Tag Archive: Midwestern Baptist College

Did My Philosophy of Ministry Change Over the Years I Spent in the Ministry?

bruce and polly gerencser 1978

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, May 1978

My editor recently asked me a question about how my philosophy of ministry had changed from when I first began preaching in 1976 until I left the ministry in 2005. I thought her question would make for an excellent blog post.

I typically date my entrance into the ministry from when I enrolled for classes at Midwestern Baptist College in the fall of 1976. I actually preached my first sermon at age 15, not long after I went forward during an evening service at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, and publicly declared to my church family that God was calling me into the ministry. My public affirmation of God’s call was the fulfillment of the desire I expressed as a five-year-old boy when someone asked me: what do you want to be when you grow up? My response was, I want to be a preacher. Unlike many people, I never had any doubts about what I wanted to do with my life. While I’m unsure as to why this is so, all I know is this: I always wanted to be a preacher.

Trinity Baptist Church was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church, affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). From my preschool years forward, every church I attended was either an IFB church or a generic Evangelical congregation. When I entered Midwestern in 1976, all that I knew about the Bible, the ministry, and life itself was a result of the preaching, teaching, and experiences I had at the churches I was part of. These churches, along with my training at Midwestern, profoundly affected my life, filling my mind with theological, political, and social beliefs that shaped my worldview. These things, then, became the foundation of my philosophy of ministry.

The fact that I grew up in a dysfunctional home also played a big part in the development of my ministerial philosophy. During my elementary and high school years, I attended numerous schools. The longest spell at one school was the two and a half years I spent at Central Junior High School and Findlay High School in Findlay Ohio. All told, I attended four high schools, two junior high schools, and five elementary schools. Someone asked me years ago if I went to a lot different schools because my dad got transferred a lot. I laughed, and replied, no, dad just never paid the rent. While my father was always gainfully employed, the Gerencser family was never far from the poorhouse, thanks to nefarious financial deals and money mismanagement. I quickly figured out that if I wanted clothing, spending money, and, at times, lunch money, it was up to me to find a way to get the money to pay for these things. There were times that I sneaked into my dad’s bedroom and stole money from his wallet so I could pay for my school lunches. Dad thought that the local Rink’s Bargain City — which I called Bargain Shitty — was the place to buy clothing for his children. I learned that if I wanted to look like my peers that I was going to have to find a way to get enough money to pay for things such as Converse tennis shoes, platform shoes, and Levi jeans. In my early junior high years, I turned to shoplifting for my clothing needs. From ninth grade forward, I had a job, whether it was mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow, or holding down a job at the local Bill Knapp’s restaurant. I also worked at my dad’s hobby shop, for which he paid me twenty-five cents an hour, minus whatever I spent for soda from the pop machine.

My mother, sexually molested by her father as a child and later raped by her brother-in-law, spent most of her adult life battling mental illness. Mom was incarcerated against her will several times at the Toledo State Mental Hospital. She attempted suicide numerous times, using everything from automobiles, pills, and razor blades to bring about her demise. One such attempt when I was in fifth grade left an indelible mark, one that I can still, to this day, vividly remember. I rode the bus to school. One day, after arriving home, I entered the house and found my mom laying in a pool blood on the kitchen floor. She had slit her wrists. Fortunately, she survived, but suicide was never far from her mind. At the age of fifty-four, mom turned a .357 Magnum Ruger revolver towards her heart and pulled the trigger. She bled out on the bathroom floor.

It is fair to say that we humans are the sum of our experiences, and that our beliefs are molded and shaped by the things we experience in life. I know my life certainly was. As I reflect on my philosophy of ministry, I can see how these things affected how I ministered to others. The remainder of this post will detail that philosophy and how it changed over the course of my life.

When I entered the ministry, my philosophy was quite simple: preach the gospel and win souls to Christ. Jesus was the solution to every problem, and if people would just get saved, all would be well. I find it interesting that this Jesus-centric/gospel-centric philosophy was pretty much a denial of what I had, up until that point, experienced in life. While the churches I attended certainly preached this philosophy, my real-life experiences told me that Jesus and salvation, while great, did not change people as much as preachers said they did. But, that’s the philosophy I was taught, so I entered the ministry with a burning desire to win as many souls as possible, believing that if I did so it would have a profound effect on the people I ministered to.

I also believed that poor people (and blacks) were lazy, and if they would just get jobs and work really, really hard, they would have successful lives. I would quickly learn as a young married man that life was more complex than I first thought, and that countless Americans went to work every day, worked hard, did all they could to become part of the American middle class, yet they never experienced the American dream. I also learned that two people can be given the same opportunities in life and end up with vastly different lives. In other words, I learned that we humans are complex beings, and there’s nothing simple about life on planet earth. I also learned that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I would much later in life conclude that life is pretty much a crapshoot.

In 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio. Somerset Baptist was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. I pastored this church for almost twelve years. During this time, the church grew from a first service attendance of sixteen to an average attendance over two hundred. The church also experienced a decline in membership over time, with fifty or so people attending the last service of the church. Somerset Baptist was located in Perry County, the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. Coal mines and stripper oil wells dotted the landscape. Unemployment was high. In the 1980s, unemployment exceeded twenty percent. It should come as no surprise then, that most of the members of Somerset Baptist were poor. Thanks in part to my preaching of the Calvinistic work ethic (also known as the shaming of people who don’t have jobs), all the men of the church were gainfully employed, albeit most families were receiving food stamps and other government assistance. During the years I spent at this church, I received a world-class education concerning systemic poverty. I learned that people can work hard and still not get ahead. I also learned that family dysfunction, which included everything from drug/alcohol addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, and even incest, often was generational; that people were the way they were, with or without Jesus, because that’s all they knew. I pastored families that had never been more than fifty miles from their homes. At one point, some members of our church took a church auto trip to Virginia, and I recall how emotional some members were when they crossed the bridge from Ohio into West Virginia. It was the years I spent in Somerset Ohio that dramatically changed how I viewed the world. This, of course, led to an evolving philosophy of ministry.

bruce gerencser 1990's

Bruce Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church, Early 1990’s

While I never lost my zeal to win souls for Christ, my preaching, over time, took on a more comprehensive, holistic approach. Instead of preaching, get right with God and all would be well, I began to teach congregants how to apply the Bible to every aspect of their lives. I stop preaching textual and topical sermons, choosing instead to preach expositionally through various books of the Bible. I also realized that one way I could help the children of the church was to provide a quality education for them. Sure, religious indoctrination was a part of the plan, but I realized that if the children of the church were ever going to rise above their parents, they were going to have to be better educated. For my last five years at Somerset Baptist, I was the administrator and a teacher at Somerset Baptist Academy — a private, tuition-free school for church children. My wife and I, along with several other adults in the church, were the primary teachers. Our focus was on the basics: reading, English, writing, and arithmetic. Some of the students were years behind in their education. We used a one-room schoolhouse approach, and there were several instances of high school students doing math with third-grade students. We educated children where they were, regardless of their grade. Polly taught the younger students, and was instrumental in many of them learning to read. Most of the students, who are now in their thirties and forties, have fond memories of Polly teaching them reading and English. Their memories are not as fond of Preacher, the stern taskmaster.

During the five years we operated the school, I spent hours every day with the church’s children. I learned much about their home lives and how poverty and dysfunction affected them. Their experiences seem so similar to my own, and over time I began to realize that part of my ministerial responsibility was to minister to the temporal social needs of the people I came in contact with. This change of ministry philosophy would, over time, be shaped and strengthened by changing political and theological beliefs.

In 1995, I started a new church in West Unity, Ohio called Grace Baptist Church. The church would later change its name to Our Father’s House — reflecting my increasing ecumenicalism. During the seven years I spent in West Unity, my preaching moved leftward, so much so that a man who had known me in my younger years told me I was preaching another gospel — the social gospel. My theology moved from fundamentalist Calvinism to theological beliefs focused on good works. I came to believe that true Christian faith rested not on right beliefs. but good works; that faith without works was dead; that someday Jesus would judge us, not according to our beliefs, but by our works. While at Our Father’s House, I started a number of ministries which were no-strings-attached social outreaches to the poor. The church never grew to more than fifty or sixty people, but if I had to pick one church that was my favorite it would be this one. Outside of one kerfuffle where a handful of families left the church, my time at Our Father’s House was peaceful. For the most part, I pastored a great bunch of people who sincerely loved others and wanted to help them in any way they could.

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity

Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush. He would be the last Republican I voted for. As my theology became more liberal, so did my politics, and by the time I left the ministry in 2005, I was politically far from the right-wing Republicanism of my early years in the ministry. Today, I am as liberal as they come. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the last presidential primary election. Politically, I am a Democratic Socialist. To some people, depending on where they met me in life, my liberal beliefs are shocking. One man was so bothered by not only my politics, but my loss of faith, that he told me he could no longer be friends with me; that he found my changing beliefs and practices too psychologically unsettling.

I’m now sixty years old, and come July, I will be married to my beautiful bride for forty years. Much has changed in my life, particularly in the last decade, but one constant remains: I genuinely love people and want to help them. This is why some people think I am still a pastor, albeit an atheist one. I suspect had I been born into a liberal Christian home I might have become a professor or a social worker, and if I had to do it all over again I probably would have pursued these types of careers, choosing to be a bi-vocational pastor instead of a full-time one. But, I didn’t, and my life story is what it is. Perhaps when I am reincarnated, I will get an opportunity to walk a different path. But, then again, who knows where that path might take me. As I stated previously, we humans are complex beings, and our lives are the sum of our experiences. Change the experiences, change the man.

I hope that I’ve adequately answered my editor’s question. This post turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be, much like my sermons years ago.

bruce and polly gerencser 2017

Bruce and Polly Gerencser 2017

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis

pastor jim dennis

Pastor Jim Dennis at a family outing in the early 1980s

Last week, James Dennis, the retired pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark Ohio, died from complications of myasthenia gravis at the age of seventy-five. Jim was my wife’s uncle, married to her mother’s sister. Jim attended Midwestern Baptist College in the 1960s, the same college Polly and I attended in the 1970s. Jim pastored the Baptist Temple for forty-six years. Known as a staunch Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB), Jim’s ministry was well-known in the IFB community. Jim’s three children are all in the ministry. His son Andy is an Evangelical pastor in Newark, his oldest daughter is married to IFB evangelist David Young, and his youngest daughter is married to missionary James (Jamie) Overton.

Jim came into Polly’s life as the young single pastor of the Kawkawlin River Baptist Church in Bay City, Michigan — the church attended by Polly’s parents. He later married Polly’s aunt, Linda Robinson. I first met Jim in 1976 during college Christmas break. Jim, along with Polly’s father, would marry us in a wedding held at the Baptist Temple on July 15, 1978. From that moment, Jim Dennis and I had a complicated relationship. There were times that I admired the man and coveted his advice. There were other times when I despised the man, especially after Polly and I left the ministry and later left Christianity. In the past decade, I talked to Jim a handful of times, never more than exchanging pleasantries.

The story that follows is my understanding of the past and my relationship with Jim Dennis. I am sure that others will object to my telling of this story or be offended that I dare to air Jim’s (and mine) dirty laundry. Their objections are duly noted, but I am a writer and this is a story I must tell. Readers are free to make their own judgments about what follows.

