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Tag: Midwestern Baptist College

Sermon Illustrations: The Lies Preachers Tell

lying for jesus

From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was started in 1954 by Dr. Tom Malone, pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. Dorm students were required to attend Emmanuel. One Sunday, Dr. Malone made a statement during his sermon that I have never forgotten. Meant to be a joke, Malone said, “I am not preaching now. I’m telling the truth.”

I was twenty-years-old when Malone made this statement. In June, I will turn sixty-four. In the intervening years, I preached thousands of sermons and heard hundreds of other sermons, either in person or on cassette tape. Preaching is an art form meant to convey some sort of spiritual message to hearers. While Evangelicals love to make much of the Bible, preaching is far more than just reading the Scriptures. Following Jesus’ example, many preachers use stories to illustrate their sermons. Story-less sermons are, in my estimation, boring as Heaven. I suspect most churchgoers would agree with me. Imagine going to church on Sunday and hearing a sermon that consists of a droning-fan-on-a-summer-day preacher reading the Bible word for word. B-o-r-i-n-g.

Illustrations help keep parishioners engaged. There’s nothing better than a couple of stories interjected at just the right time. In fact, many parishioners won’t remember anything about their preachers’ sermons except for the fantastical stories they told. Marge, wasn’t that a wonderful story Pastor Billy told today? Yes, it was, Moe. Why, that one story was almost unbelievable. Pastor Billy wouldn’t lie, so I know he is telling us the truth.

Dr. Malone got it right when he said, “I am not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.” Malone knew that preachers love to tell stories, and sometimes their stories are not as factual as they should be. Younger preachers often buy illustration books. These books provide preachers with a ready source of catchy, provocative illustrations sure to get parishioners’ attention. Older preachers often develop a cache of illustrations that can be pulled out of their mental file cabinets and used when needed. These illustrations often come from past experiences, especially for preachers who did a lot of “sinning” before Jesus rescued them. I have heard countless preachers regale parishioners with stories about their lives as drug addicts, drunkards, Satanists, atheists, or hitmen for the mob. These stories often seem larger than life. And they are, because these kinds of stories are often embellished or outright lies.

Several years ago, I posted a video of anti-porn crusader Dawn Hawkins telling a story about seeing a man watching child pornography on an airplane.  Several commenters said that, based on their flying experiences, Hawkins was lying. I believe they are correct. I think the same could be said for many of the stories preachers use in their sermons. Simply put, these men are liars for Jesus.

The late Jack Hyles, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, was a masterful storyteller. I heard Hyles preach in person and on tape. His stories were mesmerizing, especially to a wide-eyed young Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher from Ohio. However, over time, I came to the conclusion that Hyles was a narcissistic, pathological liar.

For many years, Hyles pastored the largest church in the United States. Those raised in the IFB church movement know that for men such as Hyles, it was all about the numbers: church attendance, souls saved, baptisms, and offerings. The ministry was like a bunch of third-grade boys in the restroom playing the who has a bigger penis game. Preachers who had John Holmes- or Ron Jeremy-sized churches were considered men whom God was mightily using. Young preachers and men who pastored smaller churches were expected to sit at the feet of these preachers, learning how they too could have large penises, uh I mean churches.

Due to his church’s number one place on the charts, Hyles was viewed as a demigod by many IFB preachers. Hyles told stories about how many people he counseled, souls he had won to Jesus, and the thousands of miles he traveled to preach at Sword of the Lord conferences and other weeknight meetings. Wow, what a great man of God, I thought at the time. I want to be used by God just like Brother Hyles.

I now know that Hyles’ stories were lies. He simply did not have enough hours in the week to sleep, eat, shit, have an affair, pastor a church, win souls, and fly around the country to preach at conferences. As with all lies, Hyles’ stories had elements of truth. However, when carefully analyzed, Hyles’ sermon illustrations sound too good to be true.  Let me illustrate this with several stories found in Hyles’ book Let’s Go Soulwinning:

So I walked in and said, “Hey! Anybody home?” And there was—thirteen people at home—company all dressed up in suits and fine clothes. There I was. Imagine, Rev. Hyles, a cup in his hand, fishing hat on, split tee shirt, patch in his breeches, and a pair of tennis shoes on his feet! And I said, “Hello.” The lady looked at me, she looked at her company, then announced, “This is my pastor.” I was horrified! I was humiliated! I wanted to evaporate but couldn’t.  Finally I said, “Excuse me; I’m sorry.” Then I got to thinking. Shoot! Just take over the conversation. Just act like you have good sense. So in I walked. “How do you do! How are you? Are you a Christian?” I went around the entire room asking the same question. Then THEY got embarrassed.  (I found out long ago that when a preacher goes to a hospital or gets some place where he feels like a fifth wheel, he should just bluff them and take over the conversation. That will help you, too. It really will. You go to the hospital.  Here is the doctor, the nurse, the family. And everybody says, “That’s the preacher.” You know how you feel, pastors. It’s a terrible feeling. So I walk in, “Hello Doc. How are you?” Make HIM feel bad. Make HIM feel like he’s a fifth wheel.)

So I walked in and asked each person if he or she were a Christian. The last man, a young man, said, “No, I’m not, but I’ve been thinking about it.” Well, I said, “I can help you think about it right here.” We knelt there in that home and opened the Bible. He got converted. He lived at Irving, Texas, forty miles from Garland. I said, “Now, J.D., you need to walk the aisle in the church in Irving tomorrow.” He said, “If you don’t mind, Preacher, I’ll just stay over tonight and come to your church and walk the aisle.” He did, and that night he got baptized in my church. Later he joined the First Baptist Church of Irving, Texas.

You don’t realize how many places you will bump into people. I saw a lady while on vacation just recently. She said, “Hello, Brother Jack. Remember when you won me to the Lord?” I said, “I certainly do.” It happened while I was looking for a Mrs. Marsh. I knocked on Mrs. Marsh’s door—I thought. She came to the door. I said, “Mrs. Marsh?”

“No, I’m Mrs. Tillet.”

I said, “Mrs. Tillet, I thought Mrs. Marsh lived here.”

“No, she lives five houses down the street.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Tillet.” I walked off. Then I said, “Wait a minute, Mrs. Tillet. Are you a Christian?” She began to cry. I led her to Christ right there.

I have won shoeshine boys and fellows on airplanes. I was going to Phoenix to a conference last year. I sat down beside a man seventy-two years old, a wealthy rancher. “Where do you live?” I asked.

He said, “On a ranch between Phoenix and Tucson.”

I said, “Do you and your wife live alone?”

“My wife died a few months ago.”

I asked, “Do you ever think about having anybody else come and live with you?” “Oh,” he said, “If I could find somebody who would come and live with me, a friend to keep me company, I’d give anything in the world.” He had chauffeurs, servants. He owned a big ranch with hundreds of acres, but was as lonely as he could be.

I said, “I know Somebody who would come and live with you.”

