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Tag: Eric Skwarczynski

Why People Have a Hard Time Leaving the IFB Church Movement

ifb

Several months ago, I was interviewed by Eric Skwarczynski for his Preacher Boys Podcast. Eric is a Christian, formerly a part of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I had a delightful time talking with Eric, sharing my story, and giving my opinion about the health and future of the IFB church movement.

You can listen to the podcast here. You can also find the podcast on Acast, Spotify, and Apple.

https://player.acast.com/preacher-boys-podcast/episodes/bruce-gerencser-from-ifb-pastor-to-secular-humanist-atheist

Preacher Boys has a private Facebook group made up of people who profess to have left the IFB church movement. I say “profess” because some members are still very much IFB in their thinking and beliefs. I liken them to people who convince themselves that they are living in a brand-new home when in fact all they have done is painted the house a different color. A recent discussion about homosexuality revealed that some in the group are still hanging on to the IFB way of thinking, even if they think they are free from Fundamentalism’s harm.

Christian Fundamentalism is psychologically harmful, as countless posts on this site have shown. While it is certainly true that some people can escape without being harmed, most people who spend any length of time in an IFB church find themselves wrestling with all sorts of psychological and emotional baggage. Simply put, swimming in the sewer called the IFB church movement will fuck you up.

Why is it so hard for people to leave IFB churches?

For many IFB congregants, the churches they are members of are the only churches they have ever known. Their entire lives have revolved around their churches. From shared beliefs and practices to close social connection, IFB churches become the equivalent of family. In fact, many IFB preachers promote the idea that the church family is superior to flesh and blood family. Congregants buy into this thinking, often shunning their “unsaved” or non-IFB families. Several years ago, my wife and I tried to get her parents to move to our area so we could care for them. Moving made perfect sense in every way, yet Polly’s parents said no. Why? Their IFB church, the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. They couldn’t bring themselves to leave their church family. Being told this crushed Polly — their own living child. In her mind, her parents loved their church family more than they did her.

IFB church members are taught that their pastor is the purveyor of truth — a God-called preacher of the gospel. Certainty of belief is the lifeblood of IFB churches. Congregants are warned that other churches are liberal or heretical. Want the truth? Only OUR church has it! Imagine spending a lifetime having that kind of thinking pumped into your mind. Disaffected church members want to leave, but they can’t, out of fear that they will become liberals or heretics; or out of fear that if they leave, God will judge and chastise them.

Despite the family and truth barriers to leaving, many IFB congregants do, in fact, leave their churches, seeking out a new church that will better meet their needs. IFB churches have a significant amount of membership churn. Many congregations turn over their membership every five to ten years. For example, I attended Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio and First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio for years. Today, I know very few people in these churches. Granted, many of the people I knew years ago are now dead, but I find it astounding how little continuity there’s been between generations. In 1994, I was the co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas — a Sovereign Grace IFB church. Fast forward to today. The church posted a photo of its congregation on its website. I was surprised by how few people I knew, and by how much smaller the congregation was today. I calculated that I knew less than 10 percent of the people in the photo.

People can and do move on from IFB churches. However, as some of the discussions on the Preacher Boys Facebook group made clear, moving on doesn’t necessarily mean leaving IFB thinking, belief, and practice behind. I see this very thing played out in the lives of Christians (and pastors) who were my classmates at Midwestern Baptist College in the 1970s. As far as I know, I am the only outspoken atheist who attended Midwestern. The rest of my classmates are either still preaching the IFB way, truth, and life or have moved on to what I call IFB-adjacent churches.

I have one former friend who thinks that he is an enlightened Christian. He proudly claims, “I am no longer a Fundamentalist.” The justification for his claim? His wife wears pants, they drink alcohol, and use Bibles other than the KJV. In every other way, his beliefs and social positions are IFB. Over the years, I have had countless Evangelical commenters chide me for throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. In their minds, I should be like them: enlightened Evangelicals who have jettisoned many of the IFB church movement’s social Fundamentalist practices. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) However, when I poke and prod their beliefs a bit, I almost always find IFB thinking lurking below.

IFB thinking is hard to escape. It’s a disease that infects every aspect of your life. Truly abandoning and forsaking the IFB church movement takes work — lots of it. For many of us ex-IFB church members (and pastors), it took years of therapy to truly break the bondage Fundamentalism had on our lives. And even then, deep scars remain.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Listen to my Interview on the Preacher Boys Podcast with Eric Skwarczynski

polly bruce gerencser cranbrook gardens bloomfield hills michigan 1978
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Cranbrook Gardens, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Spring 1978, two months before wedding.