There was a time when Jim Dennis and I, theologically, were of one mind. Both of us were IFB preachers. Both of us were raised in IFB churches. Both of us attended IFB preacher Tom Malone’s “character building factory” — Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan.  Both of us believed we were proclaimers of old-fashioned, Biblical Christianity. Our theological sameness, however, did not last. Jim would pride himself in believing the same things his entire life. Polly’s mom has remarked on more than occasion that she was proud of the fact that she had in her pastor Jim Dennis a man who never changed his beliefs. In her mind, he began the ministry with the right beliefs and he died holding on to those same beliefs. Bruce Gerencser’s beliefs, on the other hand, were constantly changing and evolving. Jim never read books outside of his theological rut, whereas I was willing to read authors who held different beliefs from mine. My reading habits are what took me from the IFB church movement to Fundamentalist Calvinism to generic Evangelicalism to Progressive Christianity, and finally, to agnosticism, atheism, and humanism. In Jim Dennis’ eyes, my life’s trajectory is a warning to those who dare to dabble in the world’s knowledge and goods. And in my eyes, Jim is a tragic reminder of what happens when someone refuses to read widely or investigate their beliefs.

Jim Dennis was known as the patriarch of the family; the wise sage who freely dispensed wisdom and knowledge to all, requested or not. Early on, I had conflicts with Jim over all sorts of issues, ranging from child rearing to whether it was okay to pick my wife up from work wearing gym shorts (Polly, at the time, worked for the Baptist Temple’s daycare. She was paid less wages than male employees because she wasn’t our family’s breadwinner.) In October of 1979, we moved from Northwest Ohio to Newark. We attended the Baptist Temple for 18 months. During this time, Jim and I had numerous conflicts — some minor, some major. Jim concluded that I had a rebellious streak, a view widely held by Polly’s parents and family, and I thought Jim was a closed-minded, authoritarian legalist. Our opinions about each other would only become more settled through the forty-two years we knew each other.

In 1981, Polly and I left the Baptist Temple to help her father start a new IFB church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. Polly’s father had been the assistant pastor at the Baptist Temple for almost five years. He wanted to stay in the Newark area and pastor his own church. There were conflicts between my father-in-law and Jim that precipitated Dad’s resignation, but those stories are his to tell, not mine. Needless to say, Dad was happy to be on his own. I was the assistant pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake until July, 1983, when I left to start the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio.

I believed that it was vitally important for a pastor to live in the community in which his church was located. Polly and I moved to Buckeye Lake — a rundown former amusement park/lake cottage rental community — so we could effectively minister to congregants. (I would also work for the village for several years as a grant writer/program manager/building code enforcement officer.) Buckeye Lake proper was street after street of rundown houses. The poverty rate was the highest in the area. My kind of people, but not the type of people Polly’s parents wanted to be living next to. Our willingness to live among them, endeared us to many people, especially local teenagers. This led to the church growing rapidly. After we left, church attendance declined, and Dad later closed the church.

bruce gerencser 1983

Bruce Gerencser, age 25, Ordination 1983, Emmanuel Baptist Church Buckeye Lake, Ohio

I don’t want to make myself out to be a saint, because that would be a falsehood. Living in Buckeye Lake, living in marginal housing, wasn’t something we would have done had it not been for the importance, in my mind, of living where you minister. During our time in Buckeye Lake, Polly’s uber-rebellious sister came to live for us a short while. One day, Jim Dennis showed up at our door wanting to talk to Polly’s sister. (Please read If One Soul Get’s Saved It’s Worth it All, a short post about Polly’s sister’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident.) Jim quickly became adversarial with Kathy, especially over the fact that she was wearing pants. Jim was an anti-pants crusader his entire life. Women who worked for the church or served in any official capacity were required to sign a statement that affirmed their obedience to his no-pants edict. As his anger towards Polly’s sister rose, Jim decided to physically grab a hold of her so he could “shake some sense into her.”  His physical assault of her quickly came to an end when I threw him out of our home. Sadly, Polly’s sister would later repent of her “sin” and returned shamefaced to Jim Dennis and the Baptist Temple. She would do this repeatedly over the years up until her death in 2005.

From that point forward, I had an off-and-on relationship with Jim. Despite our conflicts, there was a part of me that still desperately wanted (needed) his approval. I had Jim come preach meetings at several of the churches I pastored. As I continued to move leftward politically, theologically, and socially, our relationship became distanced, with us only seeing each other on Christmas Eve for family Christmas. We used to go out to their spacious country home for Christmas Day, but word one year was passed down to us that we were no longer invited to their home. The reason given was the size of our family. This, of course, deeply hurt Polly. These were her uncle and aunt. Why would they shun her like this? No answer was forthcoming.

I could spend hours talking about the various conflicts between Jim Dennis and Bruce Gerencser, but for the sake of this post I want to share just one that I detailed in a post titled Christmas, 1957-2014:

With my parents being dead, we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Polly’s parents. This abruptly changed in 2010. I left the ministry in 2003 and abandoned Christianity in November 2008. In early 2009, I sent out my family-shattering letter, Dear Family Friends, and Former Parishioners. This letter radically changed our relationship with Polly’s fundamentalist family.

Christmas of 2009 is best remembered by a huge elephant in the middle of the room, that elephant being Polly and me and the letter I sent the family. No one said anything, but the tension was quite palpable.

2010 found us, just like every year since 1978, at Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. This would be the last Christmas we would spend with Polly’s parents and her extended family. We decided to blend into the background, and other than exchanging short pleasantries, no one talked to us. Not that they didn’t want to. We found out later from one of our children that Polly’s uncle wanted to confront me about our defection from Christianity. Polly Mom’s put a kibosh on that, telling her brother-in-law that she had already lost one daughter and she was not going to lose another. (Polly’s sister was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005)

I appreciate Polly’s Mom being willing to stand up to the man who is generally viewed as the spiritual head of the family. I am glad she put family first. If Polly’s uncle had confronted me there surely would have been an ugly fight. Whatever our differences may be, I deeply respect Polly’s parents. They are kind, loving people.

Christmas of 2010 was two years after President Obama was elected to his first term. Polly’s family didn’t vote for him, and through the night they made known their hatred for the man, Democrats and liberals in general. Polly and I, along with many of our children, voted for Obama, so the anti-Obama talk and the subtle racism made for an uncomfortable evening.

Most years, a gag gift is given to someone. This particular year, the gag gift, given to Polly’s uncle, was an Obama commemorative plate one of our nephews had bought on the cheap at Odd Lots. One of Polly’s uncle’s grandchildren asked him what the plate was for. He replied, to go poo-poo on, poo-poo being the fundamentalist word for shit. This was the last straw for us.

On our way home the next day, I told Polly that I couldn’t do it any more, and she said neither could she. So, we decided to stop going to Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. We do try to see Polly’s parents during the holiday, but we no longer attend the family gathering on Christmas Eve. Making this decision saddened us, but we knew we had to do it. (BTW, our children still attend the Christmas Eve gathering)

Jim’s funeral was last Saturday. I did not attend, though Polly and two of our sons made the four-hour trip to Newark to represent the Gerencsers at what the Baptist Temple called Jim Dennis’ Graduation Service. Unlike Polly and our older sons, I have a hard time biting my tongue when I am around Fundamentalists. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and my face generally tells others what I think. While my health precluded me from making the trip, I suspect that deep down I simply did not want to go. I knew exactly how the service would go — two hours of praising Jesus and deifying Jim Dennis, complete with lies about where Jim went after death. Similar to their Evangelical brethren, IFB preachers often lie when preaching funerals. According to orthodox Christian theology, Jim Dennis is lying in the grave, waiting for his body to be resurrected from the dead. However, traditional IFB preaching says that the deceased is, instead, running around Heaven praising Jesus for his glory and grace.

Jim was an avid hunter. In his younger years he would take trips out west to hunt big game. I suspect more than a few funeral attendees thought that Jim was now hunting the mountain ranges of God’s Heaven. This, of course, led me to ask my son, so, there will be violence in Heaven? Ah the illogical lunacy that makes an appearance at funerals. The man, Jim Dennis, was glorified and presented as one without blemish or fault. The man, the myth, the legend. Those of us close to him know better. Yes, in many ways Jim was a good man. He loved his wife, children, and grandchildren. But, we dare not forget that he was also an authoritarian brute, a man who attempted to dominate and control the lives of others; a man who thought his advice to others was straight from the mouth of God; a man who believed he knew the will of God for others (a will of which he repeatedly reminded me). I have fond memories of us spending holidays at the lake with them. I also have good memories of the few times we went hunting together. These memories, however, do not erase the great psychological damage his preaching and behavior inflicted on countless congregants and church members. Polly and I bear deep scars from being excoriated by him over this or that “sin.” How could we ever forget him telling us that it was not God’s will for us to be poor or that it wasn’t God’s will for us to have more children (even though his own children now have large families). We can’t forget the lectures or the sermons that seemed directed right at us. You see, Polly married a man that NO ONE in the family wanted her to marry, and our current state of the affairs, to them anyway, is proof that they are right. If Polly had only married an obedient IFB preacher, why she might still be in the ministry today. Both Polly and I have made peace with the fact that we will always be on the outside looking in with her family. In the last decade or so, we have finally reached a place where we no longer give a shit about what family members think about us. We are who we are.

Let me conclude this tome with one more story. Seven or so years ago, one of the family’s preachers decided to try and understand our deconversion. We talked privately for a few days until Jim got wind of our discussions. The preacher was told to stop talking to me. I was a dangerous man, one given over to evil and false doctrine. The preacher, of course, complied. Jim was the family patriarch, and when he issued an edict everyone was expected to obey. That Polly and I were living in open defiance of his authority was not something that could be tolerated. Unfortunately, for Jim, we were safely beyond his reach, no longer caring about what came out of his mouth.

The patriarch is dead, but his religion lives on.

Notes

James Dennis’s obituary:

James Dennis

Newark – A funeral service for Pastor James Russell Dennis will be held at 11am on Saturday, January 13, 2018 at Newark Baptist Temple, 81 Licking View Dr, Heath, OH 43056. Dr. Charles Keen will be officiating. Family will greet friends from 4pm-8pm on Friday, January 12, 2018 and for one hour prior to the service at the church. Following the service, Pastor Dennis will be laid to rest at Newark Memorial Gardens.

Pastor Dennis, age 75, of Newark, passed away on January 9, 2018 at Licking Memorial Hospital. He was born on November 3, 1942 to the late Russell and Grace (Welsh) Dennis in Pontiac, Michigan.

Pastor Dennis was an avid hunter, but more than anything, he loved being a preacher. He loved to help people in his community and church family. In 1968, Pastor Dennis became the pastor of Newark Baptist Temple, until he retired in 2015. Following retirement, he continued to proudly serve his Lord until his death. He was a pioneer in Christian education; he founded Temple Tots Day Nursery School in 1970 and Licking County Christian Academy in 1972.

Pastor Dennis is survived by his loving wife of 51 years, Linda (Robinson) Dennis. He also leaves behind his children, Cilicia (David) Boelk, Bethlie (David) Young, Andrew (Jenny) Dennis, and Toree (Jamie) Overton; 19 grandchildren; 3 great grandchildren; and sister, Betty Freeman.

