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Understanding Christianity From a Sociological and Economic Perspective

i love my church

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

Atheists of every stripe agree that all the gods of human religions are false; that these gods do not have magical, supernatural powers; that they do not answer prayer, heal the sick, or raise the dead. These gods are made and shaped by human hands and do not, as many religionists suggest, live beyond the space-time continuum.

Atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of gods. While there may be a God that has not yet revealed itself to us, such a possibility is improbable. Most atheists are comfortable living their lives with no thought of God or religion. Living such a life perplexes religious people, particularly Evangelical Christians. Unable to rationalize why anyone would ever reject the wonderful love and grace of Jesus, some Evangelicals make inflammatory, false statements about atheists: atheists are immoral, atheists secretly desire to commit sexual sin, atheists hate God, atheists are servants of Satan (in whom atheists also do not believe), to name a few. While it is certainly true that atheists can do bad things, I know of no study that concludes that atheists act better or worse than Evangelicals. People are people, and humans can do awful things, regardless of what they believe about the existence of God.

Many Christians believe that Christianity gives them a one-up morally on the rest of the world. According to their core beliefs, Evangelicals are saved and sanctified and have the Holy Spirit living inside them. Not only that, but God has given to them a divine road map for life — the Bible. Evangelicals, then, SHOULD be morally superior to the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. That they aren’t reveals that many Christians don’t practice what they preach.

A religion need not be true for people to benefit from it. I would be the first to admit that millions of Americans find great value in religious beliefs and practices. While it could be argued that — for Christianity in particular — removing God’s judgment and fear of Hell from the equation would empty Christian churches overnight, many religions do not have such beliefs. Yet, millions of people devote themselves to their teachings and practices. I am more inclined to believe these days, after fourteen years of interacting with progressive and liberal Christians, that people can intellectually abandon (or compartmentalize) many of the teachings of Christianity, yet hang on to a spiritualized form of Christianity that focuses on a cosmic Christ and doing good works. This brand of Christianity bears little resemblance to historic Christianity, yet it “works” for millions of people. Why is this?

The best way to understand religious belief in general and Christianity in particular is to view both from a sociological and economic perspective. Strip away all the dogma, and what’s left? A group of people joined together with common wants, needs, and desires. Years ago, Polly and I visited the Episcopal church in Defiance, Ohio. One member came up to us before the service and let us know that the church didn’t care what we believed. Coming from an Evangelical and Baptist background, we found such a notion shocking. Beliefs matter! Right? In Evangelical churches, beliefs matter, but outside of Evangelicalism, thousands of churches are indifferent to the internecine wars fought over doctrine. These churches just want to love God, love others, be happy, and do good works. For them, church is a social or family gathering, a place where people are accepted as they are.

Humans are social animals, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the biggest draws for religious groups is the social connectivity they offer to attendees. From this perspective, churches aren’t any different from humanist or atheist groups, nor are they any different from clubs such as the Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, Moose Lodge, Amvets, VFW, Facebook, or any of the political parties.

We humans tend to gather together based on shared beliefs, practices, and ideals. We enjoy hanging out with like-minded people. When we view religions from this perspective, it becomes easy to see why most Americans are church members or part of a religious group. When we throw in the fact that religion gives people a moral framework to live by and answers the two big questions of life: what is my purpose and is there life after death? — it is not surprising that religion continues to flourish.

One of the weaknesses of atheism is that it doesn’t provide social connections (nor is it meant to). One of the things that former Christians miss is that sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Former believers also miss the communal fellowship found in churches. More than a few former Evangelicals have written me expressing how lonely they felt once they became unbelievers. While there are atheist and humanist groups that provide social connectivity, for the most part, particularly for people who don’t live on the east/west coast or in a major city, atheists and humanists are on their own.

Let me conclude this post by looking at religion from an economic perspective. To properly understand why people are members of a particular religion/church, we must do a cost-benefit analysis. Being a part of a religion/church costs something. This is what I call the price of admission. One of the hardest things to get Evangelicals to admit is that to become a Christian/church member requires some sort of payment, be it a denial of self, a repudiation of certain behaviors, financial contributions, or as pastors are fond of saying: God wants you to give your time, talent, and money.

People attend church Sunday after Sunday, oblivious to the fact that every time they walk through the doors, a membership fee is required of them. It’s only when congregants become unhappy or disgruntled that they do a cost-benefit analysis. What am I getting out of this? they ask. They begin to wonder if the price of admission is worth it; are they getting more in return than what it costs? If unhappy Evangelicals conclude that they no longer receive what they should for their payment, they begin a process called “church shopping.” Feeling that their needs are not being met or they aren’t being “fed,” Christians visit other churches hoping to find a congregation that will better suit their needs. In other words, they are looking for a religion/church where the benefits outweigh the costs.