“You do? Does He live in Phoenix?”

I said, “He sure does. He lives everywhere.”

He said, “Who is it?”

“Jesus will come.” In fifteen minutes that man had Somebody to go home with him to live.

Oh, if we will just take time to witness. The trouble is, we are ashamed of Jesus. We don’t mind saying, “Isn’t it hot today?” or, “I wonder how the Berlin situation is.” We don’t mind talking about Khrushchev. We’re more eager to talk about him than about Jesus. Isn’t that a shame! Here we are redeemed. He died for us on the cross. We have been made heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. He is building a home in Heaven for us. We’re God’s children and we won’t even tell a stranger that we belong to the Lord Jesus. Be soul-conscious.

Storytelling preachers love to tell stories about people suddenly dying and going to Hell. What better way to drive a point home than to tell hearers about this or that man rejecting God’s plan of salvation and then dropping dead and awaking in Hell. This story can be told in numerous ways with different characters and circumstances. Jesus himself told a similar story in Luke 16. The point is always the same: now is accepted time, now is the day of salvation.

Let me conclude this post with several stories I have heard preachers tell over the years. One preacher told a story about a man God had called to preach. The man ignored God’s call and went on to have a large family and made lots of money. One day, this man’s wife and children were driving down the road when a truck hit them head-on. This man’s entire family was instantly killed. In a quiet moment before the funeral, the man wept over the caskets of his loved ones. And at that moment, God audibly spoke to him, telling him that it was God who had killed his entire family to get his attention. Are you ready to serve me now? God asked the man. The man collapsed on the floor and told God that he would indeed forsake all and follow him.

Another preacher told a story about the people in Hell. One day, a crew that was drilling an oil well began hearing what sounded like people crying and screaming. Where was this noise coming from, they wondered? They soon ascertained that the noise was coming from the oil well casing. One of the workers decided to drop a microphone down the well casing, and sure enough, they heard people screaming about being in the unrelenting, fiery flames of Hell!

Of course, neither of these stories is true. The first story was a legend of sorts – I heard variations of it numerous times. Preacher Bob heard Big Name Preacher John tell the story at a Sword of the Lord Conference. Bob thought, why not use this story in my sermon, impressing on people the importance of immediately obeying the voice of God?

The second story is pure fabrication. But hey, if souls get saved . . . right? The end justifies the means, even if it means telling stories that are more farcical than the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

Have you ever heard too-good-to-be-true sermon illustrations?  Please share them in the comment section.

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.

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.

Short Stories: Midwestern Baptist College –1978 Yearbook Incident

midwestern baptist college freshman class 1976
1976-1977 Midwestern Baptist College freshman class. Polly is in the first row, the first person on the left. Bruce is in the third row, the eighth person from the left.

From 1976-79, my wife and I attended Midwestern Baptist College (IFB) in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern, an unaccredited Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution, was established in 1954 by the famous IFB pulpiteer Dr. Tom Malone. More than sixty years later, the college campus has been sold, Tom Malone is dead, and the church he once pastored, Emmanuel Baptist Church, is shuttered, with weeds growing around the buildings and through the cracks in the parking lots.

In the spring of our sophomore year, Malone gathered the student body in the chapel so he could “talk” to them. Students were told to bring the recently released 1978 yearbook with them. As the students settled into their seats, Malone stood up and came to the pulpit. It was clear that he was quite upset about something. We quickly learned that Malone was livid about three of the yearbook pictures. Mike Veach, currently the pastor of First Bible Church, a Fundamentalist church in Staten Island, New York, shot the photographs. Mike was (is) an excellent photographer. A few months after what students would later call “The Yearbook Incident,” Polly and I went to nearby Cranbrook Gardens so Mike could take pictures of us. We still have these pictures, reminders of the youngsters we once were some forty years ago.

What was so offensive about these photographs that a noted IFB pastor and college chancellor would deem it necessary to talk to the entire student body about them? See for yourself.

1978 midwestern baptist college yearbook

Photograph number one was taken during Founder’s Day. Always held on the Friday after Thanksgiving (students were not allowed to go home for Thanksgiving), Founder’s Day was a day set aside for showing off the college to prospective Fundamentalist high school students. Part of the day’s events included a singing talent show. This picture is of a group from a nearby IFB church.

1978 midwestern baptist college yearbook

Photograph number two is a picture of Julian Lyons, Emmanuel Baptist Church’s bus pastor. Lyons and I did not get along. He considered me a slacker because I didn’t want to work in the bus ministry after my freshman year. (All students were required to work in the bus ministry their freshman year.) I considered Lyons a racist because he stopped running the buses in Detroit. (The overwhelming majority of the kids from Detroit were poor and black.) One day, as I was exiting the school building, he and I ran into each other and had words, each telling the other what we thought about them. We never spoke again. I was surprised that I did not get expelled from school for what was surely viewed as insubordination.

1978 midwestern baptist college yearbook

Photograph number three was shot during one of the chapel services. Pay close attention to the student in the middle of the picture.

I am sure you are scratching your head right now, trying to figure out what is wrong with these pictures. Can’t you see it? Look closely. Put on your IFB alternate reality glasses®. Still nothing?

In the first picture, the boys (not Midwestern students) have long hair, and in the second picture, it looks like Lyons’ hair is over his collar. Midwestern had/has a strict policy against men having long hair. Male students were required to keep their hair short, with the college even going so far as to legislate that the back of men’s hair had to be tapered and not block cut. Hair on the collar, ears, or long bangs were forbidden. Men caught breaking the hair rule received demerits and were ordered to get a haircut immediately.

And the third photograph? The student “looks” like he has bushy, long hair on the back of his head. What he really had was the student’s hair in front of him, that student being my future wife, Polly. As photographers know, perspective and angles can do strange things to photographs. Sadly, Malone was only concerned with the “appearance of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:22).

Malone was furious over these photos, so much so that he took one of the yearbooks and tore it in two right in front of the student body. What a man, right? He then ordered the yearbooks collected. They were later returned, but not before the offending photographs had been marked-out with black, permanent ink felt markers.

So why do I have an unaltered copy of the yearbook? I refused to turn my yearbook in to prison authorities. Even then, as Fundamentalist as I was, I knew that Malone was acting like a crazed wild man over these photographs. It made no sense to me to mar the yearbook just because three of the pictures showed men allegedly with long hair. If Malone was serious about giving “sins” the black permanent marker of death, why not mark out:

  • The photographs of the man who was having an affair with the wife of the dean of men
  • The photographs of the gay teacher who lived in the dorm

These “sins” were well known by students, yet they were pushed to the deep recesses of the Midwestern closet. Instead, very ‘70s-looking hair became the target of Malone’s “righteous” indignation and wrath.

