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Jesus Makes a Personal Appearance at Local Evangelical Church

olive branch ministries

Two miles down the road from our home lies Olive Branch Ministries, pastored by Keith Adkins. One of a plethora of dying Christian churches around us, Olive Branch rebranded itself from Olive Branch [Pentecostal] Church of God, thinking that a fancy new name will magically rejuvenate the congregation and draw new blood to the church. This is a common practice these days by Evangelical churches, thinking if they paint their dying carcass with a patina of bright, shiny colors, Dr. Frankenstein will exclaim, He’s Alive! Granted, many sects are perceived in less than flattering light these days, so I understand why churches might want to trick the public into thinking that what goes on within the four walls of their sanctuaries is new and improved, just what the public is looking for. Southern Baptist congregations are notorious for their rebrands — dropping all public affiliation with the SBC. People uninitiated in the wily practices of area missionaries and church planters might think that a new non-denominational church has come to town, only to find out that the only thing that changed is the name.

I know very little about Olive Branch outside of driving by their building on Sundays and counting the cars in the parking lot. The church had a recent pastor change. Ned Speiser, a local realtor, was the pastor for years before Keith Adkins assumed the pulpit. I do know that Olive Branch is one of the older congregations in Defiance County. I couldn’t find any public information about the church or its pastor. The church has no social media presence. I find it inexplicable for a church in 2023 to not have a quality, informative website and social media presence. (I built my first church website with Microsoft FrontPage in the late 1990s.)

Christianity, by and large, is slowly dying in rural northwest Ohio, with younger adults saying “no thanks,” and boomers and their parents hanging on for dear life, hoping that Jesus is coming soon to rescue them from the horde of unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines amassed at their metaphorical gates. Of course, the Philistines aren’t at their gates. They simply don’t care and have better things to do on Sundays than listen to boring sermons and sing catchy, shallow praise and worship songs. I suspect that by 2050, a lot of local churches will either close their doors or merge with other congregations. When the money dies — think old people — it’s game over.

It is human nature to want to live at all costs. This is just as true for people as it is for businesses and churches. No church wants to close its door, admitting that it failed. So congregations look for ways to regain their glory years; a time when pews were filled with young and old, souls were saved, and offering plates were overflowing. Pastors and other church leaders go to conferences to learn new ways to transform their congregations. One popular method is for churches to change their music. Churches known for hymn singing scrap the old way and start singing praise and worship songs, led by a worship leader/praise team and band (or at least a grandfather with a guitar). Result? Awful music that disconnects parishoners from worship.

Country churches running under one hundred in attendance think they can mimic what they see happening in megachurches; large congregations led by paid professional singers and musicians, using equipment that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. What megachurch wannabees fail to see is this: megachurch services are more about entertainment than worship. Small church pastors think that if they preach entertaining sermons like big-name megachurch preachers, people will flock to their churches. Lost on these pastors is that preaching is an art and that it is unwise to mimic other preachers. We attended a church years ago where the pastor was preaching Rick Warren’s sermons word for word. It took me a couple of weeks to catch on to what this mimic was doing, but once I figured out he was stealing Warren’s sermons, we stopped attending. The church closed its doors several years later.

Churches are free to do whatever they want. However, if their goal is growth, they might want to consider how they are viewed by non-attendees. They might want to survey attendees and ask them what they liked and didn’t like about the service they attended. I have thought about becoming a church consultant; someone who would turn a critical eye to their congregations, looking at every facet of their business — from the parking lot to the bathrooms. (I have also thought about being a restaurant consultant.)

