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My Life as a Street Preacher — Part One

Bruce Gerencser, preaching on a Zanesville, Ohio street corner, September 7, 1990. This photograph was on the front page of the Zanesville Times-Recorder.

I was a street preacher in the 1980s and 1990s. Yes, one of those guys standing on a street corner, Bible raised high, preaching to anyone and everyone who passed by my corner. I often preached on the street several times a week. I preached at Ohio State University, on the Short North in Columbus, and at numerous local festivals, including the Holy Trinity Catholic Church Garden Party in Somerset, Ohio, the Perry County Fair, and the Moonshine Festival in New Straitsville. I preached on the streets of Ohio communities such as Bryan, Crooksville, New Lexington, Zanesville, Lancaster, and Newark. I also preached on street corners in Washington, DC, near the Mall. Sometimes I preached by myself, but most of the time congregants and Christian school children went with me. Their duty was to hold Bible verse signs and hand out gospel tracts. Every week, the students of Somerset Baptist Academy would load into a dilapidated green fifteen-passenger van and go with the man they called Preacher to reach sinners for Jesus. Their appearance on street corners during school hours (once a week) was disconcerting to one school superintendent. He telephoned me and let me know that the kids should be in school, not on street corners hustling for souls. I asked him if the students in his district had extra-curricular activities during school hours. Of course they did! So that put an end to his objection. A short time later, I stopped taking the younger school children with me out of concern that it looked bad. The older students still went along with me, as did several of the teachers.

Don Hardman, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) evangelist from Fishersville, Virginia, came to Somerset Baptist Church annually to hold what is called a protracted meeting. The meeting would start on a Sunday and last for fifteen days (18 services in all). The Hardman meetings were the highlight of the year. The congregation loved the Hardmans, as did Polly and I. Our youngest daughter, Laura, is named after Don’s wife. (Please read The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman, A Book Review and Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman, A Book Review.)

Don was a street preacher extraordinaire. I would go with him when he preached on the streets. I didn’t preach at first due to shyness and not wanting to give an inferior performance in front of my friend and mentor. Eventually, the Holy Ghost got a hold of me and I knew I had to start preaching, so I did. Now, the Holy Ghost, of course, didn’t really get a hold of me in any shape, fashion, or form. I did, however, feel a burden for reaching unsaved people and ministering to the homeless. I “felt” a calling to reach the dregs of society for Christ, not only through my preaching, but also through feeding and clothing them. I suspect that my experiences with poverty growing up played a big part in the empathy I had for homeless people.

Some of my readers might want to know what good was accomplished through street preaching. As far as souls being saved, it was a big bust. This didn’t concern me. I saw myself as more of a John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness. In 1739, John Wesley, a street preacher himself, wrote in his journal:

I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.

Much like Wesley, I viewed the world as my parish, and preaching on the streets was just my way of being a faithful witness to people who would likely never darken the doors of Somerset Baptist Church. I also believed, that by preaching on the streets, I would shame and embarrass preachers who contented themselves with being Sunday preachers, hirelings who cared little for the lost around them. I learned, however, that most preachers were either afraid to preach on the streets or didn’t care one bit for the spiritual condition of those outside the doors of their churches. Some preachers would compliment me for my zeal, but then say that they weren’t “called” to be street preachers. I reminded them that Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist, and the disciples were all street preachers. This fact did not sway them. I suspect the real issue was that street preaching would interfere with their golf game or their attendance at fellowships and conferences. Laziness, indolence, and indifference are quite common among pastors. Of course, now that I look back on the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry, I wish I had spent more time leisurely attending to my own wants and needs and those of my family instead of street preaching. These days, when I see a street preacher I make sure I share the good news with him — that there is no God, so let’s get a beer.

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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  1. Avatar

    This concept of street preaching is interesting. I have only seen it in Times Square or other prominent locations in big cities, and I always assumed the preachers were mentally ill due to the extreme fervor with which they preached. There are often displays of elaborate posters outlining how everyone is bound for hell if they don’t believe the way the preacher believes.

    Bruce, I am wondering how street preaching is received in smaller town America. Do people stop out of politeness, or do tgey just walk on by? Do they engage in conversation? Looking forward to part 2.

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    ‘ As far as souls being saved, it was a big bust.’ Been there, done that too. Not street-preaching, but many other kinds of evangelism that never produced the ‘great harvest of souls’ we were promised. Captain Cassidy says it often and very well. Fundies never self-evaluate, the answer to their non-soulwinning schemes is to jesus on, jesus harder and shriek at the ceiling more often. They don’t see that no one wants the product they are selling, it’s a fake useless, irrelevant product – and they are using irrelevant methods if they are giving out Chick tracts or KJV bible portions. As a commenter said, they’re not even flogging a dead horse, they’re stamping on its bones.