I know this story sounds bat-shit crazy to some readers, but this is an excellent example of the Fundamentalism I was raised in and a part of for many years. To this day, there are IFB pastors and churches who preach against the “sin of men having long hair.” A man with long hair is considered rebellious and effeminate. If you have not read my post, Is it a Sin to Have Long Hair? please do so. I think it will help you understand the kind of thinking that goes into someone concluding that men having long hair is a mortal sin.

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.

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.

Growing an IFB Church: Targeting Vulnerable People

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1987-2

Earlier today, Troy left the following comment on the post titled IFB Church Movement: Win Them, Wet Them, Work Them, Waste Them:

I wonder if traditional cult-like tactics were ever used, like using a pretty girl as bait or targeting the lonely. Considering the goal was mere numbers rather than paying parishioners I’m guessing probably not.

Troy wanted to know if IFB churches targeted specific groups of people. The short answer is yes. While the goal was allegedly to win souls, it is hard not to conclude that many ministries in IFB churches were primarily used to drive church attendance.

In the mid-1980s, I pastored one of the largest non-Catholic churches in Perry County, Ohio. For a time, Somerset Baptist Church was booming. Everything seemed right. Sunday services were electric, with attendees actually excited about what was going on. The auditorium was packed, as was the junior church service in the annex. Even Sunday nights had an air of excitement. What was the driving force behind our church’s growth?

I started Somerset Baptist Church in July 1983. We immediately bought a dilapidated church bus from Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster. Faith Memorial, pastored by John Maxwell at the time, was one of the fastest growing churches in the country. We paid $200 for the bus.

We started busing children and adults to the church from Somerset and nearby rural communities. Two years later, with attendance in the 50s, we bought an abandoned United Methodist Church five miles east of town. Over the course of the next 18 months, we added three more buses to our fleet. On Sundays, buses from Somerset Baptist spread out over a three-county area picking up people for church. We also started running a bus route on Sunday night. It was not long, thanks to aggressive visitation tactics, promotions, and advertising, that our church buildings were overflowing with bus riders. Our goal was to win souls, but, damn, increased attendance numbers sure gave Pastor Bruce something to brag about. His dick was finally bigger than that of most of the IFB churches in the area.

I still remember the day we had our first attendance over 200. What a day. It was if the Shekinah glory of God had shined down upon my ministry! God was blessing all of my hard work. Two years later, attendance dropped to the low 70s. What happened?

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1987

The year church attendance hit 200, our annual income was $40,000 — the highest in the 11 years I was there. Fifty percent of our attendance came in on the buses. We had attracted a significant number of people from two local IFB churches that went through splits. Most of these people were middle-class wage earners, unlike the bus riders and the people who helped build the church. Before these people came on board, the highest wage earner in the church made $21,000 a year. Most of the families were on some sort of public assistance.

The families who found refuge at Somerset Baptist Church, bit by bit, returned to the churches they had left, taking their money with them. By the next year, our income had dropped in half. I was forced to stop the bus routes and sell off our fleet. And just like that, our glory days were over. By then, I had distanced myself from the IFB church movement, embraced Calvinism, and started a free Christian school for church children.

I felt like a failure. I had pastored a growing church, and now I was back to pastoring a small country church. As I was wont to do, I threw myself into a new ministry, the school. My goal was to raise new Calvinistic warriors for Christ. While I found great satisfaction in teaching the next generation of church members, I missed the days when our buses brought scores of people to church. Was I driven by a desire to win souls or attendance growth? Probably both. Even today, I find it hard to judge my motives.

I do know that I was taught at Midwestern Baptist College to use ministries to win souls and grow church attendance. Did soulwinning become before attendance? I want to think so, but after years spent hobnobbing with IFB preachers, I concluded that, for many pastors, it was all about the numbers. As I mentioned in IFB Church Movement: Win Them, Wet Them, Work Them, Waste Them, success was measured by attendance. Want to be respected and admired by your fellow preachers? Have big church attendance numbers. Want to be a conference speaker? Pastor a growing church.

I spent the first 32 years of my life in the IFB church movement. I saw all sorts of ministries used to build church attendance:

  • Bus ministry
  • Youth ministry
  • Deaf ministry
  • Senior ministry
  • Retarded ministry (as it was called, at the time)

These types of ministries were typically frequented by lower-income people, people who were not going to put much money, if any, in the offering plate on Sundays. While their “souls” were certainly important, a fair-minded person would have to conclude that these ministries primarily existed to drive church attendance. Sure, attendees benefited from these ministries, but I suspect the real benefit went to pastors who could then brag about church attendance at the next preacher’s meeting. Polly and I were talking today about the bus ministry at Somerset Baptist. Why were mothers — it was almost ALWAYS mothers — so willing to let their children ride one of our buses? Simple. Their children would be gone for 3-5 hours. FREEDOM! By picking up their children, we provided free babysitting. We seemed to be “nice” people; why not let your children ride the bus with their friends? (And we really pushed riders to invite their friends, a subject I really must write about one of these days.)

Most IFB churches have abandoned their bus ministries. Years ago, the goal was quantity, but now that parents are not as likely to let their children ride a bus to church, and running a bus ministry is prohibitively expensive, pastors are focused on quality. No more snotty-nosed welfare kids running around the church, just tithing Jesus-lovers carrying leather-bound King James Bibles. If Jesus were alive today, I wonder what he would say? Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:14)

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.

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.

IFB Church Movement: Win Them, Wet Them, Work Them, Waste Them

church size matters
Cartoon by David Hayward, The Naked Pastor

The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement traces its genesis back to the debate over modernism within Evangelical — primarily Baptist — sects and churches. This internecine war led Fundamentalists to split off from Baptist sects such as the American Baptist Convention (ABC) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). By the late 1950s and 1960s, these separatists founded their own colleges, proudly wearing the IFB label. Historically, the 1960s-1980s were the heyday of the IFB church movement. Many of the largest churches in America were IFB churches. Today, most of those churches are either closed or shells of what they once were.

I attended Emmanuel Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan for three years in the mid-1970s. Pastored by Tom Malone, Emmanuel Baptist was considered by everyone to be an IFB success story. Today, its doors are shuttered, and its college, Midwestern Baptist College, is a ministry of an IFB church in Orion, Michigan. Church and college properties were sold to developers. The dorm that was my home for three years has been converted into apartments. Emmanuel’s story is common among IFB churches. Books were written about these churches’ success, but where are the tomes detailing their decline and death?

There was a day when numbers drove IFB preachers: church attendance, Sunday school attendance, salvation decisions, baptisms, and offerings. Let me give readers an example of numbers-driven thinking. IFB evangelist Dennis Corle, who held three revivals for me back in the 1980s, accounts for his life this way:

Dennis Corle entered full time evangelism in 1981. In the past 38 years: he has traveled over 4 million miles, held over 2,085 revival meetings and over a thousand one-day meetings as well as Soul-winning and Revival Fires Conferences.

In his ministry he has had over 71,336 saved and 19,422 baptized. He has seen thousands of young people surrender for full time ministry many of whom are presently serving the Lord full time as well as thousands of members added to independent Baptist Churches during his meetings.