Take Olive Branch. Recently, they planted the following sign in their yard. As you shall see, the sign is way too small to be seen by people speeding down the highway at fifty-five miles per hour. I had Polly turn around so I could actually read what the sign said and take a photograph.

come meet jesus

I suspect the church and its pastor believe that “where two or three are gathered [at 11:00 am on Sundays and 6:30 pm on Wednesdays] together in my [Jesus] name, I am in their midst.” I wonder if the church has ever asked themselves how they know they do anything in Jesus’ name, and how would they know that Jesus is in their midst? Hundreds of churches in the four-county area believe the same thing. Imagine being Jesus’ scheduler. Millions of Christian churches across the globe, yet he allegedly is sitting in the front pew of every one of them. Of course, Jesus doesn’t appear physically at these churches. Instead, he’s there in Spirit. How any church can KNOW Jesus is there in Spirit is never stated. I suspect that generation after generation after generation of church members say “Jesus is in our midst,” that everyone assumes this claim is true.

Pastor Adkins and his congregation believe that non-Christian or wrong-Christian passersby are in bondage to sin; lacking the freedom that only their peculiar version of Jesus can give. How do they know this? Bible verses will be quoted and personal testimonies uttered, but those in bondage to sin will just have to take their word for it. As someone who is a sin-loving heathen, I laugh when Evangelicals tell me I am in “bondage.” I reject their presuppositions out of hand, including the anti-human notion that every person who has ever lived on planet Earth was born a depraved sinner, headed for eternal damnation and Hell unless they repent of their sins and put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

I left Christianity in 2008. I found that religion was bondage, not life; that I spent fifty years in servitude in Egypt, and once I escaped, I found the Promised Land — a land that flows with reason, common sense, and skepticism.

I wish that Jesus was making public appearances at Olive Branch Ministries at 11:00 am on Sundays. I have a lot of questions I would like to ask him. Alas, I know Jesus will not be appearing at any church this Sunday. He can’t. Jesus was buried two thousand years ago in an unknown Judean grave; all that remains is an idea, one that became hopelessly corrupted by organized religion. If Jesus does make a personal appearance at Olive Branch this Sunday, I suspect he would be a first-time visitor.

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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14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    amimental

    Waaaay back in the olden days, (1985 or so?) we attended a “BIBLE church” in Temecula, CA. During the time we went to church there, Dennis Corle came in and preached for a week or so.
    Revival, ya know. We also were assured that Jesus would be there. Every night.

    It was interesting, so many people went to the altar. His rapped out, “Are you ashamed of Jesus-uh?!” as he pointed at different individuals seemed to have a strange effect on them. Lots of weeping and laying on of hands and praying.

    Can’t remember the exact number, but there were a LOT of people compared to the Rev Al’s usual souls won.

    So about two weeks later, after all the Dennis furor died down, Rev Al, who had not gotten the memo that there really isn’t anything new in religion, began trying to be Dennis Corle. Every service we attended had him prancing back and forth in a most un Al-like manner, using the same words and cadence as Corle. It was freaky and gross and it was about then we stopped going, although that wasn’t the main reason.

    Couple friends still in the church told us what happened next, though. The elders and the board wanted Al to stop acting like Dennis. And Al refused, saying that he was ‘doing the Lord’s work’ and ‘saving souls’.

    So they asked him to resign.

    I always wondered if those weeping pray-ers continued going to church. I’m guessing a very small percentage of them did.

    Never will forget Al’s wife lamenting when a young teen boy’s mom grabbed him by the arm and marched him out the door during the altar call, “We almost HAD him!!”

    I can’t believe I ever fell for any of that shit.

  2. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    Great post, Bruce. One of the local Episcopal churches here has erased “Episcopal” from their name, at least from their long-time ad in the paper. Now, who do they think they are they fooling? Come on! 🙄 Wishful thinking and foolishness on their part.

  3. Avatar
    Matilda

    Yes, there was a trend of re-naming churches in the UK not so long ago. Churches re-branded themselves as ‘X-town Community Church,’ in order to sound more user-friendly. I’m guessing they were sure this was the brilliant new command from on high that would bring the heathern flocking in. Nay-sayers in those churches said the word ‘community’ was wrong as it’s associated with Community Service that those convicted of a crime can get instead of prison…..and of course, these churches continued to fade and die anyway.
    One church that I’ve always thought needed a new name is my friend’s church in the London suburb of Barking. It’s the parish church of ‘All Saints Barking.’