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    I don’t question the sincerity and commitment of the street preachers, but I personally don’t think that street preaching or passing out tracts is the best way to communicate the gospel in our culture today. My middle step son is a youth and family pastor. His church will sponsor colorful and fun street fairs and festivals as a way of connecting to the community. Some churches sponsor coffeehouses that feature contemporary music, and relevant readings, poetry, etc.

    I also feel that many people today are drawn to the church by ministries that reach out to families and children, divorce support groups, single parents, etc.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      In other words, churches use feigned friendship and other manipulative means to gain new members. I’ll take the street preachers every time. At least they are honest. Here’s the message, take it or leave it.

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    Bruce, I just think these methods can be used as an avenue to meet and to reach out to people. I don’t feel that in and of themselves they are manipulative. They could be used in that way, though. It depends.

    For instance, some secular people might feel uncomfortable, and unsure of what to expect just walking into a unfamiliar church or asking questions of a stranger on the sidewalk. It might be easier for them to interact and ask questions in a study held in a bar or coffee shop. I definitely would be against manipulation, or feigning friendship. I agree, and also find that very offensive.

    My stepson is a good guy. We have a positive relationship, but are not on the same page theologically, though. He’s a great deal more conservative.

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    Bruce, when you were pastoring , did the gospel ever really change anyone in a permanent way. Did you ever see any true positive change in people or was it all just superficial and temporary.

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      Geoff, how the hell would Gerencser know the answer…. I bet he saw people exchange one addiction for another, for sure. I saw that too as a believer. I would hazard that the really noticeable thing that people attain in faitth is how to talk the talk.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Good question. I’d say that I saw behavioral change in some people. Most often, their change was the result of wanting to belong to our social group. That’s the power of religion. It gives people a sense of purpose, meaning, and direction. It need not be true in order for it to effect changes in behavior.

  6. Avatar

    have you ever heard “preaching” by members of The Church of The SubGenius? they’re AWESOME live, and it’s difficult to give an impression of what they are really like, but imagine some big-name preacher preaching something big and important, but saying things about “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs” instead of jeezis, and other things that you simply can’t imagine… “salvation or triple your money back”!

  7. Avatar

    (I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t comment back in 2018)
    I’m wondering how you felt after street preaching? Usually, I enjoy a sense of accomplishment if some goal is complete. But there are chores in life that you’re just glad it is done.
    It is unlikely that this would accomplish much. After all, cults do not employ such tactics, and even Scientology keeps the major crazy under wraps until you’re knee deep in the muck.

    • Avatar

      it hasn’t always been that way with the scientologists… i remember, when i was in high school, being accosted by “street” scientologists who asked me if i would be interested in something that would make my life better, and being given a “personality test” which was guaranteed to make your life sound miserable, regardless of what answers you gave. i told them that i would be interested in something that would make my life better, if that thing were a physical object that the guy would pull out of his pocket and instantaneously make my life better… but he said he didn’t have an object like that… 😉

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    Good for you. You lived what you believed. It is difficult to see how people can believe those around them are going to hell and not do what you did.

    And one wonders, if God was so interested in spreading this message, why wasn’t he out street preaching on that hot summer day? He could have easily done that without breaking a sweat.

  9. Avatar
    Barbara L. Jackson

    For me, a person playing a guitar and singing was positive method for street communication. Many street preachers can seem threatening. Maybe it would be better to play guitar and sing religious songs.

  10. Avatar
    Richard Suplita II

    Fascinating story! It seems we went in opposite directions. I am a former atheist humanist who is now a street preacher! Do you mind sharing more about how you came to the conclusion that there is no God? Many thanks!

  11. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Sage, I suspect your Sage suggestion will fall on deaf ears. Street preachers are bullies, all of them instructed by a bully to go out and piss on the sidewalk… It’s called the great co-pissin’ or sumthin’ like that…
    Nevertheless, there are some humans who control a space called ‘church’ where homeless shelters are allowed and people are given food to eat. And it is not impossible, just improbable for a street preacher to become a person who truly learns to give and aims to assist others in their life journey by just sharing, giving a message that they not born bad and lost without whatever…
    The big guy who runs this blog is one of those people. He’s not alone though! (Well, maybe where HE chooses to live he is!)

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