In addition to his parents, Pastor Dennis is preceded in death by his grandson, LCPL James Boelk, KIA Oct 10, 2010.

The family would like to give special thanks to Licking Memorial Hospital, 2nd Floor doctors, nurses, and staff, for all their care and compassion over the past month.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Newark Temple Baptist Missions, 81 Licking View Dr, Heath, OH 43056.

To sign an online guestbook, please visit www.brucker-kishlerfuneralhome.com.

Published in the Advocate on Jan. 11, 2018

The Newark Advocate had this to say when Jim retired in November 2014:

It’s been 46 years since Pastor James Dennis began leading Newark Baptist Temple Church.

Although he still has an overwhelming passion for his role in the church, Dennis has decided to retire in November. It was a difficult decision to make, but he said he understands the need to bring new life into the church as it heads into the future.

“It has been a privilege to serve almighty God, to see people accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. … It’s just a blessing to see how God can change the lives of people,” Dennis said. “But I also understand the need to get a fresh breath of air in here.”

Dennis was born and raised in Michigan, and after attending seminary school, he started a church in Bay City, Michigan. It was there that he met his wife, Linda, after her family began attending the church.

The two were happily married and living in Michigan when Dennis received a call from one of his friends who told him Newark Baptist Temple was looking for a new pastor. At the time, he had no plans to leave his home, but he felt God pushing him out of Bay City.

He accepted the position and moved to Newark in 1967. At that time, the church was still young, having been formed only five years earlier, and there wasn’t much for Dennis to do outside preaching. But through the years, the church expanded, adding multiple ministries and launching the Licking County Christian Academy.

The school was founded in response to what the church saw as a need for an educational experience grounded in morality and God’s word, Dennis said. Although it has remained small, the school provides an important component to education, and Dennis thanks the Lord for every student who leaves a graduate.

Newark Temple Baptist has very active youth and children’s ministries, and six years ago, it started Reformers Unanimous, a ministry that helps people with dependency issues.

“The Lord has been kind to us,” Dennis said of how the church has grown.

….

Although he is retiring, Dennis plans to stick around. He will continue to attend church at Newark Baptist Temple and said he might take on some speaking opportunities if needed.

One thing is for sure: He’s not done sharing God’s message.

“You may step down from a certain aspect of the ministry, but you never stop ministering. It’s an eternal calling,” Dennis said. “I know that God has a plan and a will for me.”

Why Many IFB Preachers Don’t Have Peaceful, Contented Lives

for sale sign emmanuel baptist church pontiac

For Sale Sign in Main Entrance Door, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Pontiac, Michigan

The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement is a subset under the broad banner of Evangelicalism. IFB pastors and congregants tend to be theological, political, and social extremists. While their theological beliefs differ little from garden variety Evangelicals, how they engage and interact with the broader religious and secular cultures sets them apart from other Evangelicals.

Millions of Americans attend IFB churches. Millions more attend IFB-like churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. In the late 1960s through the early 1980s, many of the largest American churches were IFB congregations. As our society moved leftward socially and morally, IFB pastors and institutions dug in their heels and refused to adapt or change. Thinking the methods they used were timeless truths that must be religiously practiced, IFB churches hemorrhaged members, losing them to churches that were not as intolerant or extreme. By the 1990s, once-filled megachurch auditoriums were empty, resulting in more than few IFB churches filing for bankruptcy or closing their doors.

In the mid-1970s, my wife and I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was started in the 1950s by Alabamian pulpiteer Tom Malone. Malone pastored nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, which at the time was one of the largest churches in America, boasting thousands each week in attendance. Midwestern was never a large college, but the institution was noted for turning out preachers and church planters. By the late 1980s, Midwestern and Emmanuel Baptist were in serious numerical and financial free fall. Eventually, Emmanuel closed its doors and Midwestern became a ministry of an IFB church in Orion, Michigan.

What happened to Emmanuel Baptist continues to happen to IFB churches today. IFB pastors, with few exceptions, are Biblical literalists who refuse to believe anything that contradicts their Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. IFB pastors, to the man, believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Some pastors even go far as to say that only the King James Version of the Bible is the Word of God; that other translations are the works of Satan. Literalism and inerrancy are considered cardinal doctrines of the faith. This has resulted in IFB pastors and churches believing all sorts of absurdities. IFB pastors are, without exception, creationists. Most of them are young earth creationists, believing that God created the universe in six twenty-four-hour days, 6,022 years ago. Bible stories meant to illustrate greater spiritual truths are often taken literally, resulting in IFB adherents believing, among a host of absurdities, that the earth was destroyed by a universal flood 4,000 or so years ago, the sun and moon stood still (Joshua 10:13), and all humans trace their lineage back to two people — Adam and Eve.  Their commitment to literalism forces IFB pastors to defend fantastical things. If the Bible says it, it’s true. End of discussion!

While there is some eschatological diversity within the IFB church movement, literalism demands that pastors believe and teach that the events recorded in the book of Revelation will one day literally take place. Most IFB church members believe that the return of Jesus to earth is imminent. A wide, deep apocalyptic river runs through the IFB church movement, leading to an extreme love and devotion to God’s chosen people, Israel. President Trump’s plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol is sure to excite IFB preachers — yet another “sign” that the return of Jesus is nigh. That this move could ignite the entire region and lead to war, is of little concern to IFB preachers. They believe that things must continue to get worse; that Jesus won’t come back to earth until the world stage is set for his triumphal return. This means that a war of epic proportions must occur, ending in Armageddon. While IFB preachers might not admit it out loud, I am certain many of them would welcome nuclear war, believing that such a war will make the world ready to embrace first the anti-Christ and then later Jesus when he returns to earth on a literal white horse to defeat the anti-Christ and Satan.

IFB pastors and churches are politically right-wing. If a survey were conducted with IFB adherents, I suspect surveyors would find that church members overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, and are anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-same sex marriage, and very much in favor of returning prayer and Bible reading to public school classrooms (even though many of them either home school or have their children enrolled in Christian schools). In earlier years, the IFB church movement believed there was a strict separation of church and state. Today, many IFB pastors and churches no longer believe the wall of separation exists, and that the United States is a Christian nation — a country chosen by God. This thinking can be traced back to the late 1970s when IFB megachurch pastor Jerry Falwell, along with Paul Weyrich, started the Moral Majority. Since then, scores of IFB pastors have used their pulpits to advance certain (almost always Republican) political policies and candidates.

Bruce, I thought this post was about why IFB preachers (and many within their congregations) don’t have peaceful, contented lives. It is, but I felt it necessary to show how IFB pastor think and view the world before explaining why so many of them lack peace and contentment in their lives. If the IFB church movement is anything, it is anti-culture. IFB pastors see themselves as prophets or watchmen on the walls, warning all who will listen that God is real, the Bible is true, and hell awaits all those who reject the IFB way, truth, and life. IFB preachers think it is their duty to wage war against Satan and the enemies of God. I can only imagine how hysterical IFB preachers are over LGBTQ acceptance, same-sex marriage, and the increasing prominence of atheism. Anything that challenges their beliefs must be refuted and turned back. Add to this the internecine warfare IFB churches are famous for, and it should come as no surprise that pastors find themselves constantly battling the “forces of darkness and evil.”  Every dawn brings a new day with new battles that must be fought. Not only must IFB preachers wage war against Satan, cults, false Christianity, liberalism, and secularism, they must also fight against those in their own movement who want to make IFB churches more “worldly.”

The battles, then, never end. Day in and day out, IFB pastors are in fight mode. And those who are not? They are labelled compromisers and hirelings who are only concerned with money and prestige. Is it any wonder then that IFB preachers rarely have peaceful, contented lives? Their lives are in a constant state of turmoil. Satan and the world are pushing against their beliefs and values at every turn. Not fighting back is considered cowardly, a betrayal of everything IFB believers hold dear. Go to any town in America where there is an IFB church and ask mainline pastors how they view the local IFB pastor and church. In most instances, mainline pastors will say that local IFB churches have extreme beliefs and seem to thrive on controversy. IFB pastors are viewed as outliers on the fringe of Christianity — haters and dissemblers who have no tolerance for anyone but those who adhere to their narrow beliefs and practices.

Separation from the world and separation from erring Christians is a fundamental doctrine within IFB churches. This too leads to never ending angst and stress. Concerned over encroaching “worldliness,” IFB pastors often have long lists of rules (church standards) congregants are expected to follow. (please read The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook) While the rules vary from church to church, they are meant to inoculate church members from becoming infected with “worldly” ideas.  The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth, said:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. (2 Corinthians 6:14-17)

1 John 2:15-17 states:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

Verses such as these fuel IFB separatist beliefs and practices. The world is evil and must be, with few exceptions, avoided at all costs. This is why IFB pastors and institutions are the forefront of the Christian School and home school movements. What better way to avoid worldliness than to wall off families and children from the influence of “worldly” schools?

I am sure that many, if not most, IFB preachers would disagree with me when I say they don’t have peaceful contented lives. However, I would ask them to consider whether their constant battles against sin, worldliness, liberalism, and compromise have robbed them of the goodness, peace, and contentment life has to offer; that constantly being at odds with not only the “world,” but also fellow Christians, is bound to exact an emotional toll. Thinking you alone stand for God, truth, and righteousness requires constant diligence lest compromise and “worldliness” creep in. Aren’t you tired, preacher, of being constantly at war with everyone and everything around you? Maybe it is time for you lay down your weapons of war and rejoin the human race. Countless former IFB pastors and church members have done just that. Tired of the constant turmoil and unrest, they finally said, ENOUGH! and walked away. Most of them found kinder, gentler forms of faith, and a handful of ex-IFB believers have embraced agnosticism or atheism. Scary, I know, but not having to constantly be on guard lest Satan gain the advantage is worth the risk of judgment and hell. I am sure God will understand. A wild, wonderful world awaits those who dare to lay down their Fundamentalist beliefs and walk away. If you are ready to say ENOUGH! and want help plotting a life of peace and contentment, I would love to help you do so.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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.

Why Our Christians Friends Leave Us When We Deconvert

church is a family

One thing being a part of a church does for us is give us a community through which we find meaning, purpose, and identity. I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. For many years, I attended church twice on Sunday and on Wednesdays for prayer meeting. These church families I was a part of were central to my life. Most of my friendships were developed in connection with the church and my work as a pastor. I spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I developed scores of friendships, not only with congregants but also with colleagues in the ministry. As a pastor, I would attend pastor’s conferences and meetings. It was at these meetings that I had opportunities to talk with my preacher friends, sharing with them my “burdens.”  We would laugh, cry and pray together, knowing that the bond we had as fellow followers of Jesus and God-called preachers of the gospel was rooted in loving each other as Christ Jesus loved us.  A handful of preachers became close, intimate friends with my wife and me. Our families would get together for food, fun, and fellowship — hallmarks of Baptist intimacy. We saw vulnerabilities in each other that our congregants never would. We could confide in each other, seeking advice on how to handle this or that problem or church member. When news of church difficulties came our way, we would call each other, or take each other out for lunch. These fellow men of God were dear to my heart, people that I expected to have as friends until I died.