He is the founder and president of Revival Fires Baptist College which is a correspondence college that offers a full 4-year program. He started and teaches a summer institute designed to train young evangelists in the field. Dr. Corle also teaches in several fundamental Baptist colleges each year.

Dennis Corle is the founder of Revival Fires Publishing. His ministry has published 127 books to date.

Bob Gray, Sr. is another IFB bean counter. Now retired, Gray, Sr. describes his ministerial prowess this way:

[Bob Gray, Sr.] pastored for 29 years in Longview, Texas. Under Dr. Gray’s leadership, LBT had over one million souls come to Christ. Longview Baptist Temple grew from a low of 159 to 2,041 in weekly attendance under his ministry. The church gave 9.3 million dollars to missions and gave $ 325,000 to help the poor in the Ark-La-Tex area in those 29 years. The church averaged 2,041 the last year of his pastorate in 2008. The church baptized 4,046 converts in the same year. Dr. Gray had 99 baptisms from his personal soul winning in 2013.

….

Dr. Gray has written 34 books . . . He has preached in every state of the union with the lone exception being North Dakota and 17 foreign countries. He is a conference speaker and local church consultant having flown over 6 million air miles.

size matters
Three IFB preachers checking to see who has the biggest church

In the 1970s and 1980s, I attended countless IFB preacher’s meetings and conferences. These meetings were an opportunity for preachers to preach, gossip, eat lots of food, and compare dick sizes. The number one question asked at these meetings was this: “how many ya running these days?” Everyone wanted to know who had the biggest dick. Boast of John Holmes-like size, and everyone wanted to know how you did it. Numerical success meant you were being “used” by God or that God was “blessing” your church. Conference speakers were always pastors whose churches were numerically growing or had large Sunday attendances. Rare was the speaker who pastored a small, failing church. In IFB circles, size mattered.

IFB pastors practiced what I call the Four W’s. In this methodological system, you find why IFB churches numerically succeeded and why they are dying on the vine today.

Win Them

After attracting disaffected Christians from other IFB churches and busing children to the church, the single best way to grow a church was to win (evangelize) sinners to saving faith in Jesus Christ. IFB churches considered themselves to be soul-saving centers. Sermons, altar calls, and evangelistic programs were all geared towards saving souls. One church I pastored in southeast Ohio for eleven years had over 600 public professions of faith. Rare was the Sunday in the 1980s when multiple people weren’t at the altar asking Jesus to save them. I judged the success or failure of my sermons by how many people walked the aisle on Sundays.

Wet Them

After getting saved, new converts were told that their first step of obedience to Christ was baptism by immersion (and then reading the Bible, tithing, prayer, tithing, attending church every time the doors were open, tithing). Getting people saved was the easy part. Getting them to submit to being held under water by a Baptist preacher? Not as easy. IFB churches typically had large new convert numbers, but not as many baptisms. The reason for this was simple. Many new converts never returned to church after getting saved or came for a few weeks and then stopped attending after hearing the pastor rage against “sin” — their sin. People attracted to a particular IFB church’s “friendliness” quickly found out that friendship was conditioned on obedience and fealty to bat-shit crazy beliefs and practices.

Work Them

After getting people saved and baptized, it was time to indoctrinate them into the cult by giving them work to do. The success of any IFB church relies on the unpaid labor of its members. Not only were church members expected to attend church every time the doors were open, but they were also expected to go on visitation, work in the bus ministry, teach Sunday school, man (I mean woman) the nursery, work in Junior Church, oversee the youth ministry, etc. IFB churches are a way of life, with services and ministries taking up virtually every day of the week. On-fire, sold-out Christians worked, worked, worked, and worked for their pastor, uh, I mean God. No matter how many hours they worked at their jobs or how many hours they spent caring for family, congregants were expected to give their all to their pastor, uh, I mean God.

Take the IFB church I pastored in southeast Ohio. We had church activities going on virtually every day of the week. We also had a private Christian school. And then we had conferences and revivals. All told, church members were expected to show up and participate in services, events, and ministries over 300 days a year. Not showing up brought the wrath of the pastor, uh, I mean God, upon your head.

Waste Them

It should come as no surprise that such a frenetic church life led to burnout. IFB churches loved to count the people coming through the front door, but not those leaving out the back. As long as more people came through the front door than who left, the church was “growing,” a “success.” Those who left the church were considered failures or weak, people unwilling to give their all to the pastor, uh, I mean God. No account is given for those harmed by being worked to death. Winners work for Jesus day and night, and losers don’t. Don’t you want to be a winner?

The IFB church movement is in numeric decline because this methodology proved not to be sustainable. Scores of people left for friendlier religious groups that allowed them space to live their lives. Others abandoned God altogether. However, ask IFB preachers why their churches are in the toilet, they will blame sin, liberalism, or laziness, refusing to acknowledge that the real culprit is staring at them in the mirror.

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.

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.

1976-1979: My Midwestern Baptist College Transcript

midwestern baptist college freshman class 1976
Midwestern Baptist College, 1976-77 Freshman Class. Polly is in the front row, the first person from the left. Bruce is in the third row, the eighth person from the left. Seventy percent of the students in the class did not graduate.

I have a college education, of sorts. I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution — for almost three years. Educationally, Midwestern was inferior in every way. Most classes were either taught by incompetent professors, or the instruction was at a Sunday School class level. Here are the classes I took at Midwestern:

  • Basic Music Theory [or how to wave your arm in 4/4 time]
  • Fundamentals of Speech
  • Homiletics [ignore everything you learned in speech class]
  • Western Civilization [emphasis on the Christian era]
  • American Literature
  • English Grammar [God, do we have to diagram more sentences?]
  • Biology [God did it]
  • Introduction to Missions [awesome real-life stories from an IFB missionary/pastor]
  • Baptist History [think The Trail of Blood]
  • Social Problems [sin is the problem, Christ is the solution]
  • Christian Counseling [psychology bad, Bible-based counseling good]
  • Personal Evangelism [one, two, three, repeat after me, bless God, you are SAVED!]
  • Bus Ministry
  • Physical Education [I aced this class]
  • Major Prophets
  • Bible Doctrines [but only approved IFB doctrines]
  • Life of Christ [Jesus, Jesus, Jesus]
  • Pentateuch [main takeaway: Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible]
  • Revelation [a literalist, dispensational, pretribulational, premillennial interpretation]
  • Pastoral Epistles [never forget what the Bible says about pastoral authority]
  • Hermeneutics [how to read the Bible like a Fundamentalist Baptist]

I had several professors who were top-notch. Larry Clouse and Dr. Tom Malone, come to mind. However, they were the exceptions to the rule. Most of my professors were either pastors or pastor’s wives. Evidently, being a pastor or married to a preacher automatically qualifies you to be a competent professor.