Evangelicalism is numerically in decline. The reasons for this are many: exclusionary practices, right-wing politics, support for Donald Trump, anti-abortion rhetoric, Puritanical sexuality, and anti-LGBTQ beliefs, to name a few. In particular, Evangelical churches are hemorrhaging younger adults, losing the very people who are supposed to be the future of Evangelicalism. These younger adults have decided that the cost of being Evangelical church members outweighs the benefits. And so they leave, swelling the ranks of Americans who are indifferent towards organized religion — the NONES.

As the United States becomes more secular and less religious, religious leaders and pastors think that the solution to this seismic change is to double down on their particular beliefs and practices or develop programs that will attract unbelievers or help retain church members. These approaches have failed spectacularly, and until an honest accounting is given as to why people stay or leave, sects and churches will continue to see membership (and financial) loss. Until sects admit that their church planting efforts do little to “reach the lost,” but, for the most part, just cannibalize already established churches, they shouldn’t be surprised when new members gained at one point leave when the latest, greatest church with the most awesome pastor ever comes to town. Christians are no different from anyone else. They seek that which will give them the greatest benefit for the least cost, and as long as the benefits outweigh the costs, their asses will remain firmly ensconced in the pews. But when the equation flips and costs outweigh benefits, LOOK OUT!

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

A Few Thoughts on People Who Say, “Praise God, I Have Never Changed my Beliefs”

i shall not be moved psalm 16

One common refrain often heard in some corners of the Evangelical world goes something like this: Praise God, I have NEVER changed my beliefs. I am seventy years old and I still have the exact same beliefs I had at age twenty — fifty years ago. There is this idea floating on the brackish backwaters of Evangelicalism that posits that change is bad or even sinful. Pastors and congregants pride themselves in having held to the one true faith their entire lives, that their Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, pneumatology, and hamartiology are the same yesterday, today, and forever. These theological purists will also say that their behavior hasn’t changed either. The sins they were against in the 1970s are the same sins they oppose today. These “just like a tree planted by the waters, I shall not be moved” Christians believe that they love what God loves and hate what God hates; that their interpretations of the sixty-six books of the inspired, inerrant, infallible Protestant Christian Bible align closely with God’s mind; that, thanks to the Holy Spirit living inside of them as their teacher and guide, they are spiritually mature people who feast on the meat of the Word of God, not the pablum most Christians slurp. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and Hebrews 5:11-13)

In most spheres of life, learning new things and discarding old beliefs, practices, and ideas is desired and expected. Not in Evangelicalism. Evangelicals cherish certainty. The Apostle Paul told young Timothy, the preacher in 2 Timothy 1:12, KNOW in whom I have believed. Pastors challenge congregants to have a know-so salvation. Is it any wonder, then, that because a premium is placed on certainty, it breeds arrogance and leads people to think that their beliefs have never changed? Bruce, are Evangelicals who think this way glorying in ignorance? Yes, and the Bible gives them cover for their ignorance in Acts 4:13:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.

For Bible-believing Evangelicals, being considered unlearned and ignorant by the “world’ is a badge of honor.  What Evangelical doesn’t want it said of them, they had been with Jesus?

Paul warns the church at Colossae in Colossians 2:8:

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

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Evangelicals are frequently warned by their pastors to beware of the philosophies, traditions, and rudiments of the world.

Better to be ignorant and know Jesus than to have a Ph.D. and go to Hell. Take that Bart Ehrman!  A quick survey of Evangelicalism reveals all sorts of beliefs that lie deeply rooted in certainty-driven ignorance. Creationism, King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism, to name a few, require adherents to deliberately and resolutely tune out any data that contradicts their beliefs. Science tells us that creationism is false. Evangelical solution? Ignore science, and by faith believe that what the Bible says in Genesis 1-3 is literally true. The same goes for King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism. When Evangelicals holding these beliefs find themselves intellectually challenged, they run to the safety of faith, ignoring anything that shows their theological and historical beliefs are false. Charismatics and Pentecostals do the same. They KNOW that God works miracles, baptizes people in the Holy Ghost, and gives spirit-filled people the ability to do mighty works in Jesus’ name, including speaking in tongues. Believing that their interpretations of certain Bible passages are infallibly correct, these swing-from-the-chandelier Christians reject anything that suggests otherwise.