As a teenager, I had lots of friends, male and female. Most of my friends were fellow church members, though I did have a few friends in the “world.” I always found it easy to meet new people and make friendships. I had no qualms about talking to complete strangers, a gift that suited me well as a pastor. As a nineteen-year-old boy, I enrolled for classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I quickly made a lot of new friends, including one who sleeps beside me to this day. I lived in a dorm room with three other men. Virtually every waking hour of my life was spent with fellow students — at church, school, and social events. As anyone who has ever lived in a college dormitory will tell you, dorm life is busy and full of activity. Practical jokes were an everyday occurrence, and, as an expert joker, I found great satisfaction in pulling one over on my fellow students. I lived on a dormitory wing that was labeled the “party” wing. The other dormitory wing was called the “spiritual” wing. My fellow party-wing residents loved Jesus, but they loved having a good time too. The spiritual wing? They loved Jesus too, but frowned on doing anything that might be perceived as bawdy or mischievous.

One day, a pastor by the name of A.V. Henderson preached at chapel (students were required to attend chapel five days a week). I have preached and heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime. I remember very few of them. I do, however, vividly remember Henderson’s sermon, even forty years later. Henderson was the pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Detroit. Temple was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) megachurch founded by Baptist luminary J. Frank Norris and later pastored by G.B. Vick. The 1970s were the zenith of the IFB church movement. Most of the largest churches in the United States were IFB churches. Churches such as Temple Baptist were pastored by men who were great orators and pulpiteers. Henderson was no exception. Henderson’s chapel sermon was from the book of Job. It was, by all counts, a thrilling, rousing sermon. However, Henderson said something during his sermon that I didn’t, at the time, understand. He said, with that distinct Texas drawl of his, that people will go through life with very few true friendships; that most people were fortunate to have two or three lifelong friends. I thought at the time, what’s he talking about? I have lots of friends! Forty years later, I now know that A.V. Henderson was right; that true friends are rare indeed; that if you have two or three such friends, you should consider yourself fortunate.

Next Sunday, it will be nine years since I last attended church; nine years since I have listened to preaching; nine years since I have sung the hymns of the faith; nine years since I have dropped money in an offering plate; nine years since I broke bread with people I considered my family. In early 2009, I sent a letter to my family and friends detailing my loss of faith. You can read the letter here — Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. I grossly underestimated how people would respond to my letter. In a matter of days, I received angry, venomous emails, letters, and phone calls. One ministerial colleague drove four hours to my home, hoping to turn me back towards the faith. You can read the letter I sent to him here — Dear Friend. I was shocked by how hateful and vitriolic my friends were to me. And here I am nine years later, and I still, on occasion, hear from someone who knew me and is shocked over my betrayal of all that I once held dear.

The friendships of a lifetime are now gone — all of them, save my friendship with an Evangelical man I have known for fifty-two years (we walked to elementary school together). A.V. Henderson’s words ring true. I have one friend who has walked with me through every phase of my life. The rest of my “true” friends have written me off (2 Corinthians 6:14), kicked the dirt off their shoes (Mark 6:10, 11), or turned me over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (I Corinthians 5). I was naive to think that it could be any other way.

Many people believe in unconditional love. I know, at one time, I did. I have learned, however, that unconditional love is largely a myth. (Please read Does God Love Us Unconditionally?) Unconditional love suggests that nothing we do to those we love can break the bond we have with them. Many people carry the notion of unconditional love into their friendships. We think, these people love me, no matter what. They will always be my friends. And then something happens. In my case, I spit in the face of God, pissed on the blood of Jesus, and used the pages of the Bible to wipe my ass, so to speak. I repudiated everything I once believed, and in doing so called into question the beliefs of my friends. The bond that held our friendships together was our fealty to a set of theological beliefs. Once these beliefs were questioned and discarded by me, that bond was irreparably broken. If the connection Christians have with their churches is akin to family, then when people walk away from the beliefs and practices of these families, they are, in effect, divorcing themselves from their family.

Marital divorce tears the bond between husband and wife. When Christians divorce themselves from Jesus, the bonds they have with their friends are ripped asunder. While this divorce can be amicable, most often it is not. My divorce from Jesus and the church was very much like a high-profile tabloid divorce. And even though the judge signed the divorce decree nine years ago, repercussions remain to this day.

I have learned that few friendships last a lifetime. Most friendships are dependent on time and location. Remember all your friends who signed your high school yearbook? Are you still friends with them today? Remember the best-buds-for-life from your college days? What happened to those friendships? Were these relationships true friendships? Sure, but they weren’t meant to last a lifetime. And that’s okay.

I don’t blame my former friends for the failure of our friendships. I am the one who moved. I am the one who changed his beliefs. I am the one who ripped apart the bond of our friendship. I do, however, hold them accountable for their horrendous treatment of me once I deconverted. They could have hugged me and said, I don’t understand WHY you are doing this, but I appreciate the good times we had together. I wish you, Polly, and the kids well. Instead, I was treated like dog-shit on a shoe bottom; a person worthy of scorn, ridicule, and denunciation.  By treating me this way, they destroyed any chance of restoration. Why would I ever want to be friends again with people who treated me like the scum of the earth?

I have spent the past decade developing new friendships. These days, most of my friendships are digital — people that I will likely never meet face to face. This has resulted in Polly and me becoming closer, not only loving each other, but also enjoying each other’s company. For most of my marriage, Jesus, the church, and the ministry were my first loves. It’s not that I didn’t love my children and wife, I did. But they were never number one in my life, and Polly and the kids knew it. I was a God-called man who devoted his life to Jesus and the church. Polly knew that marrying a preacher meant that she and the kids would have to share me with the church. Little did she know that she would spend way too many years getting leftovers from a man who loved her but was worn out from burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Now that religion no longer gets between us, Polly and I are free to forge an unencumbered relationship. We have always loved each other, but what has now changed is that we really like each other too and are best friends. And in Polly I have found one of the true friends A.V. Henderson preached about forty years ago. I am indeed, blessed.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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.

Just Remember Girls, No One Ever Got Pregnant Who Didn’t Hold Hands With a Boy First

angry preacher

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. (I Corinthians 7:1-2)

The Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth that unmarried men should not touch women. Touch not, want not, right? If men couldn’t contain their sexual desires, then to avoid fornication they were to marry. In other words, marriage was a considered a cure for horniness. Countless Evangelicals have been taught that if they cannot contain their sexual desires — remember masturbation is a sin — then they should seek out someone of the opposite sex to marry. Hey Betty, I am horny. Will you marry me? 

Many Evangelical preachers use I Corinthians 7:1-2 as justification for the Puritanical rules they use to regulate physical contact between unmarried teenagers and young adults. I came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was a member of Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). Public displays of affection were forbidden. This prohibition forced church teens to turn to secretive means to show their “love” to their boyfriend or girlfriend. We learned how to hold hands in church or on the church bus so no one could see us. There was something exciting about flaunting the rules, even more so when we spent time necking in out-of-the way church hallways or in the shadows of the parking lot. My favorite necking time was Wednesday evenings when the adults were having choir practice. Church teens were left to their own devices, and many of us used the time to fornication-lite. One girl I dated for a short time told me recently that I was the first boy who kissed her — in the back of the church while the adult choir was practicing Bill Gaither’s song, He Touched Me.

I had many such dalliances, but that is as far as they went. I was a true believer, so I limited my physical intimacy with the opposite sex to hand-holding and kissing. I was one of the few flower children who didn’t get laid before marriage. Conversations in recent years with people who were in the youth group with me have revealed that there was a lot of fucking and sucking going on, but none involving preacher boy Bruce Gerencser. I assumed, at the time, that everyone was on the straight and narrow as I was. I now know that their spirits were willing, but their flesh was weak.

In the fall of 1976, I entered Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan to study for the ministry. A dark-haired beauty by the name of Polly also enrolled for classes. Polly’s goal was to find herself a preacher to marry. I thought of college as being a place of plentiful dating opportunities, and I planned to play the field. I dated a girl by the name of Peggy for several weeks and then turned my romantic interest towards Polly. We quickly hit it off, even though we had little in common. She was a quiet, shy preacher’s daughter. I was a motormouth with a bit of a rebellious streak. Polly would tell me later that she thought of me as her “bad boy.” Polly’s parents saw me as a bad boy too; bad as in not good for their innocent daughter. They spent the next eighteen months trying to discourage our relationship, even going so far as to tell Polly that she couldn’t marry me. A short time after this papal edict, Polly informed her parents that we were going to get married with or without their blessing. This was the first time Polly stood up to her parents.  If my mother-in-law had to sum up her son-in-law in one sentence, I suspect she would say, Bruce is “different” and he ruined our daughter.

Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist institution. Established by Dr. Tom Malone in the 1950s, Midwestern had a strict code of student conduct. Single students were required to live in the dormitory, and every aspect of dorm life was strictly regulated. Students could only date on the weekends and had to double-date. Dating couples were not permitted to touch each other — no hand-holding, kissing, snuggling, or other displays of affection. Keep in mind, most of the dorm students were ages 18-30 — the raging hormones years. And it was the 1970s, the freaking 1970s!

i would rather be fornicating

Single students were expected to keep at least six inches distance from the opposite sex — six inches being the width of a church hymnbook. (Please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule) Breaking the six-inch rule brought severe punishment. Repeated infractions resulted in expulsion. While there were a handful of couples who self-righteously obeyed the letter of the law, most students quickly learned who they could double-date with without getting in trouble for holding hands with or kissing their date. More than a few students rounded third and slid into home, with several girls becoming pregnant — or so it was rumored anyway. Students caught fornicating were immediately expelled from school.

Polly and I married after our sophomore year. A year later, we left Midwestern and moved to Bryan, Ohio — the place of my birth. A few weeks after our move, I became the assistant pastor at Montpelier Baptist Church — a young, growing IFB church. After spending seven months at Montpelier Baptist, I resigned and we moved to the Central Ohio community of Newark. Polly’s dad was the assistant pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Her uncle, James Dennis was the pastor.  We joined the Baptist Temple, and when Polly’s father decided to start a new church in nearby Buckeye Lake in 1981, we joined him. I became his pastoral assistant (primarily working with the youth of the church), a position I held until June of 1983.

In July of 1983, I started a new IFB church in Somerset, Ohio — thirty miles south of Newark. I would pastor Somerset Baptist Church until March of 1994. At every stop along my young ministerial career, I was exposed to and worked with men who believed it was a grave sin for unmarried teens and young adults of the opposite sex to touch each other. I carried this belief into my first full-time pastorate. Church teens likely remember Pastor Bruce preaching against all forms of physical/sexual intimacy between unmarried people. I am sure they remember me famously saying — oh how I wish I could forget — “no girl ever got pregnant who didn’t hold hands with a boy first!” (Yes, I really did say this, and I did so many times!)

I viewed hand-holding as a sexual gateway drug. I thought, if I could shame teens and young adults into not touching one another (or touching themselves), then there would be no fornicating going on and no teen pregnancies. I pastored Somerset Baptist for eleven years. During that time, no unmarried church female became pregnant. Does this mean that none of the church unmarrieds was having sex? Of course not. Having talked with a handful of church teens who are now in their 30s and early 40s, I now know that they were lustily ignoring my preaching. I am grateful that there were no unwanted pregnancies that I knew of, though I suspect several girls might have gotten pregnant and secretly had abortions.

