I was raised in a dysfunctional Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family, attended IFB churches throughout my childhood, attended an IFB college, married an IFB preacher’s daughter, and pastored several IFB churches in the late 1970s and 1980s. Yet, by the late 1980s, I was, for a variety of reasons, done with the IFB church movement. What happened?
One of the reasons was math. Yes, math. As a young preacher, I would attend Sword of the Lord conferences, Bible conferences, and preacher’s meetings. I heard countless big-name IFB preachers; men who pastored churches running thousands in attendance; churches that were winning hundreds and thousands of souls to Christ. Men such as Jack Hyles, Bob Gray (Longview), Curtis Hutson, Bob Gray (Jacksonville), John Rawlings, Tommy Trammel, Lee Roberson, Lester Roloff, Tom Malone, and others whose names are long forgotten, regaled attendees with stories about their dick size, uh I mean church-building prowess. These men would wow young preachers such as myself with attendance and soulwinning claims, suggesting that we too could be successful if we just followed in their steps, uh, I mean Jesus’ steps.
One day, I was sitting in my study at Somerset Baptist Church thinking about my ministry. Somerset Baptist was a growing, thriving rural church. We had just passed 200 in attendance. Souls were being saved every week. My colleagues in the ministry were talking about me being an up-and-comer. Some of them were even asking me for tips on how to grow their churches. I felt that I had arrived.
My mind turned to Jack Hyles, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana — then the largest church in the United States. I had just listened to a Hyles sermon on cassette tape. Hyles, a braggart if there ever was one, was regaling listeners with a statistical accounting of how busy he was for Jesus; how many people he counseled; how many sermons he preached; how many people he evangelized. On and on he went, painting himself as the busiest and most productive preacher since the Apostle Paul.
Hyles was quite the preacher; a storyteller. Surprisingly, Hyles preached very little from the Bible. I had long believed that Hyles was a master exaggerator. That’s Greek for liar. Every preacher could exaggerate from time to time to prove a point, myself included. David Foster Wallace once said, and I paraphrase, “why let the truth get in the way of a good story?” This was certainly the case with IFB preachers — a movement built on dick size: attendance, baptisms, offerings, souls saved.
After listening to Hyles’ sermon, I wrote down all the things he said he did every week and the amount of time he had to do them. It quickly became clear to me that Hyles was lying; that he was grossly overstating how busy he was and how much he was doing for the Lord.
I then went on to examine the claims made by other IFB luminaries. I concluded that most of them played loose with the truth. While I didn’t immediately leave the IFB church movement, these revelations troubled me enough that I decided to stop fellowshipping with the Hyles/Sword of the Lord crowd. Not long afterward, Hyles was accused of sexual misconduct. Today, the IFB church movement is a shell of what it once was. The reasons are many, but I can’t help but believe that one of the reasons for their decline is that they allowed big-name preachers to lie with impunity from the pulpit. Instead of standing up and shouting LIAR!, we said AMEN! PREACH IT BROTHER! Instead of standing up for truth and honesty, we enabled these narcissists. I regret my participation in the charade.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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