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From Evangelicalism to Atheism — Part Two

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Repost from 2015. Edited, updated, and corrected.

One of the questions I am often asked is, why did you become an Evangelical or why did you become an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist?

This is the wrong question. The real question is this: how could I NOT have become an Evangelical or Independent Fundamentalist Baptist?

Every child is born into this world without a religion. Not one of them knows one thing about God or religion, sin, salvation, or morality. As far as God and religion are concerned, every newborn is a blank slate.

Belief in God must be taught and learned. This teaching is done by parents, extended family, and the culture/society the child grows up in. Children taken to a church, temple, or synagogue, are taught to KNOW God; to know their parents’ religion.

Most children embrace the religion of their parents. Parents who worship the Christian God generally raise children who are Christian. This is especially the case when it comes to Evangelical children. From their toddler years forward, Evangelical children are taught that they are broken, vile sinners alienated from God who need personal salvation. They are taught that, unless they ask Jesus into their hearts, they will end up in Hell when they die. Every Sunday at church, at home during the week, and at school, if they attend a Christian school, Evangelical children face an onslaught of manipulative evangelistic methods geared to help them accept Jesus as their Savior and turn them into dutiful, tithing Evangelical Christians.

It should come as no surprise, then, that most Evangelical children make a salvation decision when they are quite young. This initial salvation experience usually carries them into their teenage years. They are safe and secure in Jesus until they are thirteen or fourteen years old.

During their teenage years, it is not uncommon for Evangelical children to either make another salvation decision or rededicate their lives to Christ. Why is it that so many Evangelical children make another decision during their teenage years?

Think about it. What happens during the teenage years? Children reach puberty, and they begin to discover they have sexual desires. They start wanting to do things that their pastor, church, and parents say are sinful. Most Evangelical teens, if not all, give in to sinful desires. They feel guilty for doing so, and they conclude that they must not “really” be saved or that they need to recommit their lives to Christ.

Many Evangelical teenagers find themselves caught in a constant cycle of sinning, getting saved/rededicating their life to Christ, sinning, getting saved/rededicating their life to Christ. As much as Evangelicals deny it, this cycle becomes the Protestant version of Catholic confession.

In the early 1960s, my Dad moved us from Bryan, Ohio to San Diego. California was the land of opportunity in the 1960s, and my Dad was certain his pot of gold was somewhere in San Diego. He ended up selling patio awnings and driving a truck, and three years later we moved back to Bryan. That pot of gold turned out to be empty.

While living in San Diego, our family attended Scott Memorial Baptist Church, an IFB institution. The pastor at the time was Tim LaHaye, of Left Behind and Act of Marriage fame.  Both of my parents made public professions of faith in Christ at Scott Memorial. I also asked Jesus into my heart in Junior Church. I was five years old.

Politically, my parents were right-wing extremists. They were members of the John Birch Society, hated Martin Luther King Jr, and supported the war effort in Vietnam. Their salvation decision at Scott Memorial fit well with their political and social ideology.

From this point forward, until my parent’s divorce in April of 1972, the Gerencser family was in church every time the doors were open. Sunday morning, Sunday night, prayer meeting, and revival meetings — we were front and center of whatever Fundamentalist church we were attending at the time. When I became a teenager, attending youth group after church was added to the schedule, along with regular youth group activities.

In the fall of 1972, Evangelist Al Lacy came to our church, Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, to hold a revival meeting. On Sunday, during Lacy’s sermon, the spirit of God came over me, telling me that I was a sinner in need of salvation. When it came time for the public invitation, I quickly stepped out of the pew, came down the aisle, and knelt at the altar. There, a church deacon by the name of Ray Salisbury took me through the Romans Road plan of salvation and I asked Jesus to forgive me of my sins and come into my heart. I was fifteen. I was baptized that night, and a week or so later I went forward during the altar call and let the church know that God was calling me to be a preacher. Two weeks later, I preached my first sermon.

As a first-grader in San Diego, I told people that when I grew up I was going to be a preacher, and now, as a fifteen-year-old boy, I was telling the world that God was calling me to be what I wanted to be my entire life. From this point forward, most of the preachers I came in contact with worked with me and steered me towards fulfilling my calling. It came as a shock to no one that I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in 1976 to study for the ministry.