Is it any wonder that so many IFB married couples have sexual dysfunction? What in my preaching taught these couples a healthy, scientific, rational view of sex? Nothing that I can think of. Instead, I used guilt and shame in my attempts to get them to conform to an anti-human, irrational view of human sexuality. Thousands of Evangelical preachers continue to preach the Thou Shalt Not Touch gospel to church teenagers. Ironically, these preachers didn’t heed this gospel when they were teens, and they surely have to know that neither will their church teenagers. Hormones, need, and desire win every time. Wouldn’t it be far better to teach church unmarrieds how to own their sexuality, preparing them for the day when they engage in sex for the first time? I know, the Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says, but Christians have been trying to live by Puritanical beliefs about sex for centuries. How is that working out? Perhaps it is time to shelve the Bible with its archaic sexual prohibitions and embrace a healthy, natural view of sex. Sorry preachers, but everyone IS doing it. You can live in denial all you want, but the fact remains that by age nineteen, seven out of ten teenagers have had sex. And now that people are waiting until their mid-twenties to marry, I can safely say that most of the singles listening to your antiquated sermons have likely engaged in some form of sexual activity.

Were you raised in an Evangelical/IFB church? How did your pastor handle I Corinthians 7:1-2? What do you remember your pastor saying about necking and premarital sex? Did you feel shame and guilt when your pastor preached about sex? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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.

The Day I Stuffed an Atheist in a Trash Can

devil in trash canI attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in the 1970s. Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution noted for its training of preachers. Midwestern was an unaccredited college. As a result, no student loans were available, and students had to work secular jobs to pay for room and board and tuition. During my sophomore year and part of my junior year, I worked full-time for a large grocery company called Felice’s Market. The Felice brothers were great people to work for. They gave Polly and me $200 as a wedding gift, and when I needed to buy a car one of the Felice brothers loaned me the money. I have worked for over fifty companies/businesses in my lifetime. I consider Felice’s Market one of the best places I’ve ever worked.

I worked in the dairy department. Prior to enrolling at Midwestern, I was the dairy manager at Foodland in Bryan, Ohio. It made sense, then, for me to continue in this line of work. I also worked in the meat department at Kroger’s in Rochester Hills and stocked shelves for La Rosa’s Market in Orchard Lake. Next to managing restaurants, working in grocery stores was my favorite job.

As was common among Midwestern preacher boys, I was quite outspoken about my faith. When given an opportunity to do so, I would share the gospel with my fellow employees. I also made sure I read my Bible during breaks and prayed over my lunch. Having a good testimony before the world was very important. I wanted everyone I worked with to be saved. I am sure more than a few of them wanted to be saved too — from me!

One particular evangelistic target was an atheistic high school boy who worked part-time in the frozen food department. This boy was a science geek, knowing far more than I did about biology, geology, and cosmology. I took two science classes in high school — biology and earth science — and one class in college — biology. I was, to put it mildly, quite ignorant about science. As a high school student, I would take tests in biology class, giving the required answers, but then I would add Bible verses and comments meant to show the teacher that what he was teaching was wrong. I was quite proud of myself — taking a stand for God and his inspired, inerrant Word. My college biology class was a joke. Midwestern didn’t have a lab, so class time was devoted to lectures on creationism and why people should only marry their “kind.”

This high school boy and I would go around and around about how the universe came into existence. He would pepper me with science questions I couldn’t answer, and I would trump his questions — or so I thought — with Bible verses. One day, we got into a heated discussion about creationism. The boy, seizing on the weaknesses of my Biblical answers, asked me, if everything has a creator, who created God? We went back and forth for a few more minutes, me quoting the Bible and the boy repeatedly asking, who created God?  I reached a point where I had enough of his impertinent dissing of God. I told him he was ignorant, and he replied, who created God? Suddenly, I grabbed a hold of the boy and stuffed him — butt first — in a nearby trash can. I then walked away, quite proud of myself, thinking I sure showed that atheist!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Why Are So Many Evangelical Preachers Arrogant and Full of Themselves? Part Two

humble pastor

Read part One

Why are so many Evangelical preachers arrogant and full of themselves? While it would be easy to answer this question simply by saying that these so-called “men of God” are narcissistic Assholes for Jesus®, the correct answer is more complex and nuanced. In both yesterday’s and today’s posts, I will use the fifty years I spent in Christianity and the twenty-five years I pastored churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan as a backdrop in an attempt to answer this question. While no two life stories are exactly the same, I am confident that I can pick things out of my own story that can also be found in the life stories of many Evangelical preachers.

In the 1960s, my parents moved to San Diego, California hoping to improve their lives financially. Unfortunately, their California dream proved to be an illusion. Two years later, Mom and Dad packed up our earthly belongings and moved back to Ohio. The Robert and Barbara Gerencser who left Ohio for the promised land of California were very different people when they returned to Bryan, Ohio. While in California, my parents and I were saved at an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church — Scott Memorial Baptist Church. Overnight, Mom and Dad became devout followers of Jesus.  Not long after I asked Jesus into my heart, I told Mom that I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. I was six years old.

At the age of fifteen, during an Al Lacy revival meeting at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, I made another public profession of faith in Christ. I remember feeling a deep sense of conviction over my sin, and once I prayed to Jesus to forgive me of my sins and save me, the shame and guilt I felt over my sins was gone. Several weeks later, feeling, yet again, a deep sense of God working in my heart, I went forward during an invitation — a time at the end of church services where people are asked to come forward to the altar to do business with God — and publicly confessed to the church that I believed God was calling me to preach. At that moment, I became the latest member of a special group called “preacher boys.”

Preacher boys, called by God to do the most important job on earth, are viewed by pastors and churches as the future of Christianity. Without a steady supply of preacher boys, churches wouldn’t have pastors, new churches wouldn’t be started, and the lost would go unsaved. Thus, preacher boys are treated in ways that make them feel unique and special. Pastors love to brag about how many preacher boys were called to preach under their ministry. Similar to gunslingers putting notches on their six-shooters’ wooden grips every time they killed someone, pastors see preacher boys as notches on their ministerial guns.

After announcing my call to the ministry, I spent the next four years being handled by pastors who took it on themselves to prepare me for the work of the ministry. In the fall of 1976, at the age of nineteen, I packed my meager belongings into the back of my rust-bucket of car and moved from my Mom’s trailer three hours northeast to Pontiac, Michigan. Pontiac was the home of Midwestern Baptist College — an IFB institution started in the 1950s by Dr. Tom Malone (who pastored a nearby megachurch, Emmanuel Baptist Church). Midwestern was established specifically for training preacher boys for the ministry.  Midwestern was an unaccredited school, so students received no financial aid. Most of the preacher boys had to work full-time jobs while attending classes. These future pastors were also required to work in one or more of the ministries at Emmanuel, along with being in attendance for Sunday school, two worship services, and midweek prayer meeting. Students were busy seven days a week, with little time for relaxation. It should come as no surprise, then, that many students washed out after their freshman year. Men who endured until the end were viewed as battle-tested preachers ready to enter the hard work of the ministry. Filled with pride and given the approval of IFB giant Tom Malone, these newly minted men of God fanned out over the world establishing new churches and pumping new life into older, established IFB churches. Forty years later, most of the men from my class are still plucking grapes in God’s vineyard. I am, as far as I know, the only person who attended Midwestern and later pastored churches who is now an atheist. (Please read The Midwestern Baptist College Preacher Who Became an Atheist.)

Evangelical young men who enter the ministry most often spend their entire lives in what I call “the Evangelical Bubble.”  Within this bubble, pastors are sheltered from the world; within the bubble Evangelical theology and practices make perfect sense; within the bubble pastors are rarely challenged concerning their beliefs; within the bubble pastors are viewed as God-called authority figures; within the bubble pastors receive the praise and adulation of congregants; within the bubble pastors are revered and treated as demigods; within the bubble pastors answer only to God; within the bubble pastors have no equal; within the bubble pastors put into motion their agendas, their God-given visions for their churches; within the bubble pastors’ birthdays and ministerial anniversaries are celebrated; and within the bubble God uses pastors in unique ways to supernaturally advance His kingdom.

Pastors who remain in this bubble are surrounded by like-minded people who believe the same things, sing the same songs, and generally live cookie-cutter lives (at least outwardly). Exposure to the outside world is limited, especially for those who are full-time pastors. I have long advocated for churches forcing pastors to be bi-vocational. Doing so exposes pastors to a world far different from that of the Evangelical bubble. Unfortunately, few churches see the value of having part-time pastors. Churches which, out of economic necessity, pay their pastors part-time wages often demand their pastors give them full-time attention.

Safely ensconced within the Evangelical bubble, pastors go about doing the work of the ministry.  These sheltered men frequent pastors’ fellowships and conferences — meetings where pastors get together to whine about how evil the world is and how hard it is to be a pastor.  These meetings provide pastors yet another opportunity to have their right-beliefs and right-practices reinforced and approved by fellow clergymen. Such meetings are pep rallies meant to rally and energize the generals of God’s army.

On Sundays, pastors mount the pulpit and preach sermons they believe God has laid upon their “hearts.”  Congregants gather to hear the Word of God from the man of God, showing their approval by shouting “amen,” nodding their heads, and raising their hands. After services, pastors stand at the back of their churches, shaking hands and listening to members tell them how wonderful their sermons were. In the twenty-five years I spent pastoring churches, I never had a church member shake my hand and say, Pastor Bruce, that sermon sucked or Pastor Bruce, are you sure God told you to preach that sermon?  I preached plenty of bad sermons over the years, but congregants still praised me for giving to them the Word of the Lord. Imagine being in an environment where no matter what you do, everyone tells you what a great job you are doing. Spend enough time being praised and never criticized, you will begin to think — to speak bluntly — your shit don’t stink.

Taking what I have written above, is it any wonder that many Evangelical pastors become arrogant and full of themselves, especially when their churches grow numerically? Outwardly, these men of God are humble, but inwardly they think, Wow! Look at what God is doing through me — ME! ME! ME! being the operative word. Praised by congregants and peers alike, preachers find it is easy for them to lose touch with reality.

Rare is the man who can withstand a lifetime of praise and adoration without negatively being affected. Over time, pastors start to believe their press clippings, thinking that they have arrived. Sunday after Sunday, congregants file into services to hear THEIR pastor preach. It is not too much stretch for me to say that many pastors begin to develop bigger-than-life personalities, thinking that congregants are there to see them perform. Credence is given to this when pastors leave their churches for new ministries. What happens?  Many congregants stop attending services. If Pastor Ain’t He Awesome isn’t preaching, I’m not going, they say. Let pastors take a sabbatical or vacation and what happens? Church attendance declines. Evidently, while the proverbial cat is away, the mice play.

Throw in certain personality and psychological traits pastors tend to have, it should come as no surprise that many Evangelical pastors are insufferable, arrogant, full-of-themselves assholes — especially in the view of those who live outside of the Evangelical bubble. Does this mean that Evangelical pastors are inherently bad people? Of course not. But years spent in the Evangelical bubble can change pastors, often for the worse. I have no doubt that some pastors will whine, complain, and howl over what I have written here, saying I AM NOT LIKE THIS!  Others, however, will admit that what I have written here hits too close to where they live.

