerous sects:

  • Baptist (Independent, Southern, American, Conservative, Reformed, Sovereign Grace, Free Will, Primitive, GARBC, Missionary)
  • Lutheran (American, Missouri)
  • Church of Lutheran Brethren
  • Church of Christ (instrumental, non-instrumental)
  • Disciples of Christ
  • Methodist
  • Free Methodist
  • Christian Union
  • Church of Christ in Christian Union
  • United Brethren
  • Christian Missionary and Alliance
  • Roman Catholic
  • Apostolic
  • Vineyard
  • Calvary Chapel
  • Bible Church
  • Pilgrim Holiness
  • Greek Orthodox
  • Episcopalian
  • Church of God
  • Church of God Anderson
  • Pentecostal
  • Charismatic
  • Assembly of God
  • Mennonite
  • Old Order Mennonite
  • Presbyterian Church USA
  • Orthodox Presbyterian Church
  • Christian Reformed
  • Protestant Reformed
  • United Church of Christ
  • Friends
  • And a plethora of independent, unaffiliated churches

You can read the entire list of churches we visited here.

Some Sundays, we attended the services of three different churches. We also attended Wednesday prayer meetings (all poorly attended) and a fair number of special services such as revival meetings during the week.

The most astounding thing that came out of our travels through Christendom is that most pastors don’t care if people visit their churches. Less than 10% of the churches we visited made any contact with us after we visited. Only a handful visited us in our home without us asking them to do so.

In November of 2008, I told Polly that I was no longer a Christian, that I no longer believed the central tenets of the Christian religion. Not long after, Polly came to a similar conclusion. In 2009, I wrote my infamous letter, A Letter to Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. This letter was my official coming out. Later in 2009, a former parishioner, friend, and pastor of a Christian Union church came to see me in hopes of rescuing me. I later wrote him a letter. You can read the letter here.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Series Navigation<< From Evangelicalism to Atheism — Part ThreeFrom Evangelicalism to Atheism: Twelve Years Later — Part Five >>

15 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ami

    I was interested in this, “Less than 10% of the churches we visited made any contact with us after we visited. Only a handful visited us in our home without us asking them to do so.”

    We tried a few churches when we were young and gullible. And when one of the pastors just stopped by, unannounced and uninvited, we were both stunned and more than a little angry. We were raised believing that it’s not polite to just drop in on someone, and that it’s rude to do so. Learned that lesson fast… we stopped giving our address and contact information when we visited a church. Took us a little longer to realize the whole church thing was a scam. 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Ami

    I should add that it wasn’t a particularly bad time for someone to drop in, we weren’t naked and covered with peanut butter and no one was chained to the table leg, either. It was just such an intrusion into our lives to have someone come to our home and expect to be welcomed and appreciated.

    🙂

  3. Avatar
    Unah

    Something similar happened to me. There came a point in my life where I suddenly saw the church for what it was, an entertaining social club. I’m not exactly sure what or when it happened, but I had lived outside of the country for a few years, and when I moved back I could never find a place where I fit. It was like I had seen too much, and I couldn’t go home again. As the last few years passed and I searched for a church, I realized what I was missing was the nostalgia of my childhood church experience. The Sunday school classes, church Easter picnic, the Christmas celebration, youth group, etc. I was searching for the tight knit community of family, and people that were such good friends that they were like family. I was never able to find that again, and a part of me sometimes wonders if it ever really existed, or if it is just a rosy childhood memory. For the last several years my family has been from church to church sometimes settling for a while until we cannot take it any more, and then we move on. We end up sitting next to strangers every Sunday, smiling politely, knowing that both we and the family next to us has no desire to really know each other. We get stuck in bible studies and prayer groups with the same results. Everyone is well aware that they are there only there for the bible study or prayer group, and there will be no further interaction beyond that agenda. It doesn’t really matter though because so many of them seem so nutty to me anyway. Some people are just fine with this arrangment, but it unsettles me at my core, and I would rather just stop. But when you have been raised in the church it is very hard to figure out how to raise your kids outside of it.

  4. Avatar
    Ted Colt

    Far too many leave Christianity after becoming liberal. Their subsequent adoption of atheism always appears a convenient dismissal of morality.

    I write this as a fellow atheist and former Baptist, not a Christian.