Last week, I was interviewed by Eric Skwarczynski for his Preacher Boys Podcast. Eric is a Christian, formerly a part of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I had a delightful time talking with Eric, sharing my story, and giving my opinion about the health and future of the IFB church movement. The interview is over an hour long. I hope you will take the time to listen to it and let me know what you think.

I appreciate Eric’s kind and thoughtful words. I get a lot of negative press, so it is nice to hear someone speak well of me. I hope I live up to Eric’s lofty introduction.

You can listen to the podcast here. You can also find the podcast on Acast, Spotify, and Apple.

https://player.acast.com/preacher-boys-podcast/episodes/bruce-gerencser-from-ifb-pastor-to-secular-humanist-atheist

Is it Possible to Reform the IFB Church Movement?

for sale sign midwestern baptist college
For Sale Sign in Front of Midwestern Baptist College

I was interviewed recently for the Preacher Boys podcast by Eric Skwarczynski. The primary purpose of Eric’s podcast is to expose abuse within the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Eric is a Christian, but we share a common purpose when it comes to sexual abuse and clergy misconduct in IFB churches, so I was more than happy to lend my voice to his noble cause. The podcast will be available soon. I hope readers of this blog will find our discussion insightful and helpful.

At the end of the show, Eric asked me whether I thought the IFB church movement could be reformed. I told him I didn’t think it could be reformed and that I hoped to be alive when the IFB church drew its last breath. I want to be the person standing bedside with pillow in hand, smothering the last breath out of a religious movement that has caused incalculable harm. I have seen first-hand (and participated in) the carnage caused by IFB churches, colleges, and pastors. I have talked to and corresponded with countless people whose marriages, families, and personal lives were ruined in the name of the IFB God. The psychological wounds and scars run deep. The widening exposure of abuse within the IFB church movement is a sign that people are no longer willing to be cowed into silence by men who value protecting their reputations and their ministries more than they do victims. This exposure is in its infancy, so we can expect to see more and more abuse stories come forth in the days, months, and years ahead.

While it is certainly true that some IFB churches and pastors have “reformed,” I have found that the changes that they have made are largely cosmetic in nature. I don’t know of an IFB church that embraces progressive theology, liberal social values, or inclusivism. Big change in “reformed” IFB churches usually means they use translations other than the KJV, use drums, have praise and worship teams, allow women to wear pants, and permit men to have hair over their ears. Real “reformists” now let congregants go to movie theaters, drink beer from time to time, or read books not published by the Sword of the Lord or Bob Jones Press. Why, some IFB churches are so liberal that high school graduates are now permitted to attend colleges other than the ones attended by their pastors. Talk about unholy ecumenism! Such changes, however, are window dressings meant to give the appearance of a new, improved IFB. Once in the store, people find the same authoritarian practices and exclusionary doctrines. The fundamental problem with the IFB church movement is their beliefs and practices. These things will never change. They can’t. The very foundation of the IFB church movement is the notion of certainty and right belief. Countless IFB churches and pastors believe that they alone have the truth; that they alone are God’s voice and God’s chosen people in their communities. The IFB church movement has always been separatist in nature. I haven’t seen anything in recent years that suggests this has changed.

gary keen bruce mike fox greg wilson midwestern baptist college 1978
Gary Keen, Bruce Gerencser, Mike Fox, Greg Wilson, Midwestern Baptist College, 1978

The only cure for the IFB church movement is death. And the good news is this: IFB churches, colleges, mission agencies, and parachurch organizations are in numerical and economic decline. The heyday of the IFB church movement was 40 years ago. In the 1970s, many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB churches. Today, many of these same churches are either closed or shells of what they once were. From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan — an IFB institution started by Dr. Tom Malone in 1954. Midwestern was never a big college, but today it roughly has ten percent of the students it had in the 1970s. Its website is outdated, and current information about the college hasn’t been posted in ages. The spacious 32-acre college campus has long since been abandoned and, I believe, sold. Midwestern is now an ancillary ministry of Shalom Baptist Church in Orion, Michigan. Its president, David Carr, like his father Harry Carr, is a Midwestern grad. I predict that there is coming a day when I will hear that the college has closed its doors.

Dr. Malone was the pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. A product of Bob Jones College, Malone started Emmanuel in 1942 after becoming increasingly troubled over what he perceived was liberalism in the Southern and American Baptist conventions. In the uber-sanitized authorized biography Tom Malone: The Preacher from Pontiac, Joyce Vick shares the following apocryphal story:

People ask me all the time, “Brother Tom, to what group do you belong? Of what association are you a member?”