Five professor stories come to mind that I would like to share with readers. I won’t mention them by name, but students who attended Midwestern in the 1970s will certainly know who I am talking about.

One professor believed it was his duty to keep Polly and me away from each other. He was friends with Polly’s father. At the time, Polly’s mom — she wore the pants in the family — had told Polly that she would not permit her to marry me. This finally came to a head when Polly stood up to her mom for the first time, informing her that we were getting married with or without her blessing. Forty-two years later, we are still married, and my mother-in-law still thinks Polly could have married a better man.

Polly was a fast-fingered typist. I, on the other hand, typed with two fingers. Polly, madly in love with the man she called her “bad boy,” typed all my term papers for me. The aforementioned teacher would grade our papers, giving Polly As and me Ds. He would write notes on my papers about my formatting and typos. Polly received no such corrections, even though she was the one typing my reports.

Another professor was a deeply closeted gay man who lived in the dormitory. Early in the second semester of his class, he and I got into a heated discussion over his sexual proclivities. I let him know that I knew exactly “what” he was, as did every man in the dorm. It was the 70s, and I was quite the homophobe. He informed me that I was no longer welcome in his class; that he would give me a passing grade for staying away. Worked for me. More time for basketball.

Another professor was a pastor’s wife. She taught Western Civilization. She made no attempt to interact with students. Day after day, she read the textbook to us. That’s it. The highlight of this class was trying to figure out who farted or who was snoring.

One professor became so enraged at me over dropping his hermeneutics class that he took me to task in his next chapel sermon. While he didn’t mention me by name, he directly looked at me as he railed against a student who dropped his class, a student who was a quitter, who lacked character.

And finally, let me talk about the pastor who taught Biology. Midwestern had no lab. The class consisted of lectures and reading an ancient Bob Jones Press published textbook. What I most remember is this professor’s racist lecture on the importance of marrying your own “kind.” I wonder what he meant?

I was hardly a good student. The reasons for this are many, which I shall explain in a moment. My grades were average, and I had a few Ds and one F. Polly graduated second in her high school class. She was and is one smart cookie — whatever the hell that means. Yet, when I look at her transcript, I see that she struggled in some of her classes too. What happened? It couldn’t have been the difficulty of the classes. I can understand why I was an average student, but Polly? She should have aced her classes. All of them.

Consider my schedule for a moment. I had classes in the morning and then went to work, a full-time job, in the afternoon. I often arrived home after lights out. When, exactly, was I supposed to do my school work? After lights out schoolwork was forbidden. Students would receive demerits for having their lights on after 11:00 pm. On the weekends, I worked in the bus ministry, spending hours on Saturday visiting my bus route. On Sundays, I got up early to drive a bus and then attended Sunday School and morning church. Sunday afternoons, I drove to Detroit to preach at a drug rehabilitation center. And then I would go to church on Sunday night. Throw in going on weekend dates with Polly, fixing my seemingly always broken-down automobiles, playing basketball, attending dorm devotions, and horsing around with my friends; I had little time for school work.

I have long believed that Midwestern used a med school regimen to wash out men they deemed “weak” or “unfit” for the ministry. Tom Malone, the chancellor of the school, may have denied evolution, but he definitely believed in the survival of the fittest. He had no tolerance for weakness. Malone and other chapel speakers frequently railed against quitters. When Polly and I left Midwestern in the Spring of 1979 (she was six months pregnant and I was unemployed), we were labeled quitters. We were told by school administrators and friends alike that God didn’t use quitters. This meant, of course, that if we didn’t graduate, God wouldn’t “bless” our lives and use us in any significant way.

In the mid-1980s, Malone was preaching a conference for Jim Dennis, a 1960s Midwestern graduate and Polly’s uncle. Malone had heard from Polly’s father — also a Midwestern grad and pastor of a nearby IFB church — that I was pastoring a fast-growing IFB church in southeast Ohio. Before beginning his sermon, Malone mentioned me by name, complimenting me on my work. He then admitted, “if Bruce had stayed any longer at Midwestern, we probably would have ruined him.” I guess I wasn’t a quitter, after all.

I didn’t receive much of an education at Midwestern. I met the love of life while there, so there’s that, but preparing me intellectually for the ministry? Midwestern failed miserably at this task. “But, Bruce, you know so much about the Bible and Christianity. How did that happen?” After Midwestern, I went on to get a twenty-five-year education in the privacy of my study. I devoted myself to filling in the massive gaps in my education. I studied hours and hours each week, reading countless theological tomes as I prepared my sermons. All told, I preached over 4,000 sermons.

I refused to wing it, as many of my preacher friends did. One IFB evangelist, Dennis Corle, told me that I was wasting time studying, that 4-5 hours a week of preparation was all I needed, that I should spend the bulk of my time winning souls. I ignored Corle’s ignorant career advice, choosing instead to devote myself to preparing to preach the best sermons possible. My congregants deserved my very best, and with the rare exception, I gave it to them.

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.

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.

How the IFB Church Turned My Wife Into a Martyr

polly gerencser late 1990s
Polly Gerencser, late 1990s, carrying water from the creek to flush the toilets. An ice storm had knocked out the power.

My wife, Polly, and I were raised by parents who believed Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches preached the true gospel and adhered to the right doctrinal beliefs. Both of us spent our preschool years in non-Baptist churches, but neither of us remembers anything about these congregations. Our earliest religious experiences were with IFB churches. Both of us made our first professions of faith as kindergartners. I asked Jesus into my heart during junior church at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego, California. Polly gave her heart to Jesus by her mom’s bedside. As teenagers, both of us “really” got saved and/or committed our lives to Jesus. I also believed that God was calling me to be a preacher, and Polly believed her calling in life was to be a preacher’s wife.

During our high school years, I attended a large public high school in Findlay, Ohio — dropping out of school after my eleventh-grade year. Polly, at the time, lived in Bay City, Michigan. At the age of thirty-five, her father felt called to preach and moved his family to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College.  During her father’s four years at Midwestern, Polly attended Oakland Christian School — a large Fundamentalist high school. Polly’s father graduated from Midwestern in May 1976. He then moved his family to Newark, Ohio, to become the assistant pastor for the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple — as it is commonly called — was an IFB church pastored by Jim Dennis, Polly’s uncle. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.)

In August of 1976, a full-of-life redheaded boy packed his meager belongings into his beater Dodge Dart and made his way north to enroll for classes at Midwestern. A beautiful dark-haired girl would do the same, making the five-hour trip north in a six-year-old AMC Hornet. God’s perfect will was aligning for both of us, and we soon began dating. It was not long before we both were smitten with the other. Six months later, on Valentine’s Day, I asked Polly to marry me. She said yes, and I put on her ring finger the $225 quarter-caret diamond ring I had recently purchased for her at Sears and Roebuck. We then wonderfully broke Midwestern’s rules forbidding physical contact between unmarrieds. (Please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule.)