    • Avatar
      Kel

      All Saints Barking – that’s hillarious Matilda!

      Does this trend of rebranding equally apply across the board? Or just to those churches with a more Evangelical bend? Like the the Baptists and Evangelical-Anglicans? Or have the old-school Anglican parish churches followed suit?

      • Avatar
        Matilda

        I can only answer your question based on my local, anecdotal evidence. Churches all over rural UK are closing their doors. What can happen is that the handful of methodists finally give up trying to keep their cold old building heated and repaired and agree to amalgamate with the handful of presbyterians in the church just down the street who are in the same position. Of course the presbyterians would like the new joint church to be named ‘Xtown presbyterian-methodist church,’ and the methodists would prefer ‘Xtown methodist-presbyterian church.’ So a neutral, trendy new name has to be found. Of course some from each church never darkened the doors of the new amalgamated one….knowing theirs was superior to the other one. Some church plants, again use the name ‘Community’ as it sounds so inclusive. Some saw it as a way to rent out their church hall, or sanctuary for the benefit of the local community. Except of course the real reason was that with dwindling numbers, they needed to find sources of extra income… so renting to the local heathens was one way of getting them inside it where they might even get converted as they saw what great jesus-y things happened in there on Sundays. CofE churches tend to keep their given names, but, again, daughter churches of theirs can brand themselves as ‘community’ ones.

        • Avatar
          MJ Lisbeth

          Here in NYC, there are Evangelical and Pentecostal churches—some of which conduct services in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Korean or Cantonese—with the Magden David carved into the stonework atop the entrance arch.

          Sometimes I wonder what will become of those congregations and buildings when the congregants’ kids assimilate into American culture.

  4. Avatar
    missimontana

    Some churches may be driving off new converts with these methods. A few years ago, we were invited to an Easter service by a friend. The band was so loud I had a headache. I have sensory issues, and this was overwhelming to me. My husband wasn’t a fan either. We both were raised in the church era of organ and piano music with regular singing.
    Now that so many people are diagnosed with sensory issues, I wonder if that will be a factor in declining church attendance. Even if I was a Christian, I couldn’t attend what is basically a loud rock concert every week. Ironically, the service is supposed to bring people to Jesus. I could not hear the lyrics over the music. Not very good selling, I’d say.

  5. Avatar
    Sage

    I was a preachers kid, so I grew up seeing how the stage presentation actually worked. While my father was a serious preacher and always felt his sermons followed gods leadership, he was clearly designing a services to have maximum impact and enjoyment through music, prayers, and word. It was very clear to me that it was a stage show meant to reach the audience.

    Many year later I was a sound engineer who worked with many entertainers, bands of various types, groups, orchestras, and musicals. I volunteered at my church and the senior pastor and musical directors, who were professionals were all very focused on presenting a quality show. They all knew their jobs and held in house performers to a high standard. If Billy wanted to sing or perform, Billy had to prove he had proper ability or Billy did not make it to the stage.

    The church decided to have 2 services and hired a young couple. He was a youth minister and she was the musical director. Neither were professional. The band they assembled was horrid, all of which had never been in a band. Their sound mix was a cacophony of pain.

    When I told the director that a drummer playing at over 100 decibels was far too loud, she told me that we had to just work with it since she didn’t want to impact his spirit. I told her that her performance and show would never be good until they fixed this problem. She was offended I called it a performance. “We are a ministry. We are here to worship god, not perform for people.” My solution was to find an inexperienced volunteer to run sound for them. It worked out perfectly,

  6. Avatar
    Troy

    I never thought about it (and was confused) about megachurches, but the comment that they aren’t true churches but an entertainment spectacle finally gives me an answer as to why they exist. It reminds me of “the Dawn of the Dead” movie where they ask why the zombies were going to the mall. The answer that the mindless zombies aped what they did in life. You can take the family to the megachurch, polish your halo, hear some professional music, and make it home for brunch.