Pastors can become so immersed in the work of the ministry that they lose all sight of reality. The solution, of course, is for pastors to leave the ministry and devote themselves to reconnecting with humanity by wallowing in the pigsty of the world. As long as they remain in the Evangelical bubble, pastors will not see things as they are. Of course, pastors aren’t going to listen to me. The calling of God is irrevocable, they will tell me, God has CALLED me, and I must not disappoint or disobey Him!  And therein lies the problem. Evangelical pastors believe that God is behind their call into the ministry, and that every sermon preached and every decision made is done by the mighty power of the Spirit of God. Until these Gods become men, I fear there is little that can be done to deliver them from the other-world, rarefied air of the Evangelical bubble.

For me, once I finally admitted that I was not what I claimed to be, that the wizard behind the curtain of Bruce Gerencser’s life was not the Evangelical God, but Bruce himself — then, and only then, could I make sense of a lifetime spent in the ministry.  Every decision I claimed was made according to God’s leading was, in fact, influenced not by God, but by my parents, pastors, peers, and my own wants, needs, and desires. I now know that I genuinely want to help other people; that I love trying to fix things that are broken; that I love the thrill of building things from scratch. And yes, I now know that I loved receiving the praise and adoration heaped on me by congregants. I loved being the center of attention, the decision-maker, the man with all the answers. Does this mean I was a bad person? I will leave that to others to decide. All I can do is give an honest accounting of my life. In doing so, I hope former Evangelicals and those trying to extricate themselves from the Evangelical bubble will be gain a bit of understanding about what they have experienced at the hands of God’s men. While I did many good works as a pastor, things that I am proud of, I must also admit that I was not always a good person; that I was, at times, filled with pride and arrogance. Am I better man today than I was as a pastor? Most certainly. I now know what it means to be human. And in reconnecting with my humanity, I have found that I still have much to offer, without, of course, the baggage of Christianity.

Why Are So Many Evangelical Preachers Arrogant and Full of Themselves? Part One

humble pastor

Why are so many Evangelical preachers arrogant and full of themselves? While it would be easy to answer this question simply by saying that these so called “men of God” are narcissistic Assholes for Jesus®, the correct answer is more complex and nuanced. In what follows, I will use the fifty years I spent in Christianity and the twenty-five years I pastored churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan as a backdrop in an attempt to answer this question. While no two life stories are exactly the same, I am confident that I can pick things out of my own story that can also be found in the life stories of many Evangelical preachers. Readers who were long time members of Evangelical churches or once in the ministry themselves will likely agree with what I have written here. Try as we humans might — thinking we are special, unique snowflakes — to frame our stories as different from the rest, certain sociological, psychological, biological, and tribal influences directly affect how we live our lives, revealing that none of us is as radically distinctive as we think we are.

In the 1960s, my parents moved to California, hoping to find a pot filled with gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. While they never found great wealth, my parents did embrace certain religious and political beliefs that would dramatically change not only their lives, but mine. Mom and Dad both found Jesus at Tim LaHaye’s church — Scott Memorial Baptist Church — and while attending Scott Memorial were exposed to the uber-right-wing anti-communist group The John Birch Society. My parents, overnight, became Fundamentalist Christian zealots and defenders of right-wing political extremism. While in California, Mom campaigned for Barry Goldwater, hoping that he would unseat incumbent Democratic president Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. Goldwater lost the election, garnering only thirty-eight percent of the popular vote.

Not long after my parents became born-again Christians, I too gave my heart to Jesus. This youthful, uninformed, manipulated-by-children’s-church-workers decision was the first step of many I would take as I followed after and served the Evangelical Jesus. Not long after asking Jesus into my heart, I told Mom that I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. A decade later, as is common among Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB), I made another public profession of faith, and a few weeks later I informed the church that I believed God was calling me to preach. This one moment, publicly saying that Jesus wanted me to be a “man of God,” would color and affect virtually every important decision I would make for the rest of my life.

A week or so after I let the church know I was called to preach, I preached my first sermon. I was fifteen. I would preach my last sermon thirty years later.  During this span of time, I attended an IFB college to study for the ministry, married a girl who was looking to marry a preacher, was the assistant pastor of two churches, and pastored five churches. I also started four new churches, two Christian schools, and a multi-church youth fellowship. While at the various churches I pastored, I started street preaching ministries, nursing home ministries, and youth groups, along with preaching numerous special meetings (revivals, conferences, etc.). I also attended pastors’ fellowship meetings, and supported fellow pastors when their churches had revivals and conferences.

In the mid-1970s, I spent three years at Midwestern Baptist College training for the ministry. I met Polly there, and during the summer between our sophomore and junior year years, we married, excited that God had called both of us to into full-time service — me to a life of praise and adulation and Polly to a life of watching the nursery and dutifully modeling the patriarchal way of life. It should come as no surprise then, that Polly’s view of the twenty-five years we spent in the ministry is very different from mine.

During the three years I spent training for the ministry, I taught Sunday school, worked in the bus ministry, helped with the youth group, and held services at a drug rehab/halfway house in Detroit. Unlike many of the men who attended Midwestern, I actually gained a lot of preaching experience by the time we left Midwestern in the spring of 1979. It was not uncommon for men to graduate from Midwestern having only preached sermons in their homiletics class and infrequent services at their home churches.

While attending Midwestern, it was drilled into my head that it was GOD, not MAN, who had called me to preach; that no one but God could tell me what to preach. I was also taught the importance of following the leading of the Holy Spirit, not only in my preaching, but also in determining whether I should start a new church or become the pastor of an established church. As a preacher, according to what was modeled to me by my pastors and what I was taught in college, I answered to no one but God. Jesus may have been head of the church, but on earth I was the final authority on spiritual and theological matters.

Baptists love to attack the Roman Catholic Church with its Pope and his infallible pronouncements, yet they seem blind to the fact that in their churches, every church has its own little pope — the pastor. Saved by God, called by God, filled with the Spirit of God, led by God, and given absolute authority, these Evangelical Chosen Ones rule their churches as kings and potentates. Pastors, commanded by God to “humbly” sit at the head of the table, expected congregants to submit to their God-given authority, obeying those that have the rule over them (Hebrews 13:17).

Some Evangelical churches, hoping to correct the excesses of the single-pastor church rule, have a plurality of pastors (elders) or have governing boards.  All these polity changes do is increase the number of bwanas. The end result is the same: a man or small group of men rule over the church. And more often than not in churches with governing boards, there is one man, the senior/preaching pastor, who is the hub around which the church turns. As is clear to anyone who is paying attention, Evangelical churches are all about the man who stands at the front of the church and preaches and teaches the Bible. Whether intentional or not, Evangelical churches becomes Pastor So and So’s church. His name is on the sign, bulletin, and every piece of advertising put out by the church. It is not uncommon for congregants to say, when asked where they attend church, to respond, I go to Pastor Ain’t He Awesome’s church. Churches pastored by men with John Holmes-sized oratorical prowess take great pride in having a pastor who is a great pulpiteer.

I preached thousands of sermons during my time as a pastor, and, hopefully without coming off as braggadocios, was considered by the people I pastored and my peers to be an excellent public speaker. My sermons were well-crafted, steeped in study and prayer, and delivered with passion and animation. I expected every sermon I preached to be used by God to save the lost and motivate the saints. I expected to see visible human responses — be it nodding heads, shouts of “amen,” raised hands, or tears — during my sermons, and at the end, I expected to see movement towards the front during altar calls. I was of the opinion then, and am still of this persuasion today, that public speakers should always bring audiences to a place of acting on that which they have heard — be it getting saved, getting right with God, or advancing this or that political cause.

Evangelical preachers believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God. Every word is straight from the mouth of God, and with rare exception these God-breathed words are meant to be understood literally. This way of reading the Bible forces Evangelical preachers to defend all sorts of absurd beliefs; things such as the idea that the universe was created in six twenty-four-hour days and is six-thousand and twenty-two years old. Ministries such as Answers in Genesis and Creation Research Institute are established to give literalism a veneer of respectability, and countless apologetical books are published in the hope that pastors will read them so they are better equipped to defend Evangelicalism’s literalistic view of the Bible.

Let me conclude this post by tying everything together, setting the foundation for what I will write tomorrow. Evangelical preachers are saved and called into the ministry by God. They are viewed as people uniquely qualified to teach and preach the Bible. From the moment Evangelical preachers are called into the ministry until they preach their last sermon, they are treated as special and placed in positions of power and authority few Christians ever experience. Evangelical pastors who go off to college to be trained for the ministry are reminded by their professors and chapel speakers that God has given them the greatest job on earth; that becoming president of the United States would be a step down for them; that God will greatly reward them in heaven if they give their hearts, souls, and minds to the work of the ministry; that if God so chooses, they might even see Him use them to reap harvests of souls and build large churches.

Trace the life of the typical Evangelical preacher and you will find a lifetime of adulation, praise, and being in the spotlight. Even in small country churches deep in back-woods hollers, preachers are honored and revered. Is it any wonder, taking all that I have said in this post, that many Evangelical preachers become arrogant and full of themselves? Rare is the man who can handle a lifetime of praise and adoration, coupled with absolute power, control, and authority, and not be adversely affected, particularly when you factor in the Type-A, narcissistic, workaholic, driven personalities many preachers have. And rarer still is the man who is willing to admit these things.

I am sure some Evangelical preachers will self-righteously and indignantly say that they were NOT like me, but with their protestations they will only prove my point. I hope, at the very least, Evangelical pastors, evangelists, and missionaries will shut up and listen to what an old curmudgeon has to say. I may now be an atheist, but my leaving the ministry and Christianity has allowed me to have a unique view of Evangelical preachers and the work of the ministry. Perhaps I yet have a sermon to preach to those who claim by their words and actions to be know-it-alls for God.

Read Part Two

How Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Churches Deal with Unwed Mothers

fornication is a sin

If you are unfamiliar with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, please read the following posts:

The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook

What is an IFB Church?

Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Lingo, A Guide to IFB Speak

The IFB River Called Denial

An Independent Baptist Hate List

Let’s Go Camping: Understanding Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Camps

How to Start an Independent Baptist Church

Tony Soprano Would Make a Good Independent Baptist Preacher

If I were to ask you what it is that Independent Fundamentalist Baptists value most, many of you would say things such as: Jesus, the B-I-B-L-E, hard preaching, and potlucks. However, these four articles of the IFB faith pale in comparison to the one thing valued above all others: the virginity of teen girls and never-married women. Valued above Jesus? Yes, even above Jesus. Intact hymens are the holy grail of the IFB church movement. This fact is best illustrated by a dating couple who came to an IFB pastor and asked if they only had butt sex would that mean the woman was still a virgin? The pastor, of course, told them that anal sex was the same as vaginal sex. But why would this question even be asked? Why would anyone think that anal sex (or oral) was not “real” sex. Because in IFB churches the only hole God made for sex is judiciously protected against insertion of anything besides tampons. No penises, fingers, vegetables, or battery operated devices allowed. (And on the extreme end of the IFB church movement, there are pastors who believe that married couples should only engage in vaginal sex, missionary position, while thinking how wonderful it would be if Bro. Billy Bob’s sperm hooked up with Sister Mary Lou’s eggs.)