Polly and I threw ourselves into our studies, knowing that we couldn’t — thanks to a college rule forbidding marriage as freshmen — get married until the summer of 1978. Polly’s mom used the intervening eighteen months to try to derail our marriage plans. In February of 1978, Polly’s mom let her know that she could not marry me. End of that, I am sure Mom thought. Little did she know that full-of-life Bruce had rubbed off a bit on quiet, reserved Polly. After giving serious thought to eloping, we decided to get married with or without her parents’ blessing. Polly told her mom that she wanted their blessing and very much wanted to have the wedding at the Baptist Temple, but if not, she was marrying her red-headed bad boy anyway. This was the first time that Polly ever stood up to her mom.

In July of 1978, we tied the knot at the Baptist Temple on a ninety-five-degree July day (the church did not have air conditioning). Polly’s dad and uncle performed the wedding. Our wedding entourage was made up of friends from college, close friends, and family members. It was very much an IFB affair, with one exception, anyway. The soloist for our wedding was a college friend of ours. Two of the songs we asked him to sing were We’ve Only Just Begun by the Carpenters and The Wedding Song (There is Love) by Peter, Paul, and Mary. These were the FIRST secular pop songs ever sung at a Baptist Temple wedding, and they were most certainly the last. For the past forty-two years, thanks to us using secular songs in our wedding, Baptist Temple couples must have their wedding music approved before it can be used. We truly made a “mark” on the church.

After our honeymoon in French Lick, Indiana, we returned to Pontiac to begin our junior year of college. The first week of classes, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. How could that be possible? We were using contraception! Of course, we never had any premarital counseling or instruction about birth control. We were just two dumb, naïve young adults who thought reading Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye’s 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, was comprehensive sex education.

Polly was quite sick during her pregnancy. Her obstetrician was a country doctor who thought it was good for her to gain as much weight as she wanted. All told, she gained sixty-eight pounds, some of which is still with her today. Polly’s health problems forced her to reduce her class load. I maintained a full class schedule while also working a second shift job at a Detroit-area machine shop — Deco Grande. In January of 1979, I lost my job, and we were immediately plunged into a financial crisis. Polly and I sought counsel from the college dean, Levi Corey, thinking that it might be best for us to drop out of school for a semester. The dean told us that it was God who led us to Midwestern, and he never uses quitters. We would hear the “God never uses quitters” mantra many times during the next few weeks. He suggested we borrow money to pay our tuition bill. We did, but that only staved off destitution for a short while. In February 1979, we dropped out of college, packed up our belongings in a small U-Haul, and towed them with a 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. I was twenty-one, and Polly was twenty.

Our experiences at Midwestern generally reinforced what we had been taught as youths. We were taught a John R. RiceThe Home: Courtship, Marriage, and Children patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. The Sword of the Lord website describes Rice’s book this way: 

Too long have people had to depend on lewd and crude books, written by ungodly men or women, people who think more of the body than of the soul, writers who study more to excite human passions than to make godly homes. This book shows the normal plan of God about marriage, about children and the Christian principles of a happy home.

I was the head of the home, and all decisions were to be made by me. Polly’s role was to care for our home and children. A greater burden was placed on Polly because she was taught that since her husband was a pastor, she and her children would always come second to the church. Polly was often reminded, both in classes and from the pulpit, that she would have to make great sacrifices for the sake of the ministry; that she must never complain about her preacher husband’s tireless service to Jesus; that men greatly used by God always had wives who understood their husbands’ supernatural calling; that if she would humbly walk in her husband’s shadow, that God would greatly reward her after death. Being naturally passive and reserved, Polly adapted well to her calling, as did I, an outspoken, passionate, quick-to-make-decisions pastor. These teachings would, over time, turn Polly into a martyr.

After leaving college and moving to Bryan, we lived with my sister and her husband for a few weeks while I secured employment and found us suitable housing. Polly, at the time, was six months pregnant with our first child.

As hardcore Fundamentalist Baptists, our first order of business was to find a church to attend. We had been taught that missing church was a grievous sin, a transgression that brought swift judgment from God. Family and friends thought that we would attend First Baptist Church. After all, it was the church I attended before college, and it was pastored by a distant relative, Jack Bennett. My sister and her husband were attending Montpelier Baptist Church, pastored by Jay Stuckey. Polly thought First Baptist was an aging, dead church, with little to offer a young family such as ours. My feelings were a bit more conflicted because I knew many of the people at First Baptist, but I knew Polly was right. So, instead of going where everyone expected us to go, we started attending Montpelier Baptist Church.

Montpelier Baptist was a young church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). The church’s pastor and his wife were a few years older than we, and many of the congregants were young adults. The nursery teemed with newborns, and there was an excitement in the air as, week after week, the church continued to grow. Pastor Stuckey was what I would now call a newspaper-headlines-preacher. He preached sermons about the end times, the rapture, and the Illuminati — the things you find in Chick Tracts.  For those who were interested in prophecy and evangelism, Montpelier Baptist was the place to be.

Several weeks after we started attending the church, Jay asked me to be his assistant, working with the bus ministry and the church’s evangelistic efforts. The position paid me exactly zero dollars and zero cents, even though I would, in a few weeks, find myself working at the church over thirty hours a week. Fortunately, I had secured a union job working at ARO in the shipping and receiving department, so money was not a concern.

Between the church and ARO, I was gone from home almost eighty hours a week. Polly was left alone most days, rarely seeing me until late in the evening or at church. I quickly became consumed with the work of the ministry, neglecting my wife for the sake of the supernatural call God had on my life. Polly saw my devotion to the church as the way pastors were supposed to be — sold out, on fire for Jesus. As my wife, Polly knew that God, ministry, and church came before her.

No matter how many hours I worked or how long I was away from home, Polly never said a word. She could see that God was blessing my work at the church. Thanks to my labor with the bus ministry and the church’s visitation program, church attendance grew rapidly. We were bringing so many children in on the buses that they had to sit on the floor at the front of the church. The crowded pews lent themselves to the congregation’s belief that God was doing something great at Montpelier Baptist Church. In October 1979, nine months after I started working with Jay, the church had a record attendance of five hundred. 

Three weeks later, Polly and I, along with our newborn son, would again pack up our belongings, this time so we could move to Newark, Ohio. During our time at Montpelier Baptist, it became clear that I was a workaholic; that I was unable to rest and relax when there was work to do for God. Shortly after our record attendance, I started having health problems that landed me in the hospital for several days. The doctor determined that my problems were stress-related.  During my hospital stay, Jay never came to see me. He never bothered to ask how I was doing. It was during this time that I was also facing a layoff at work. I went to talk to Jay about the difficulties we were having financially — thinking that the church might help us a bit since I was devoting so much of my time to its ministries — and he suggested I apply for welfare. Jay’s indifference towards us was quite hurtful, and later that day, Polly and I decided we would move to Newark. We went over to Jay’s home to tell him, thinking he would understand. He didn’t. Jay became quite belligerent (as did his wife), laying a guilt trip on me for wanting to leave. He so shamed me that I changed my mind about leaving.

