In July of 1983, Polly and I, along with our two boys, ages two and four, held the first service for Somerset Baptist Church, Somerset, Ohio, in a downtown storefront building. We had sixteen people in attendance at our first service. Several months later, we moved to 2,000 square-foot facility, the upstairs portion of the Landmark building. We would remain in this building for two years, with attendance between 30 and 50. We bought a dilapidated church bus from Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster, Ohio, then pastored by John Maxwell.
We then bought an abandoned United Methodist church five miles east of town on Sego Hill. The church grew from 50 to 200, from one bus to four. By the late 1980s, for a variety of reasons not pertinent to this article, attendance declined to fifty people. In 1989, we sold off the buses, moved a ratty 12’x60′ mobile home next to the church to live in, and started a private, tuition-free Christian school for church children. Our enrollment was fifteen students from kindergarten through grade twelve. During this time, I embraced Calvinism and the Quiverfull movement. We had three more children, bringing our arrow number to six. Imagine living in a 12’x60′ trailer with eight people. Fun times, to be sure.
Near the church was Calvary Bible Fellowship on Amish Ridge Road. While locals considered its members Amish, they were actually Mennonite. They had split off from an Old Order Amish group over the doctrine of salvation. While many of their practices were Amish, they did drive white and black vehicles. One member, John Miller, owned a lumberyard directly across from our church. He was later forced to sell the business due to “worldliness” — or so the rumors went, anyway.
Somerset Baptist Church and Calvary Bible Fellowship had a number of similarities. We both believed salvation was good works. We both believed women should dress modestly. We both believed in avoiding “worldliness” and the appearance of evil. We both believed it was important to educate our children in a church school. These common beliefs led to numerous interactions between me and Calvary Bible Fellowship elders/members. I had countless discussions with them. I think they didn’t quite know what to do with me. Our similar beliefs and practices led them to conclude that I was likely a Christian, but other things I believed and did that didn’t conform to their narrow view of the world confounded them.
There were times when the church I pastored didn’t have Sunday night services. On those occasions, my family and I would visit other churches. Sometimes, I would take a few church members with me. On occasion, we would visit Calvary Bible Fellowship. Calvary would also have tent meetings on occasion, and I would stop by to visit. Men sat on one side, women on the other. The music, sung acapella, was wonderful — by far the best congregational singing I’ve ever heard. I found the preaching to be quite Biblical, but not as emotional or enthusiastic as that found in Independent Baptist churches. Afterward, I would hang out with the men of the church, talking about God and the Bible. I found these conversations to be quite enjoyable.
Sadly, the folks at Calvary Bible did not reciprocate. While they would stop by the church when I was working outside, they never attended one of our services or heard me preach. I suspect they saw me as someone who could be won over to their side. I wonder what they would think of the fact that I am an atheist today?
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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