From their teen years forward, IFB girls hear repeated warnings about having premarital sex and losing their virginity. These girls are told that only whores have premarital sex and that those who let boys score with them are like dirty rags fit for the trash. I have heard countless sermons — and preached a few myself — that focused solely on causing fear, guilt, and shame. While the young horn dogs of IFB churches, along with their wandering-eyed fathers, hear purity sermons from time to time, most of such sermons are directed at what IFB churches believe is the weaker sex. Women are reminded that they are the gatekeepers. It is up to them to protect not only their own holy virginity, but that of the boys and men. This is why there are so many rules about how women dress. The goal is to destroy their visage and beauty, those things that cause teenage boys to have wandering thoughts about youth group girls instead of their pastor’s weekly Biblical tirade.

Despite the Baptist burkas, hot-and-heavy sermons, and puritanical rules governing dating and male/female interaction and physical contact (there are no gays in IFB churches), unmarrieds do have sex. And thanks to Just Say No sex education, some girls do become pregnant.

In IFB churches, there’s nothing worse than one of the church girls getting pregnant. Whether the girl is fourteen or twenty-three, it matters not. Becoming pregnant without the benefit of marriage is a deep black stain, not only on the mother-to-be, but also the church, the girl’s parents, and her pastor. By spreading her legs before marriage and “allowing” Deacon Noah’s son to plant his seed, she has repudiated everything her church, parents, and pastor believe about the sanctity of sex.

abstinence

With such extreme thinking, wouldn’t it be best for all sexually aware IFB girls be put on the pill? This way, the threat of embarrassment and scandal for IFB churches, pastors, and parents is eliminated. Makes sense, right? Why not take preventive measures, especially since any honest IFB preacher knows that more unmarrieds than not will eventually do the dirty deed. When I was asked this very question years ago, I told the questioner that allowing girls to use birth control was akin to saying to them that it was okay to have sex. This same logic was used for drinking alcohol, using drugs, and other behavior deemed a sin. JUST SAY NO was the only proper response to temptation and sin. It didn’t matter that most married adult IFB church members failed to just say no. All that mattered was maintaining the virginal illusion that when young IFB couples walked down the aisle, their lives were living testimonies to the rightness of the IFB doctrine and practice.

I want to conclude this post with several anecdotal stories from my days as a student at Midwestern Baptist College and as a young IFB pastor.

As many of you know, the college I attended in the 1970s had (and still has) a strict no-contact-with-the-opposite-sex policy. If you are not familiar with this policy, please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule. While an infinitesimally small number of unmarried students kept the six-inch rule, the rest of us broke the rule with gusto. While some students were able to keep their virginity intact, other students scampered around the bases and slid into to home. Those caught breaking the six-inch rule were usually campused (not permitted to leave campus) on first offense. Further offenses, pregnancy, or whispers of sexual romps in cars, motel rooms, or the dormitory laundry room were harshly met with immediate expulsion. Not only were offenders shamed in front of their fellow students, many of whom were guilty of the very same sexual “crimes,” they were shipped home to their IFB churches, parents, and pastors to be face further humiliation.

My first ministerial position post-college was as the assistant pastor of a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) congregation in Montpelier, Ohio. During my seven-month stay at Montpelier Baptist Church, one of the girls in the church became pregnant. The pastor decreed that she and the father of the baby were to immediately wed. (My sister went through a similar circumstance, marrying at the age of fifteen.) Not only were they to wed promptly, but only immediate family could attend the wedding and the girl would not be permitted to wear a white dress. The pastor told the pregnant girl that the color white was reserved for girls who were virgins on their wedding days. Her mistake was confessing her sin. Had she quickly and quietly run to the altar as other church women had done, she could have worn white and maintained the virginity illusion.

Years later, I attended a church service where a “loose” pregnant teen was brought before the church congregation and made to publicly profess her wickedness. Once she was sufficiently shamed, church members came to the weeping, shaking girl and embraced her, praising God for cleansing the girl from her sin. I have no doubt that many of these hugging super saints were guilty of the very same sin years ago. Sufficiently distanced from their own mortal sins, these holy saints of God likely felt no irony or guilt as they continued the shaming ritual.

Some IFB churches choose to make to pregnant teens disappear. IFB parents who find out their daughters are pregnant will usually immediately (and frantically) contact their pastors to find out what they should do. Knowing that their daughters “sins” will sully church testimonies (and abortion is not an option), parents often choose to ship their pregnant teens to IFB group homes. These homes, which are frequently little more than prisons or reeducation camps, purportedly turned whores, sluts, and fornicators into blood-washed, white-as-the-driven-snow lovers of Jesus, the King James Bible, and the IFB way. Often, their babies are given up for adoption.

I hope readers who were raised in the IFB church will share their own experiences in the comment section. To outsiders, what I have written here sounds out of this world, but these stories and practices are repeated in countless IFB schools, colleges, churches, and homes. Since the IFB church movement prides itself on being the same today, yesterday, and forever (if it was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it’s good enough for me), the shaming rituals and abuse of years ago are often practiced today.  As long as church teenagers keep having sex, there will be bastard children and women to ritually humiliate. Indeed, the IFB God is an awesome God.

Bruce, If You Don’t Believe in Jesus Anymore, Who Do You Think Called You Into the Ministry?

emmanuel baptist church 1983

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

I recently received the following email:

I read your blog. Thanks for sharing. I have been an Evangelical Christian since I was 5. I accepted Jesus of the Bible at that time. When I read your “Why I Hate Jesus”, it made me sad. I couldn’t help but think that you have had a lot of pain from people who profess Jesus Christ and that Jesus Himself has let you down. I did have a question. On your ABOUT page, the question was “when were you called into the ministry. ” If you don’t believe in Jesus anymore, who do you think called you into the ministry?

In this post, I want to focus on the question, “If you don’t believe in Jesus anymore, who do you think called you into the ministry?”

This is a fairly common question I am asked when someone is trying to square my current atheistic life with that of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. I believed that it was GOD who called me into the ministry, but now I believe that this same God is a fiction. If God doesn’t exist, who is it then that spoke to my “heart” as a fifteen-year-old boy, telling me that I was to be a pastor, a preacher of the good news of the gospel?

The Evangelical culture I grew up in emphasized the importance of boys and girls growing up to be full-time servants of Jesus Christ. Children and teenagers were encouraged to pray and ask God if he wanted them to devote their lives to the ministry, be it as a pastor, evangelist, or missionary. Parents were challenged to give their children over to God, as Hannah did with Samuel, in hopes that he might see fit to use them in a mighty way to advance his Kingdom. Pastors considered it a sign of God’s favor if boys and teenagers were called to preach under their ministry. Like the gunslingers of yesteryear, pastors put a notch on their gospel gun every time a boy surrendered to the ministry.

Being called to full-time service means you are special, uniquely chosen by God to do his work. From the moment a boy says, preacher, I think God is calling me to preach, he is treated by the church as some sort of extraordinary human being. I heard countless preachers say that being called into the ministry was the greatest calling in the world; that becoming President of the United States would be a step down from the ministry. Preacher boys — as young men who are called into the ministry are often nicknamed — are quickly given preacher things to do. No time is better than NOW, I was told, to start serving God and preaching his Word. I preached my first sermon to the Junior High Sunday school class two weeks after I stood before the church and said, God is calling me to be a preacher. I spent the next few years honing my preaching skills at youth meetings, nursing homes, and any other place that didn’t mind hearing the ramblings of an inexperienced, uneducated boy preacher. By the time I delivered my last sermon in April 2005, I had preached thousands of messages, often preaching three or more sermons a week.

What I have written above is key to answering the question, “If you don’t believe in Jesus anymore, who do you think called you into the ministry?” Since I do not think God exists, the only way I can possibly answer this question is from and environmental, psychological, cultural, and sociological perspective. It is important to remember that it is not necessary for God to exist for people to believe that he does. Billions of people believe in a supernatural deity/force that does not exist. Every day, billions of people will pray to, worship, and swear allegiance to deities that cannot be seen, heard, or touched. These deities can, however, be felt, and it is these feelings that lead people to believe that their invisible God is indeed real. Thus, I KNOW that God called me into the ministry because I “felt” him speak to me. This is no different from the 5-year-old Bruce Gerencser believing that Santa Claus somehow came down the chimney every Christmas Eve and put presents under the tree just for him. Of course, time, experience, and knowledge caused me to see that my beliefs about Santa were false, as they did  when it came to my beliefs about God.

These religious feelings and beliefs of mine were reinforced by the Bible. Various verses in the Word of God speak of men who are called to be pastors/elders/bishops/missionaries/evangelists. Variously interpreted by Christian sects, all agree on one point: God calls boys/men (and in some cases, girls/women) into the ministry. This calling is essentially God laying his hand on someone and saying, I have set you apart for my use. Church youngsters are regaled with stories about men and women called by God who did great works. From the Bible, stories of the faith-driven exploits of Noah, Moses, David, Gideon, Elijah, Elisha, Joshua, the apostles, and Paul are used as reminders of what God can and will do for those willing to dedicate their lives to serving him. Church children are encouraged to read the biographies of men (and a few women) mightily used of God. I heard more than a few preachers say, look at what God did through Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, Dwight Moody, Bob Jones, John R. Rice, Billy Sunday, Adoniram Judson, Andrew Fuller, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Jack Hyles, B.R. Lakin, and countless other servants of God. Who knows what God might do through you if you will dare to surrender your life to him. What young preacher boy wouldn’t want to someday be used by God like these men?

I spent thirty-three years believing that God had called me to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ; that this calling was irrevocable; that misery and judgement (and perhaps death) awaited if I failed to obey God. The Apostle Paul said in First Corinthians 9:16:

For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!

As with Paul, Bruce the Evangelical preacher had a burning desire to the preach the gospel; to tell as many people as possible that Jesus alone can save them from their sin; that there is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain; that what is a man profited if he gain the world and lose his soul. I shed countless tears over the lost — both in and out of the church. I spent untold hours praying for revival to break out in America, spreading to the ends of the earth. Believing Jesus was coming back to earth soon, I devoted myself to making sure as many people as possible heard the gospel. I thought, at the time, my duty is to tell them. It is up to God to save them. For many years, my evangelistic zeal burned so hot that I preached a minimum of four sermons a week, along with preaching on the streets and holding services at the local nursing home and county jail. To quote the motto of Midwestern Baptist College — the institution I attended in the 1970s — Souls for Jesus is Our Battle Cry, Souls for Jesus is Our Battle Cry. We Never Will Give in While Souls are Lost in Sin, Souls for Jesus is Our Battle Cry!

My burning the candle at both ends wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t believe that God had called me into the ministry and was speaking to and through me. I believed that this God existed. I may never have seen or audibly heard God, but I felt his presence in my life. I “heard” the Holy Spirit speaking to me, leading me, and teaching me truth. These experiences of mine were verified by what I read in the Bible and Christian biographies and what I observed in the lives of my pastors, teachers, and mentors. Most of all, they were verified by the work God accomplished through my preaching and leadership. How then, knowing these things, can I now believe that God is a work a fiction; that my ministerial experiences were the work, not of God/Jesus/Holy Spirit, but the works of a quite-human Bruce Gerencser?

