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What Does it Take to Change the Minds of IFB Believers?

change your mind

My friend Eric Skwarczynski, the publisher of the Preacher Boys Podcast, had this to say on Facebook today:

Been thinking quite a bit this month about why we change beliefs.

So often I release a horrific story of abuse within a church and it seems to have no effect within IFB circles. They simply deny it’s part of a larger problem and move right along until the next case happens, or the next case happens.

No matter how much effort I throw into putting a story together — it can feel like a drop in a bucket when it comes to actually moving any sort of needle.

I’m curious, if you’ve left a toxic church environment you used to blindly submit to, what was the catalyst?

What finally opened your eyes?

I want to be more thoughtful in crafting content to persuade people who legitimately don’t see these issues to open THEIR eyes.

Those of us who are neck-deep in the waters of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) abuse and scandal often wonder how anyone could still be an IFB church member. We said the same thing about Roman Catholics. Can’t people see the perversion and evil all around them? How can they justify continuing to support these institutions and pastors with their attendance and money?

While some people do exit IFB churches stage left, never to return, most members stay committed to the cause. Some of them will change churches, but hold on to the same core beliefs that fueled the scandals. My wife’s uncle, the late Jim Dennis, (please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis) pastored the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio for fifty years. A strident IFB congregation, the Baptist Temple had several major sexual abuse scandals during Dennis’ tenure. In each instance, the scandal was not talked about from the pulpit. Church members were told to trust that their pastor and deacons had everything under control. Polly’s parents attended the Baptist Temple during the time of these scandals. When I asked about what exactly happened — I had a general idea — Mom and Dad told me they didn’t know. And here’s the thing, Jim Dennis was their brother-in-law. He never told them what happened. There should have been a public meeting on these scandals so there were no questions about who did what, where, when, and how, and what the church was doing to make sure that such criminal behavior never happened again. One man went to prison for his crimes, but today? He is faithfully serving Jesus in another IFB church.

Many IFB adherents think that sexual misconduct by pastors, evangelists, missionaries, youth directors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, nursery workers, bus drivers, and janitors, to name a few, is rare. Thus, they use the “few bad apples” argument to justify their continued support of the IFB church movement. Of course, for those of us who regularly report on IFB scandals, we know there are a hell of a lot more rotten apples than eyes-closed believers are willing to admit.

Many IFB adherents believe that their sect/church/pastor has the corner on truth. In fact, they are absolutely certain that their church is the right church; their pastor is a supernaturally called man of God. That is, until their pastor says something they disagree with, then they are ready to leave and find a church that preaches the truth; one that “feeds” them. Such lateral moves are common, with people entering through the front door, and others leaving — often with the pastor’s boot in their ass — through the back door.

When you believe your church and your pastor are the repositories of truth, you are often more willing to justify bad behavior within the church, thinking that “God” will sort everything out. Of course, one thing is for certain, God never sorts anything out. It is up to people of courage and conviction to do what is right, regardless of how it affects the “testimony” of the church. I would rather be known for being the church that swiftly dealt with a child molester than one that covered his crimes up and protected him. The late Jack Hyles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, upon learning of his son David’s serial sexual predation, covered things up and sent him off to pastor an IFB church in Texas. David Hyles continues to minister in some corners of the IFB world. Why? Well, Jesus forgave him, so shouldn’t everyone else do the same? Hyles refuses to own his past criminal behavior, and has not attempted to make restitution to teen girls and adult women he harmed. Hyles has repeatedly stated that God has forgiven him and that’s all that matters.

IFB churches are often multi-generational institutions. When you are born into a church and a belief system, it is hard to walk away, even when you know you should. When your parents, siblings, grandparents, and in-laws attend the same IFB church, it is difficult to move on to another church or stop attending church altogether. I know several atheists who, for the sake of their families, still attend IFB churches. I couldn’t do it, but I do understand why they do.

I was an Evangelical Christian for fifty years. Thirty-two of those years were spent in the IFB church movement. I attended IFB churches as a youth. I was saved, baptized, and called to preach in an IFB church, Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. I attended an IFB college, married an IFB preacher’s daughter, and pastored three IFB churches and two IFB adjacent churches. IFB blood coursed through my veins for much of my life. I was totally committed to IFB beliefs and practices. Yet, here I am today, an unrepentant atheist; a man labeled a heretic, false prophet, and apostate. What happened?

Certainly, the Jack and David Hyles scandals in the 1980s certainly made me wonder about the moral foundation of the IFB church movement, but that wasn’t enough to make me walk away. The constant internecine wars among IFB churches, pastors, and institutions caused me to wonder about the movement too. So much ugliness, hatred, judgmentalism, and finger-pointing. How can we call ourselves followers of the Prince of Peace and act like this?

By the late 80s, I abandoned the IFB moniker and embraced a different form of Baptist Fundamentalism, Sovereign Grace, and Reformed Baptist. While this move delivered me from some of the worst excesses of the IFB church movement, its poison remained to some degree until I pastored my last church in 2003. After leaving the IFB church movement, I pastored a Sovereign Grace Baptist church, a Christian Union church, a non-denominational church, and a Southern Baptist church. All of these churches had IFB tendencies theologically, but less so when it came to social strictures.