More than a few Evangelicals will object to what I have written here. While they will admit that there’s a lot of ignorance in Evangelical churches, their churches and pastors value intellectual pursuit. While this sounds good, when these claims are more closely examined, pseudo-intellectualism is often found. While these intellectual “giants” of the Evangelical faith do indeed read books and spend significant amounts of time studying — I know I did for most of the years I spent in the ministry — it is WHAT they read and study that is problematic. True intellectual inquiry requires following the path wherever it leads, leaving no stone unturned. Such inquiry requires people to meet truth head-on, not retreat or attempt to veer around intellectual obstacles. As a former Evangelical pastor of twenty-five years and now an atheist, I challenge Christians to carefully examine what they say they believe. Surely, any belief worth having can withstand scrutiny and investigation, right? Right? R-i-g-h-t?

Evidently not. When Evangelicals have doubts or find their beliefs challenged, what do they do? Many of them run to their pastors (indoctrination specialists) for encouragement and support. Keeping asses in the pews is crucial — no asses, no offerings — so when congregants come to them with questions and doubts, these so-called men of God will often recommend reading “safe” books written by Christian apologists or approved Christian authors. Some pastors, especially those who pride themselves in having three books in their library — Bible, concordance, and dictionary — will tell doubters to, by faith, cling to Jesus, read the Bible, and pray, reminding them that DOUBT is caused by Satan and his emissaries in the world. Here’s looking at you, Bruce.

Evangelicals who pride themselves in being “widely” read — commonly found among Evangelical Calvinists — do spend significant time studying and reading. It is what they read that is the problem. While these Evangelicals will, at times, venture beyond the safe confines of the Evangelical bubble, most of their reading and study is of authors considered orthodox. In other words, they only read books that reinforce their presently-held beliefs. While there is some lateral movement in Evangelicalism — Arminians becoming Calvinists, Baptists becoming Charismatics, Premillennialists becoming Amillennialists, Non-cessationists becoming Cessationists, and rigid, far-right-wing Fundamentalist Baptists becoming generic Evangelicals, most believers continue to hold on to the peculiar beliefs of their tribe, sect, or church. Their theological pursuits rarely, if ever, take them beyond the safety of their current beliefs and practices. Rare are Evangelicals who are willing to risk losing their faith in their search for truth.

Is it any wonder, then, that a premium is placed on being steadfast in the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)?  Revered are men and women whose theological roots run deep and who can always give an answer about the hope that lies within them (1 Peter 3:15). As an Evangelical pastor, I learned early that congregants wanted certainty. They wanted a pastor who firmly stood on the Word of God and had unmovable, unshakeable faith. If I had questions and doubts about this or that belief, church members didn’t want to hear about it. Tell us the unvarnished truth, Pastor Bruce. The reason, of course, for such desires is that many Evangelical church members have a borrowed belief system; that what their pastor believes is what they believe. Years ago, my theology shifted from the Baptist theology of the IFB church movement to Calvinism. As I began preaching expositionally and teaching congregants what Calvinists call the doctrines of grace, I was shocked by how few church members had a problem with the seismic changes in my theology and preaching. Looking back on this now, I have concluded that what mattered to members was having a sense of community and having a church family call home. Most of them were never going to read the books I did or spend hours a day studying the Bible. Unlike their pastor, who had a job where he was actually paid to read and study, they had secular jobs that demanded their time and attention. They also had families to care for. What congregants wanted most of all was assurance that they were on the right path; that what they believed squared with the Bible. They were willing to trust that what I said was true. After all, I was the man God had chosen to be their pastor. Surely God and his man had their best interests at heart, right?

I pity and feel sorry for Evangelicals who pride themselves in never changing their beliefs. Many Evangelicals are just like people who never travel far from home. They have never experienced the rich diversity that lies beyond their doorstep. Years ago, during my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) days, a large group of new people showed up one Sunday to attend our morning service. I thought, at first, which nearby IFB church had a split? This group was not, however, disgruntled Baptists. They were Methodists. Once a year, their church canceled a Sunday service so attendees could visit a different church. Their pastor believed it was good for church members to be exposed to the heterogeneity found in Christianity. I thought, what an odd and dangerous thing to do — exposing members to potentially heretical teaching. Of course, I was glad they came to Somerset Baptist Church — The Fastest Growing Church in Perry County. God brought them my way so I could teach them the TRUTHWhy, some of these Methodists probably aren’t even saved, I thought at the time. If they were really, really saved, they wouldn’t be members of a liberal church. Later in life, I came to see how wise the Methodist pastor was; that attending a wide spectrum of churches is a cure for arrogant, self-assured Fundamentalism. The next-to-last church I pastored (for seven years) — Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio — used an advertising slogan that stated, The Church Where the Only Label That Matters is Christian. As its pastor, I was willing to embrace all those who claimed the name Christian — Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Pentecostals, to name a few. The catholicity of Christianity was more important to me than theological orthodoxy.