  7. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I got to see behind-the-scenes as a deacons grandkid. My grandfather’s work schedule was noon to 8 pm, so in the mornings when I didn’t have school he took me around to all of his errands, which often involved the church. He was a deacon, a few years chairman of deacons, and on Buildings and Grounds Committee. He repaired and/or replaced all the air conditioning and refrigeration in the church facilities (including the pastor’s home). While he did his thing, I explored the church, and I learned from the janitor, the different pastor’s, and the administrators all the cool behind-the-scenes stuff: how the baptistry worked, the sound systems, secret rooms normally off-limits to members…..all the good stuff. My grandma and i were also in choirs, so we were involved with the music side. So I knew it was both a business and a show.

    As for renaming, the church I grew up in still has its name of First Baptist Church of (Town), but its different parts have names like Salt House (youth group facility) and a bunch of “cool” names for the different ministries. When visiting the area, I saw that some small churches had rebranded to esoteric names like “New Life” or “Living Hope” or, my favorite, “Shepherd’s Fire” (although it appears this is one pastor who writes resources for pastors but still a snark-worthy name). I suspect that these churches all try to poach from each other or woo new folks who move to the community. Looking at the website of the church of my youth, they are heavy in the programs for older people and for children and youth/teens, but light on young adult programs. Sound familiar?

    • Avatar
      Matilda

      A penty church near me renamed itself ‘Sure Foundations.’ Hubby and I are of the generation which remembers when our mothers called corsets, bras etc ‘Foundation Garments.’ Sometimes one of us would leave our one car for the other near it and text that the car was in its usual place by the Underwear Church. They’ve renamed it again as ‘Sure Hope,’ but it will forever be the Underwear Church to our family.

  8. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Churches’ attempts to be “more user-friendly “ or “keep up with the times” have always seemed condescending, if not simply insulting, to me. I felt that way when the Roman Catholic parish in which I grew up started a “folk mass.” The guitarist, shall we say, wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or even Eric Clapton, and the songs sounded like a notion of “folk music” held by some middle-aged priest or nun who’d never listened to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, or even Peter Paul & Mary.

  9. Avatar
    Brocken

    I would like to make a couple of observations. When it comes to the subject of it being inexplicable in 2023 that a church doesn’t have a website presence or a social media presence, it all depends on the motivation ( or lack thereof) of the clergy and laity of the particular church. With some of the Catholic parishes in towns of only 3,000 to 5,000 people, there still might be enough people with enough initiative and energy to construct a website of social media presence. Below that number I’m not so sure there are enough involved Catholic laity to support such an effort. I must admit that even in some of the towns below 1,000 in population some of the evangelical churches do a better job in creating a website and social media presence than Roman Catholic parishes of larger size. https://www.newspapers.com/image/75559107/?terms=lexington%20bill%20brown%20baptist%20affiliation%20pantagraph&match=1 This is in regard to the changing names of churches to possibly attract more people. There were other supposed reasons claimed for getting away from the Baptist name. This congregation had withdrawn a couple of years earlier from a denomination because of perceived apostasy, although some unkind critics of the then pastor suggested the real reason for the withdrawal was that the pastor might not have been able to pass the ordination requirements of the denomination.https://www.newspapers.com/image/75559334/?terms=lexington%20%20baptist%20affiliation%20pantagraph&match=1 The newspaper had to write a correction to some of the information posted in the previous article in regards to the church dropping the Baptist name. This was soon followed up by a correction given in a letter to the editor about the incorrect name given to the denomination that this church had withdrawn from.https://www.newspapers.com/image/75563105/?terms=lexington%20%20baptist%20affiliation%20pantagraph&match=1 If in later years the church took further steps to repackage itself, after late 2015 it was due to new leadership. The man pastoring the church in 2005 was no longer there. Now there were sermons that brought up such people as Carl Trueman, who is not a Baptist pastor but a pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In the foyer were copies of Tabletalk Magazine, a publication of Ligonier Ministries. R.C. Sproul, a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America, was the founder of Ligonier Ministries. The congregation had taken on a flavor of Reformed theology. The original Baptist founders of that church must be spinning in their graves.

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Bruce Gerencser