A week or so later, it became clear that we were going to have to move. I went to Jay’s office to tell him we were moving, and he looked up from his desk and basically said to me, see ya later, and then went back to whatever it was he was doing.  By the end of the week, we had packed up our belongings and moved to Newark to live temporarily with Polly’s parents until I found a job.

In all of this, Polly was a passive bystander. It was my job to be the head of the home, to make all the decisions. She was taught, and believed, that her God-called preacher husband was led by the Holy Spirit and knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t remember her ever questioning our moves from college to Bryan and from Montpelier to Newark. She was content to follow me wherever I went, and whatever difficulties, burdens, and trials came her way, she would gladly bear them without a word of complaint. As far as patriarchal thinking goes, she was the perfect wife.

These experiences, and many others like them, turned Polly into a martyr. No matter what I said or did, she just smiled and obeyed — the perfect IFB pastor’s wife. Instead of giving her opinion or standing her ground, she quietly followed in my footsteps. It was not until we were in our forties that we realized this was no way to live; Polly was supposed to be my partner, not my slave.

The past 20 years of marriage have been transformational, to say the least. Our decision-making process has changed dramatically, and Polly isn’t afraid to express her opinion or say that this or that is a bad idea. Going back to college and graduating in 2012, and being promoted to second shift supervisor for her department at Sauder Woodworking have allowed Polly to step outside of my shadow, be her own person, and make her own decisions. Deconverting in 2008 helped too. Once freed from an authoritarian God and his rule-book, Polly was free to chart her own course and captain her own ship.

There are times when both of us lapse into our former IFB ways. We are not much different personality-wise from when we got married 42 years ago. Sure, we have mellowed with age and our priorities have changed, but what’s really changed is our values and how we treat each other. Both of us can say that our marriage today is better than it ever has been. We deeply love one another and realize that we are lucky that our marriage survived decades of IFB indoctrination. We are far from perfect, but strive to be a better friend, lover, and spouse to each other every day. Now, if we can just quit fighting over the blanket. 🙂

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.

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.

Bruce, Why Did it Take You So Long to Leave Christianity?

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, May 1978

On occasion, I will have an atheist ask me why it took me so long to leave Christianity. Typically, such atheists are lifelong unbelievers, having little to no experience with organized religion. Others became atheists at a young age and have no lasting scars from their brief involvement with Christianity. What is left unsaid here is this: how stupid do you have to be to be a Christian for fifty years?

Last night, I listened to Matt Dillahunty’s podcast, The Hang Up. This week’s episode featured Dr. Darrel Ray of Recovering From Religion and the Secular Therapy Project — two awesome services I heartily endorse.

One of the commenters on the podcast stated:

When you left religion. When exactly was that Matt [Dillahunty]? You joined the military when you were 30 for 8 years? Joined Dell and studied the bible a couple of years after that? So you finally figured out you had been a gullible idiot at 40s.

In other words, how stupid did Matt have to be that it took him years to conclude that the Evangelical religion (Southern Baptist) he grew up in was false?

It’s always lifelong atheists who make such comments. They cannot wrap their minds around how it is that demonstrably intelligent people can stay tethered to Christianity for decades. This post will hopefully explain this issue to atheists.

Much like Matt, I was a wandering Baptist before I finally deconverted. I left the ministry in 2003. Two years later, in the spring of 2005, I briefly tried to reenter full-time ministry, but after candidating for Southern Baptist churches in Weston and Hedgesville, West Virginia, I told Polly that I was done; that I no longer wanted to pastor. At that point, I was still an Evangelical Christian, albeit with an increasingly liberal bent. (Please see It’s Been Fifteen Years Since I Preached My Last Sermon.)

From July 2002 to November 2008, my wife and I, along with our three younger children, wandered from church to church looking for a congregation that took seriously the teachings of Jesus. From Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Evangelical to mainline Protestant, we visited a broad spectrum of Christian churches. All told, we visited over 125 churches. Please read the post But Our Church is DIFFERENT! to see the list of churches we visited.

During this time span, we spent seven months living in Yuma, Arizona and moved to Stryker, Bryan, Alvordton, Newark, and Ney — all in Ohio. In April 2007, we purchased our home in Ney. We spent time visiting numerous local churches, but eventually decided to plop our weary asses in the pews of the Ney United Methodist Church. This would be the last church we would attend, walking out of the church’s doors for the final time on the last Sunday in November 2008.

During this six-year period, we became increasingly disenchanted with organized Christianity. While I was no longer a pastor, we sincerely wanted to find a church where we could use our talents for God’s glory. Atheism was never discussed. We quickly learned that more than a few pastors viewed us as a threat. All we wanted to do is serve Jesus, but the mere fact that we had spent 25 years in the ministry caused territorial preachers to feel threatened. One pastor told Polly that she could best help his church by working in the nursery. A mother of six who spent decades working in the nursery, I am surprised Polly didn’t gut this preacher on the spot. One Evangelical church about two miles from our home made it clear that we weren’t welcome at their church. We visited this congregation twice, and both times the pastor’s wife repeatedly glared at us. I suspect she viewed me as a threat to her husband’s ministry. Sure, I was a far better speaker than many of the pastors of the churches we visited (we heard some atrocious sermons during this time). That wasn’t my fault. All I wanted to do is use the gifts God gave me. I wasn’t there is take over the church, but I knew I could be a help if asked.

By the time we hit 2008, both Polly and I were worn out from all the bullshit, indifference, and petty territorialism we experienced at many of these churches. It was in this fertile soil that our doubts about Christianity began to grow. The previous year, I had started blogging. I connected with people who were emergent/emerging Christians — a postmodern liberal movement within Christianity. I met an ex-Charismatic preacher, Jim Schoch, during this time. We hit it off, spending countless hours talking about the ministry and churches in general. Well, that and eating chicken wings and drinking booze. We were what I called the rebel preachers; still believers — barely — but not church friendly. I will forever be grateful for the countless hours Jim spent with me shooting the breeze. Our discussions really helped clarify some of the problems I was having with Christianity.

You cannot understand my path to agnosticism and atheism without understanding this two-year period of my life — two years of questions and doubts that culminated with me concluding that I no longer believed in God; that the central claims of Christianity were not true.

Now that I have sketched for readers the path I was on before I deconverted, let me answer the question: why did it take you so long to leave Christianity?

In the early 1960s, my parents moved from Bryan, Ohio to San Diego, California. Dad was looking for the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. Unfortunately, California proved to be just as disappointing as Ohio for my parents. Dad ended up working sales jobs and driving truck, just as he did in Ohio. Mom’s mental health problems made their presence known, making our new life in California challenging, to say the least. Please see Barbara.)