I slowly came to realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did; that my theological underpinnings were just one of many ways of interpreting the Bible. I finally learned that I wasn’t infallible, and neither was the Bible. I suppose, had my experiences been different, my changed understanding of Christianity and faith might have led to mainline Christianity, liberalism, or Universalism. Instead, questions and doubts pushed me down the slippery slope Evangelical preachers warn about. Better to rest in certainty of belief and practice than end up like Bruce Gerencser, Evangelical pastors warn. Look at what happened to him! He is now, of all things, a God-hating, sin-loving atheist.  I may, indeed, be a cautionary tale, but I am here to tell readers that a wild, woolly, wonderful world awaits those who will abandon certainty of belief and allow intellectual inquiry to lead the way. Life becomes about the journey instead of the destination. Will you join me? (Please read Gone but Not Forgotten: 22 Years Later San Antonio Calvinists Still Preaching Against Bruce Gerencser and Ralph Wingate Jr Uses Me as a Sermon Illustration.)

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

“Finding” Jesus

you-shall-find-what-you-seek-

Jesus will never be too far from you. Seek the Lord with all your heart and you will find Him. He will direct you in all your ways so that you may depend upon Him.

— Spaniard VIII

Jesus is waiting for you.

Jesus wants to direct you in all your ways.

Jesus wants you to depend on him.

However, Jesus is powerless.

You must seek Jesus for him to be found.

I didn’t know Jesus was lost.

Those who seek Jesus, find him.

And if you seek Jesus and do not find him?

It’s your fault.

It’s never Jesus’ fault.

Why doesn’t Jesus, the all-knowing, all-powerful, always-present God of the universe hide where everyone can find him?

Why is Jesus more like a voyeur or peeping tom, lurking in the shadows, hoping to avoid detection?

I sought Jesus and found him, only to learn that he was a myth, the product of religious indoctrination.

Bruce, you need to seek the “right” Jesus.

How do I find the “right” Jesus?

You need to seek him.

And so the Evangelical circular reasoning continues.

The Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true.

If you seek Jesus, you will find him, the Good Book says.

Yet, millions and millions of people have sought him and come up empty.

Why is that?

If finding Jesus is the singular, most important thing a person can do, why does he make it impossible for people to find him?

Yes, impossible.

The Bible says that sinners are spiritually dead and cannot understand truth.

The “natural man understands not the things of God, and neither can he,” yet Spaniard VIII says we must seek Jesus.

How can a man who has no understanding find anything, let alone Jesus?

The Calvinist says that only the elect, those chosen by God from before the foundation of the world, can seek Jesus and find him. All others need not apply.

Maybe we are apostates or reprobates, people who have crossed the line of no return. We can’t seek Jesus, even if we want to.

So many contradictory statements in the Bible, yet Spaniard VIII has found the “right” Jesus, the “right way that leads to salvation and life eternal.

Are you seeking Jesus?

Have you found him?

I have! I have! I have!

Jesus is dead. His body lies buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a hillside near Jerusalem.

All this seeking for a dead man?

I choose the living, not the dead.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Christians Say the Darnedest Things: Evangelical Pastor Steven Lee Preaches Anti-Porn Hysteria

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We are living in an increasingly pornographic age. The widespread accessibility of porn and the ability to be seemingly incognito leads to private addiction, marital destruction, and sexual abuse, all of it driving the horrific industry of sex trafficking. We know that pornography is damaging marriages, children, and churches. Statistics and anecdotes reveal the devastation. The connection with sexual exploitation and sex slavery is increasingly clear. The harm done to one’s community and spiritual life, while often subtle initially, is immeasurable over time.

And our society cheers us on in the gluttonous satisfaction of lust. Sexual immorality is repackaged as self-expression, liberation, and sexual enlightenment. Pornography is “normal,” and holiness is old-fashioned or even legalistic. Unfortunately, as prevalent as this poison is, pornography still isn’t talked about much in many of our churches [no, but it sure is watched].

— Steven Lee, Pastor of Preaching & Vision of the North Campus of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Desiring God, Anti-Porn is Not Enough, June 10, 2021

Bruce Gerencser