Stepping away from the IFB church movement allowed me to question and doubt. Not big questions, at first, but questions, nonetheless. As an IFB pastor, I was the answer man, not the question man. Congregants expected me to be some sort of oracle, a library of divine truth. Thus saith the Lord? Nah, thus saith Bruce what saith the Lord. Most congregants were infrequent students of the Bible. Were they bad Christians? Of course not. They had jobs, families, and homes to tend to. I, on the other hand, could spend hours a day and days each week reading and studying the Bible. I had the leisure time that they did not to devote myself to God, the Bible, and the ministry.

The first crack in my Christian facade came when I started reading books outside of the Evangelical rut; authors considered mainline, progressive, liberal, emerging church, or even secular. With knowledge came more questions and doubts. I determined to follow the path wherever it led. I met truth in the middle of the road, refusing to back up or go around. This journey ultimately led me to conclude that the central claims of Christianity were untrue; that the Bible was not divinely inspired, inerrant, or infallible.

Ultimately, it was the freedom to ask questions, read books from any author, and wander the path of life that led to my deconversion. Come the last Sunday in November, it will be fifteen years since Polly and I walked out the door of the Ney United Methodist Church, never to return.

Over the past decade and a half, I have learned that arguing with devoted IFB believers doesn’t work. They think they are “right” and you are “wrong.” Dr. David Tee continues to rage against me and the readers of this blog. One claim he has made countless times is that unbelievers have nothing to offer to the world; that they don’t know anything about the Bible; that their words should be ignored. While Tee, whose real name is Derrick Thomas Thiessen, wasn’t IFB, he was part of a sect, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), that had IFB tendencies. That’s why he exhibits IFB tendencies in his writing, comments, and emails. No amount of arguing with Tee will change his mind. None. Until he dares to consider that he might be wrong, there’s no hope for him or anyone else who thinks like him, for that matter.

I need to frequently remind myself that most of the people who read this site never leave a comment or send me an email. I do know that my articles about the IFB church movement are frequently accessed, so I am confident that I am either irritating the hell out of a lot of IFB believers, or my words are quietly making a difference. I get enough email from people who left the IFB church movement to know that my writing is reaching people and helping them to see that there are better expressions of faith than IFB churches; that it is even okay to have no faith at all.

Fundamentally, I am a storyteller. The byline for this site says: One Man’s Journey from Eternity to Here. I tell people, I am just one man with a story to tell. Eric is a storyteller too. His videos and interviews have reached countless people, and, if nothing else, say to people who are struggling with their IFB pasts that they are not alone. It is by these testimonies we should justify and judge the success of our work, and not the angry, hateful attacks of self-righteous, arrogant IFB preachers. If these so-called men of God want to have honest, open discussions, I am more than willing to do so. I have nothing to hide. I should warn them, however: talking to me can be dangerous. Several IFB preachers ended up deconverting after lengthy discourse with me; finding that they were not as “right” as they thought they were; that their Fundamentalist Baptist beliefs could not be rationally sustained.

I don’t evangelize. All I know to do is tell my story and let the words fall where they may. Last year, I spoke via Zoom with an Amish-Mennonite group in Pennsylvania. I had a delightful time sharing my “testimony” and answering their honest, sincere questions. The pastor told me later that none of the men became atheists — no surprise, right? — but they were talking among themselves about what I shared with them. Who knows what may come of our interaction with each other? Isn’t that all any of us can do? (And if you would like me to come and speak at your church, I am more than happy to do so.) 🙂

Change comes when open ourselves up to the possibility of being wrong; that possibly, just maybe we might have wrong or distorted beliefs. Make no mistake about it, change is hard. I didn’t deconvert until the age of fifty, and neither did my wife. MY counselor told me years ago that it is rare for someone my age to walk away from their faith; that sunk costs, family, and social connections make it hard for someone like me to blow up their life and walk a different path (and that’s why I don’t criticize people who can’t do so. To quote the old gospel song, “I’ver come too far to turn back now.” But turn back I did, and I couldn’t be happier. I paid a heavy price for doing so — the loss of community still beats down on me — but if I had to do it all over again, I would. I am a better man, husband, father, and neighbor than I was before, and for that I am grateful. (I talk extensively about these things in the posts posted on the Why? page.) Will your life turn out as mine has if you deconvert? We can’t possibly know. I know people who have paid a heavy price for walking away from their tribe’s religion, often being cut off from their families and even their inheritances. Others have been kicked out of their homes or had their cars repossessed. That’s why I tell people to carefully consider the cost before saying out loud you are no longer a believer, that you are an atheist, or even that you are attending a nicer, gentler Christian church or another religion altogether. (Please see Count the Cost Before You Say “I am an Atheist.”)

Eric asked,

If you’ve left a toxic church environment you used to blindly submit to, what was the catalyst? What finally opened your eyes?

Please share your thoughtful answers in the comment section.