All told, I preached for thirty-two years, spending twenty-five of those years pastoring seven churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I preached more than four thousand sermons and taught countless Sunday school classes. For many years, I also preached on the street and at the local nursing home.So when someone asks, why did you become an Evangelical or why did you become an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, I counter that the real question, based on what I have written here is this: how could I have become anything else?

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 OneFrom Evangelicalism to Atheism — Part Three >>

10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Geoff

    There’s a very real argument that the religious indoctrination you were subjected to as a child amounted to ‘abuse’. Dawkins makes the case that bringing children up with religion is per se abusive.

    On the other hand, if parents really do believe what they say they believe then they’d argue that to bring you up any other way would be a dereliction of their duty. it’s difficult, if not impossible, to work out a way of dealing with this paradox.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I’m an atheist, so no I don’t think there is any such thing/entity/deity called the spirit of God. What I had was a theology/experiential driven experience. Believing something to be true doesn’t make it so. Why do most Baptists NOT speak in tongues but most charismatics/Pentecostals do? If there is a spirit of God, shouldn’t that spirit speak to/direct/influence/lead all Christians regardless of the name on the door. The fact that Baptists don’t and charismatics/Pentecostals do is because of their theological and sociological differences.

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  4. Avatar
    humber702

    You were right, how could you be anything else. I don’t have education, not like you. I’ve never preached like you, or help people like you have, you help people know God. I love that. So whatever your believe system is now I think that’s awesome, because you are choosing not because someone told you to because it makes sense to you now.
    And you’re still preaching to the choir

  5. Avatar
    Ami

    It’s rare for me to discuss religion with my very religious mom. We did briefly discuss a couple weeks ago, and it left her so upset that I once again told myself ‘never again’.

    I just said that the only reason she’s Christian and not Muslim is that she wasn’t born in the Middle East.
    “You’d be a Muslim if you’d been born there, because your parents would have raised you that way.”

    Don’t try logic on an 81 year old lifelong Christian.

  6. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I was raised Catholic, my mother was a devout Catholic and my father a non-churchgoing Lutheran. A promise he had to make before marrying his war bride by the Catholic chaplain was that their children would be raised Catholic. Dad didn’t really see any difference in the values taught by the two churches at the time, so he wasn’t signing up for anything worrisome to him. Because we lived in a city with difficult race issues in the 1960s and 1970s (the city is extremely well-integrated now, but that was then), tensions between students in public schools were high and reports of violence were frequent, I attended Catholic elementary and high schools.

    Despite all that Catholicism, as a teen I started to have doubts. At first, doubts that this church, with it’s vertical management structure, knew its left hand from its right, so to speak. It was becoming clear that my social activist nuns (extremely liberal for the day) and my conservative parents were not singing out of the same hymnal. Then, at some point I realized that the liberal clergy were operating at the outer edge of what the bishop thought was appropriate, and there was indeed a line. There were resignations from the priesthood and convent, by people who were progressive social and political activists and objected too strongly to some church teachings.

    But once that camel’s nose of doubt is under the corner of the tent, you will eventually have a camel in your lap, eating your dinner. Something like that. It took many more years and treatment of lifelong depression diagnosed in my early thirties, but I eventually started evaluating religious claims using the Michael Mock rule. No church, no prayers, no BS to live by, though when the threat of Hell is instilled early it persists as a 3 am worry for awhile. My mother was very disappointed in me, and I suspect my teachers would have been as well if they’d known. Not that I ever openly discussed my lack of religion with my parents, but I was no longer speaking Catholicese or even Christianese. For most of Mom’s adult life she prayed the Rosary at bedtime, and undoubtedly asked the Virgin Mary to intercede with God and get my husband and me back on track. I think my Evangelical mom-in-law prays to Jesus in her tradition’s way for the same things.

    The idea of elderly women wasting precious moments praying for me makes me sad.

  7. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Bruce, you may be interested in the segment of Straight White American Jesus podcast where Dr. Brad Onishi has a series called the Orange Wave, how evangelicalism created an influential stronghold in Southern California. He also mentions the John Birch Society (which sounds like a precursor to QAnon).

    Those of us who grew up in evangelicalism couldn’t help getting saved a few times during our childhood and teen years! I just can’t understand those who get into evangelicalism as adults…..

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