I answer, “None.”

They ask, “Are you a Missionary Baptist?”

“Yes, I am.”

It may sound like a lie, but they do want to know what I am. “Are you a Southern Baptist?”

I say, “I am Southern and I am a Baptist.”

“Are you a Conservative Baptist?”

“Sure, I am conservative.”

“In what association book does Emmanuel Baptist Church appear?”

“Don’t have any.”

“Where are your headquarters?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You mean you don’t belong to anything?”

“No, I belong to the same thing to which the church at Antioch belongs. There is only one tie between New Testament churches, and that is the tie of fellowship. Each church is a local, autonomous church within itself. We have God, El Shaddai, and that’s enough.”

I have never felt I was called to preach for anybody, but I have felt I was caused to preach to everybody. I am not preaching for anybody but Jesus. There is nothing so wonderful, nothing so wholesome, as for a preacher to know there are no strings attached.

Thank God, I don’t have to fit into a denominational program. Thank God, I don’t have to get my orders from some national headquarters. Oh, thank God for the privilege of going to God for my directions! (pages 303, 304)

for sale sign emmanuel baptist church pontiac
For Sale Sign in Main Entrance Door, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Pontiac, Michigan

Emmanuel would be a new kind of Baptist church: an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist congregation. In the 1970s, Emmanuel had over 7,000 active members, and had attendances on special days over 5,000. Today? The doors of the church are shuttered, and its few remaining members scattered to other Fundamentalist churches in the area. The same story could be said of countless other IFB churches. Even First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, pastored by the late Jack Hyles and once arguably the largest church in the United States, is a shell of what it once was. Sure, you can find growing IFB churches here and there, but most of them are dying. Oh, they will still brag about the number of souls saved, but actual attendance numbers don’t lie.

My wife’s uncle, the late James Dennis, graduated from Midwestern in the 1960s. After pastoring a church in Bay City, Michigan, Jim moved to Newark, Ohio in 1968 to assume the pastorate of the Newark Baptist Temple. A church plant by the Akron Baptist Temple (started by Charles Vaden), the Baptist Temple, as it is commonly called, would see exciting numeric growth in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, by the time Jim died, after serving the Baptist Temple for forty-two years, the church was a shell of what it once was. Its one-time large Christian school was forced to drastically reduce its staff. Licking County Christian Academy (LCCA) at its inception was an Accelerated Christian School (A.C.E.) institution. It would later morph into an unaccredited traditional K-12 school. Today, a skeleton crew of staff use prerecorded Abeka videos to instruct students. Some of our relatives currently attend LCCA, as did our three oldest children for a short time.

emmanuel baptist church 1983
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Buckeye Lake, Ohio, Bruce Gerencser’s ordination April 1983

Polly and I attended the Baptist Temple for a short time decades ago. I could write for hours about our experiences there — good and bad. We left the Baptist Temple in early 1981 to help Polly’s father, a 1976 graduate of Midwestern and Jim Dennis’ pastoral assistant, to plant a new church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. I continued to have interaction with Jim and the Baptist Temple into the early 2000s. When our family briefly relocated to nearby Frazeyburg, Ohio in late 1994, people were shocked that we decided to NOT join the Baptist Temple, choosing instead to join the Fallsburg Baptist Church, an IFB congregation pastored by my former best friend Keith Troyer.

Over the years, I have watched the Baptist Temple “evolve.” While the church and its leaders are no longer as dogmatic as they once were over “church standards” (extra-Biblical rules used to govern and control the behavior of congregants), they are still a hardcore, right-wing, King James-only authoritarian congregation. When asked what I think has “changed” at the Baptist Temple, I laugh, and reply, “men are allowed to have facial hair now.” I suspect that this is not the kind of “reform” Eric Skwarczynski is talking about.

IFB institutions don’t reform. At best, they pretty themselves up a bit, hoping to attract unsuspecting visitors. Most IFB churches, however, remain committed to what they call “old-fashioned” Baptist beliefs and practices. They are proud to never have changed anything except their underwear. James Dennis was proud of the fact that be believed the same Biblical “truths” when he retired that he believed when graduating from Midwestern years before. No one should wear unchangeability as a badge of honor. “I have never changed my mind on anything. Bless your heart, my beliefs have never changed! Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so am I. Can I get an AMEN?” And it is for this reason alone that I am convinced that it is impossible to reform the IFB church movement. The movement has chosen to die on the twin hills of arrogance and certainty. All any of us can do is to help them swiftly meet their end.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.