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

    I never had much of a connection to the church of my childhood (never baptized, no friends) so it wasn’t hard for me to leave. What interests me now are the upcoming memoirs of 2 of the Duggar daughters. They both still consider themselves Christian, but they have disconnected from the beliefs of their parents. I had wondered if any of the Duggar kids would break from the cult, and what their motivation might be.
    Personally, I don’t believe Fundamentalist Christians can be talked out of their beliefs. Individuals will either change on their own, or not.

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    In the end, I came to accept that the Bible was wrong about the LGBTQ+ community, having members of that community in our family. Fundies claim this community is perverted, but the love I saw between 2 women family members proved to me that this was good.

    I will say this though: my husband and I had a very bad experience with our denomination prior to my realization. If 2 or 3 people from the local church had welcomed us and made us comfortable, we might still be in that church. But in the end, God’s people didn’t have any more care for strangers than non-Christians (and sometimes less). So not feeling loved by our church members did lead me to open my mind to the fact that my beliefs were wrong. In the end, I could see more love outside of religious communities.

    • Avatar

      I have told my story here before. There were a few key smacks in the face concerning my deconstruction journey.
      1) my general nature is one of skepticism and questioning. My mind researches, collects, and analyzes data. My process for decision-making takes time, but it’s sound and based on research and analysis. Yet it’s flexible enough to revise decisions when new valid data are presented. It got me into trouble as an 8-year-old at church, and I learned to regurgitate what was necessary to get A’s in fundamentalist Christian school, but questioning and skepticism are a critical part of how my brain works. Period.
      2) I had the privilege and opportunity to work in a university biochemistry department during summers starting at age 16. I was exposed to educated people from diverse global backgrounds. This exposure to kind, intelligent people blew up the notion that only Southern Baptist saved people could be good people. And science! Heck, data, observation, research, evidence, exploring new paths……that really intrigued my brain!
      3) Complementarianism taught at my Southern Baptist church. I was 17/18, and what I learned in this 8 week intensive course made me literally sick to my stomach. I thought there was something incredibly wrong with me because I didn’t fit “God’s design for women” and….I didn’t want to! I KNEW then I had to get out.
      4) In college, I befriended several gay men. I learned how horribly they were treated by religious people, and some straight people in general. These smart, kind, wonderful people didn’t deserve all the lies that were told about the LGBTQ community.
      5) Science. Need I say more? It didn’t align with a literalist inerrant view of the Bible.
      6) History of Christian Thought university course exposed me to how the books of the Bible were canonized and how the Church determined orthodoxy from heresy. It was fishy and political. Another Crack in my Southern Baptist church and fundamentalist Christian school upbringing.

      1-6 led to my purposeful escape from evangelicalism.

      7) A trip to Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza in Mexico led to the realization that Christianity was just another ancient blood cult. Humans fear what they can’t control, so they try to appeal to a powerful deity to fix whatever is out of control. I realized, a deity is mad or needs convincing, so something has to die. And that was it. I was done with Christianity. Then commenced several years of “taking a break from religion”. In 2015 I started actively reading about atheism and sought out resources for deconstructing my religious beliefs, and then political beliefs. I am still on the journey, but that’s what led me to this blog.

      I don’t think one conversation or article is enough. It’s a slow journey of exposure. The more you can expose people to what’s outside their bubble, the more they can hopefully understand that not everyone or everything outside their tribe is bad. It takes time, and for some it will never happen. Kindness and respect are paramount when dealing with religious people (although it can be fulfilling to take down the Dr Tee’s of the world in an argument).

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    I started to question a fire and brimstone hell and young earth creationism years ago.
    I saw the church cared more about pushing an agenda than caring for their members – as others have said, butts in pews and checks in the offering plate.
    The church was pushing extreme right-wing politics
    The hypocrisy on sex – Bruce has posted this pastor’s info, but I used to go to the church of an ex-pastor (Richard C Mick) who raped and molested children in the church. This was the same ex-pastor who preached against same sex marriage and pre-marital sex, but had no qualms about sexually abusing children.
    The rampant psychological and spiritual abuse, how manipulative the preachers can be

    Fortunately for me, I want nothing to do with IFB or fundie churches anymore. I agree with Bruce that getting away from the fundie world is hard but worth it.

  4. Avatar
    Sue Dibs

    I was a bible study leader for 30 yrs and it gradually dawned on me that the bible was written by men, about men, and for men. I saw that god valuing a woman as 3/5th of a man is one of the reasons women are paid less for the exact same job (I’m a PA).
    I studied the quran to try to understand one of my patient’s scars from genital mutilation and noticed how similar the quran was to the bible.
    God’s rate & ability to heal was at exactly the same rate as the latest medical advances.
    Christians had endless pat answers for difficult questions, esp the questions requiring rational thought. Asking questions sure got me swiftly pulled from leadership but dang…they didn’t want me but they certainly wanted my tithe! Well fuck them and fuck their halos. My life has improved so much after walking away 13 yrs ago! Never looked back.

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Bruce Gerencser