Not long after arriving in San Diego, the Gerencser family visited Scott Memorial Baptist Church (now Shadow Mountain Community Church), then pastored by Bob Jones University graduate Tim LaHaye, of The Act of Marriage and Left Behind fame. Mom and Dad both made public professions of faith and were baptized, as was I at the age of five. From that moment forward, the Gerencsers were born-again Fundamentalist Christians.

I was seven when Mom and Dad packed up our belongings and we returned to Bryan, Ohio. By then, we were attend-church-every-time-the-doors-are-open Baptists. I attended church three times a week, along with revivals, conferences, and special meetings. Once I became a teenager, I started attending youth group and special events for the church’s teens. I was totally immersed in the life of the church. It was the hub around which everything turned. For atheists reading this post, think how deeply and thoroughly I was indoctrinated in Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity’s beliefs and practices.

At the age of fifteen, I made another public profession of faith at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. This is not an uncommon experience for people who were “saved” at a young age. A week later, I stood before the church congregation and told them God was calling me to preach. Several weeks later, I preached my first sermon. Thirty-three years later, I would preach my last sermon. All told, I preached over 4,000 sermons.

At the age of 19, I left my mom’s home to move into the dorm at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution known for training preachers. While I was at Midwestern, I started dating an IFB preacher’s daughter, Polly Shope. We married the summer between our sophomore and junior years. Six weeks later, Polly became pregnant, and a few months later, I was laid off from my job. In the spring of 1979, we left Midwestern and moved to Bryan. A few weeks later, I was offered a position as the assistant pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church. Over the course of the next twenty-five years, I would pastor seven churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.

I was a true-blue believer. I believed every word of the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. I believed that the doctrines taught to me by my pastors, youth directors, and professors were the “faith once delivered to the saints.” While I was a voracious reader, having a library of over 1,000 books at one time, every book I owned served to reinforce the idea that what I had been taught and what I was teaching others was true. It wasn’t until the six-year period mentioned above that I began to read authors that caused me to doubt my beliefs. Authors such as John Shelby Spong and Bart Ehrman forced me to question whether what I believed about the Bible and Christianity was true.

As a pastor, I lived in a bubble, as did the churches I pastored. This bubble protected me from the “world.” When you surround yourself with people who all think as you do, it is easy to think that you are right. Further, doubts and questions were discouraged, tools of Satan used to cast aspersions on God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity. While certain things in the Bible didn’t make sense to me, I believed God would reveal the truth of the matter in time or in Heaven. I had no reason to doubt the veracity of the Bible.

I lived this way well into my forties. Does this mean I was stupid for hanging on to my faith for so long? Of course not. Looking at the way I grew up, the college I attended, the woman I married, and the years I spent pastoring Evangelical churches, how could it have been different for me?

When lifelong atheists disparage me, I tend to tell them to fuck off. These pillars of truth seem clueless about how religious indoctrination affects every aspect of one’s life — especially the Fundamentalist brand of Christianity. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) Instead of treating me as a dolt, how about giving me a little credit for breaking free from the chains of cultic Christianity? How about giving me credit for punching a hole in the bubble and escaping? How about acknowledging the work I now do to help people who have doubts about Christianity or have left Christianity? Or, you can fuck off. 🙂

Lifelong atheists are a small minority in America. Most Americans come from Christian families. Millions and millions of Americans religiously attend Evangelical churches, pray, read the Bible, and believe Christianity’s central claims are true. Before simplistically and ignorantly calling such people ignoramuses, I suggest that you walk in their shoes a bit instead of projecting your lives onto them.

I wish I had been raised in a home free of religion. I wish I had taken a different path in life — that is, if Polly still became my wife. I wish I had attended a secular college and had non-church employment. I wish, I wish, I wish . . . but wishing is for fools. Life is what it is, and all I know to do is embrace my past, live in the present, and do all I can to help people avoid Evangelical Christianity. For those who walked a similar path as I did, all I can do is listen and say to them, I understand.

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.

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.

Bruce, As an Evangelical, What Were You Taught About Atheism?

naked adam and eve

This could be the shortest post I have ever written. Not really. Remember, I was a preacher for twenty-five years. I always have something to say on a subject. That said, the short answer to this question is this: absolutely nothing. I have no recollection of my pastors or my professors at Midwestern Baptist College ever mentioning atheism or atheists. In the 1970s and 1980s, the enemies of Evangelicalism — particularly in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement — were: liberalism, the Southern Baptist Convention, modern Bible translations, situational ethics, and sexual immorality. The culture war fueled by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority was all the rage. I heard lots of sermons about abortion and prayer/Bible reading in schools, but not atheism proper. At times, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s name would come up in sermons, but only in the context of the aforementioned culture war issues.

I pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years. I can’t recall preaching one sermon on atheism. I mentioned O’Hair on occasion, but not her atheism per se. In fact, I didn’t know any atheists. As far as I know, no atheist ever attended one of the churches I pastored. Were there atheists in the midst? Sure, just like there were LGBTQ people too. Such “abhorrent” beliefs and identities were, however, hidden — deeply buried in the proverbial Fundamentalist closet.

There is one atheist story I would like to share with readers, a humorous conclusion to this post. During my freshman year of college, a fellow dorm student and I were out knocking on doors one Saturday, hoping to find someone willing to let us share the gospel with them. Students were required to go soulwinning every week. And then we were required to report our evangelistic endeavors to the college. Many students, myself included, lied about how many doors they knocked on, how many people they led to the Lord. During the three years I attended Midwestern, I led a total of two people to Christ. I was, when it came to winning souls, a failure.

As my friend and I went from door to door in a Pontiac neighborhood, we had little to no success when it came to the “souls saved” department. What happened next, however, left an indelible impression on two virgin Baptist preachers-to-be. First, as we walked up the sidewalk to the next house, we noticed a number of squirrels in the yard. All of a sudden, one of the squirrels ran for my friend, jumped on his leg, and proceeded to scale his tall frame before jumping off his shoulder. Once we regained our composure, we walked up to the door and knocked. I should note before I tell the rest of this story, that locals were frequently harassed by Midwestern students. Imagine, being up late on Friday night, only to have a couple of Bible thumpers banging on your front door first thing in the morning. Many of us went soulwinning early on Saturdays so we could have the rest of the day to ourselves. It was the one day when I could spend significant time with my wife-to-be.

Then, as we knocked on the door, we heard people scuffling inside. Soon the door opened, and standing there stark naked were a man and a woman. My fellow dorm mate and I were speechless — I mean dumbstruck. Before either of us could start our soulwinning spiel, the man said, “we’re atheists, and we are not interested in what you have to say.” And with that and a laugh, the man shut the door.

This would be my first and last interaction with an atheist until I started reading books by atheist and agnostic authors in 2008. I still haven’t met many atheists in person. Most of my interaction with godless people has come through this blog and social media.

As a Christian, did you know any atheists? Did your pastor ever preach about atheism? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

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.

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.