      • Avatar
        Ted Colt

        Gay marriage.
        On demand pregnancy abortion.
        Tax supported welfare.
        No-fault divorce.
        Ant-discrimination legislation.
        Inheritance taxes.
        Discouragement of gleaning in favor of charity (and dependence w/o labor).
        Encouragement of extra-marital sexual and erotic experience.
        Consumerism and consumer debt.
        The sins of Jeroboam.

  5. Avatar
    Kenneth

    What is your opinion of Jesus of Nazareth? Is He a insignificant nobody from an insignificant area, or part of the flying sphagetti monster of Richard Dawkins’ critisms? Is Jesus a figment of myth as Richard Carrier proposes? I would like to know who you say Jesus is?

  6. Avatar
    Bella

    This is fascinating, Bruce. I would like to know more about your inner processes at the time of this transformation: your doubts, inner conflicts, and feelings that accompanied them. Maybe it’s written somewhere already?

    How interesting that Polly experienced this process in parallel. Would love to hear her thoughts on that too (guest post?).

    Found you through the Patheos blog.

  7. Avatar
    Dave

    Ha! I went from Assemblies of God, to Calvary Chapel, to Amish Mennonite, to Orthodox, to SSPX (extreme Fundamentalist Catholic sect), to Plymouth Brethren, to Elim Pentecostal (I’d had a deep spiritual experience that reignited my faith and temporarily led me away from intellectual Christianity back to an emotional and feelings based faith). After the short stint in Catholicism I began to develop more liberal views as I saw Christianity as an unsolvable mess. I became less theologically driven. I was attending Plymouth Brethren and Pentecostal but I considered myself a moderate-liberal, Existentialist, Neo-Anabaptist.

  8. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I, too, had a long path out of Christianity, which I won’t detail here… except to say that it was made more difficult by chronic depression. I envy those who come to atheism early and with certainty. For me it was a struggle. I had to rationally re-think an awful lot of assumptions.

    I know the comment is from last summer, but I found the exchange between Bruce and Ted Colt interesting. I don’t believe I became *less* moral as an atheist, but my moral sense is certainly based on a different understanding of right and wrong. I am very much a secular humanist. People are important. Human rights are important. What makes something wrong is all about whether it hurts others, either personally or collectively. Sometimes there are no good solutions to a problem, and someone is going to get hurt; there, the right choice is minimizing the hurt.

    Morality is hard work when you have to think it through yourself.

  9. Avatar
    DougK

    Opposing war is always one of the finest things we can do–as Bruce Springsteen pointed out, it’s “good for absolutely nothing.” (And “Fields of Fire” by Big Country is hands-down my favorite anti-war song.) However I’ve seen some things over my life that bother me.

    I grew up, for example, watching the TV show MASH. The doctors on the show rightly decried the killing, etc., yet any North Koreans who appeared were invariably portrayed as compassionate, wise, mature individuals, while any overtly patriotic American was painted as a one-dimensional buffoon, like Frank Burns & Col. Flagg.

    Much like America attacking Iraq, North Korea attacked South Korea and started this whole atrocity–but I’d never have known it from watching that show. Shouldn’t they have been calling the perpetrators out? That tells me they weren’t so much against war; they were just against America.

    And North Vietnam did the same thing attacking their southern neighbor, and attacking, and after finally agreeing to peace, attacked still again once the US pulled out. Yet in all these years I’ve yet to hear anyone find fault with North Vietnam. Somehow it’s always America who’s the bad guy.

    Thinking out loud, I wonder if these kinds of people would like to overhaul our government and install a more socialist one? Russia did that in 1917. Yet it was this that started the process leading to the Korean War, Vietnam War, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Stalin and Mao killing millions of their people, etc. No thank you.

    We need to call out aggression and wars, whoever’s perpetrating them. Otherwise, how will wars ever stop?

  10. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    True enough, DougK. I’m continually haunted by Russia,and what happened in 1917. There was a civil war not long after,once the people cought on that the Bolsheviks were saying land, peace, bread- that version of the New Deal- was not true after all. And the people lost ultimately,lost big, because this Bolshies took all the food and all the guns. There’s such profit in war, that “they” will kill anyone who gets in the way. America is not the bad guy here, but ” they” sure are. Our government is just packed with them. And the churches, most of them, are in lockstep and agreement with “they”. Those same people who killed the Kennedy brothers and MLK, are still doing their thing today. Fomenting tension all around the world. Now that tech is so advanced, “they” don’t bother to hide their trails like before. Got what ” they ” wanted. Small wonder the churches are so dysthe. the

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