The deconversion process afforded me the opportunity to step back from my life and view it from a distance. As I looked at my parents’ religious, theological, social, and political leanings and that of the pastors of the churches we attended, it would have been shocking if I hadn’t, as a teenager, professed that God was calling me into the ministry. At age five, while we were living in San Diego and attending Scott Memorial Baptist Church (Scott Memorial was pastored by Tim LaHaye), I told my mother that I was going to be a preacher someday. Not a baseball player, policeman, or garbage truck driver — a preacher! This, of course, pleased my Mom. (Ironically, neither my mother or father ever heard me preach.) When people talked about the angst they had over trying to determine what they wanted to do with their lives when they grew up, I had no frame of reference. I never wrestled with what I wanted to be as an adult. I always wanted to be a preacher, and by God’s wonderful, matchless grace, that is exactly what I became. Everything I experienced in my life led me to the monumental day at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio when, with tears and trembling, I told the church God was calling me into the ministry. Scores of fellow church members shouted Amen! and later hugged me, telling me that they were going to pray for me. I am sure that more than a few people had mixed feelings about my calling. Really Lord? Are you sure you can use this temperamental, ornery redheaded boy? I have often wondered what my peers thought as I went from the boy who told the youth director to fuck off! to a young man who loved Jesus, carried his Bible to school, handed out tracts to his unsaved friends, went soulwinning, worked on a bus route, and occasionally preached at Sunday evening youth meetings. The old Bruce, who wore frayed jeans, boots, and tee-shirts to church, gave way to the New Bruce, who wore preacher clothes, including ties. What’s next? Swearing off girls? Anyone who knew me as a preacher boy knows I resolutely obeyed the Baptist Rulebook®. (Please read The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook) I didn’t smoke, drink, cuss, listen to rock music, or engage in premarital sex. I had plenty of girlfriends, but I drew the line at kissing, holding hands, and putting our arms around each other. My commitment to virginity was part of my devotion to God. As much as I wanted to have sex, I willingly took many a cold shower, keeping myself pure until my wedding day.

Most Baptist preachers will likely say that they just KNEW God was calling them to preach. If they are still Christians, I am sure they attribute their feelings to supernatural intervention. It’s all because of J-E-S-U-S, not me, I’m sure they’ll say, yet the signs in front of their churches say Rev. So-and-So, Pastor. You see, the whole notion of being called by God is rooted not in the supernatural, but in earthly human experiences. My Baptist faith taught me to call my interest in the ministry a calling from God, but in truth, it was the natural outcome of my upbringing and experiences. My entrance into the preaching fraternity was never in doubt. How could I not have become a preacher?

There is nothing in my story that requires the actual existence of a supernatural deity. All that is required is that I, along with the other players in my life, believe God exists. For my first fifty years of life, I believed that the Evangelical God was every bit a real as the sun, moon, stars, and earth. And now I don’t. Does this invalidate my years in the ministry? Of course not. All that has changed is my perspective and how I see my trajectory from a sinner to a Holy Spirit-led follower of Jesus Christ. Instead of God being the first cause, I now know that environmental, psychological, cultural, and sociological influences molded me into the man who would one day preach thousands of sermons in churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Congregants called me Pastor Bruce, Rev. Gerencser or Preacher — the man God who spoke the Word of God to the people of God. I now know who I really was…his name is Bruce.

[signoff]

Is it a Sin to Kiss Your Boyfriend?

kissing

Every day, without fail, women somewhere in the world search for “is it a sin to kiss my boyfriend?” Thanks to the post, Hey Girlfriend: Is it a Sin to Kiss Your Boyfriend?, this blog is the number one Google search result. I can’t remember the last time I looked at search logs and didn’t see a handful of female visitors coming to this site to find out whether it is okay to swap spit with their boyfriends. I say female visitors, because I’ve never seen someone come to my site as a result of a “is it a sin to kiss my girlfriend” web search. It seems that women have a lot more angst about kissing their boyfriend than boyfriends do kissing them. I’ve often wondered what it is that drives women to seek out anonymous Internet advice about boyfriend kissing. Are these women being pressured by their boyfriends to be physically intimate? Probably. Kissing is very much a part of the human experience. Sadly, as with most things that are pleasurable, Evangelicals have deemed kissing between unmarried men and women to be a sin. Let me explain how Evangelicals come to this “Biblical” position.

First, Evangelicals believe that, thanks to Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden 6,017 years ago, the human race is, by nature, sinful. Born into sin, every human being is at variance with God. The Bible says that infants come forth from the womb speaking lies. We don’t become sinners, we are sinners. The Bible says human hearts are deceitful and wicked, so much so that none of us can truly know our heart. Because of our fallen nature, we desire to fulfill the lusts of the flesh. At the top of the Evangelical lust list are a variety of sexual sins: fornication, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, incest, masturbation, petting, spooning, and looking at a woman with lust in your heart. Believing that inappropriate physical contact with the opposite sex (there are no gays in the Evangelical church) is a gateway to serious sexual sins such as fornication and adultery, many Evangelical sects, churches, pastors, and families adopt strict rules governing physical intimacy between unmarrieds. For those not raised in Evangelical churches, they will likely find the remainder of this post beyond belief, but rest assured that what I share next can be found in countless Evangelical churches and homes.

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in the 1970s — the era of free love. While hippies were smoking marijuana, listening to rock music, and exploring their sexuality, the unmarried students at Midwestern were expected to maintain a six-inch distance from each other at all times. If you have not read the post, Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule, I encourage you to do so. It goes into great detail explaining how the puritanical leadership at Midwestern made sure students kept their distance from each other. Most of the students at Midwestern came from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches that also had some sort of prohibition against physical contact. During my teenage years, I was a member of Trinity Baptist Church, Findlay, Ohio and First Baptist Church, Bryan, Ohio. Both churches frowned on teenagers and young adults touching one another. Violating the no touch policy resulted in scoldings and separation during church services from your boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes, the pastors would spend time during their sermons rebuking sexually aware unmarrieds for their inappropriate touching. Time was also spent during youth group meetings drilling it into the heads of teenagers that God did not approve of them intimately touching each other. It should come as no surprise then that when unmarrieds were unable to abstain from acting on their sexual desires, they were often filled with guilt and fear. And I’m not talking about having sexual intercourse. More than a few teenagers found themselves ridden with guilt over holding hands with their girlfriend during church services or putting their arm around their boyfriend when no one was looking. Of course, there was certainly plenty of rounding-third and sliding-into-home sexual activity going on. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of becoming reacquainted with several friends from my high school days. The stories they tell about their own sexual experiences during our youth group years are certainly different from mine. I’ve concluded that pretty much everybody in youth group was sexually active except me. I was a good Baptist boy who played by the rules. While I certainly held hands with girls, put my arms around them, and kissed them, I (barely) maintained my virginity until my wedding day.

There are several verses in the Bible that Evangelical preachers use to justify their hands-off rules. 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 states:

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.

It is good for an unmarried man to NOT touch a woman, God says. Didn’t Jesus himself warn that just an inappropriate look at a woman can cause men to commit adultery in their hearts? From these verses Evangelical preachers justified their no-touch rules; rules, by the way that most of them didn’t keep when they were young unmarrieds.

Preachers also used what I call the kitchen-sink verses to prop up their preaching against sexual sin:

Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15,16)

Neither give place to the devil. (Ephesians 4:27)

Those raised in Evangelicals churches know that these verses (and others) were often used by preachers to label virtually anything and everything sin. (Please read The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook and An Independent Baptist Hate List.)

Young women in particular were psychologically abused by Evangelical preachers who felt it was their duty to make sure that the women were virgins on their wedding day. Preachers shared horror stories about women who engaged in premarital sex. Virtually all the preaching was directed towards women. After all, they were the gatekeepers. It was up to them to keep their legs closed when horn dog young men came sniffing around. Men are weak, the thinking goes, so it is up to Susie to make sure that both Johnny and Susie are virgins on their wedding day. And the best way to do this is to not have physical contact with each other before marriage. Just remember, the preacher says. No girl has ever gotten pregnant without holding hands or kissing a boy first! I kid you not, handholding was viewed as some sort of gateway, a gate which, once unmarrieds walked through it, would lead directly to them being given over to fornication. I know this sounds crazy, but this line of thinking is still quite prominent today. This is why so many unmarried women do Google searches for “is it a sin to kiss my boyfriend?” They likely attend churches that prohibit physical contact between unmarrieds. Yet, when they are away from the prying eyes of their pastors and parents, these sexually aware young adults engage in various forms of sexual intimacy. Fear and guilt follow, so they seek out “help” for dealing with their “lustful” desires.

Here’s my advice to those who are psychologically and spiritually troubled over holding hands with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Your feelings and desires are normal. Sexually aware people naturally desire physical intimacy. The key is to embrace your sexuality and act responsibly. This means you will have to ignore what your windbag preacher is telling you. It’s highly unlikely that any of the adults who are telling you that physical contact is a sin practiced what they preach. These hypocrites should spend their time teaching unmarrieds sexual responsibility. Most young adults will have sex intercourse before they are married. While your church may consider this a sin, those outside of the Evangelical church view sexual intimacy as a normal part of the human experience. Educate yourself about sex and make sure you always use birth control. I realize your preacher likely has said that using birth control is you preparing to sin, but I think we would all agree that unwanted pregnancies are a bad idea, and the only way to avoid them is to use birth control. Don’t allow the puritanical sexual standards of others to dictate what you will do. It’s your body, your life. And as far as kissing your boyfriend is concerned? Kiss away. A kiss is just a kiss. It can lead to more intimate behavior, but it also can be just that — a kiss. Remember, you, not your church, parents, or preacher, are in control of what you do sexually. Those who demand that you maintain your distance from the opposite sex are stunting your development.

Part of growing up is the exploration of our sexuality. This includes masturbation. Anyone who tells you that masturbation is a sin is someone you need to stop listening to. Like the desire for physical interaction with the opposite sex, masturbation is a normal, healthy behavior. I guarantee you that most of the married adults in your church masturbated before they were married. And I think I would be safe in saying that some of them still do. Masturbation is a great way to release sexual tension, especially when one is not ready to have sexual intercourse.

What I’m saying here is that it is all good. Sexual want, need, and desire are very much a part of the human experience. I encourage you to embrace your sexuality and enjoy all the pleasure that comes from doing so.

Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas? 

bruce and polly gerencser christmas 2015

Santa and his favorite elf.

Growing up in an Evangelical home, I knew that Christmas was all about the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Gifts were sparse, often just two or three packages, but never far from view was the most wondrous gift of all, salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The churches I attended spent significant time each holiday season reminding congregants that Jesus was the reason for the season. Sermons against Santa Claus, consumerism, and idolatry were common, as were pleas for money to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Polly and I started dating in September 1976. On Christmas Eve of that year I drove from my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio to Newark to meet Polly’s parents and attend her family’s Christmas gathering. This was the first time I had the opportunity to be alone with Polly, and we took advantage of it, using trips to the apartment complex’s laundry room to get as much kissing in as possible before returning to Midwestern Baptist College and its thou-shalt-not-touch six-inch rule. The family gathering was held at the home of Polly’s aunt and uncle, Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Prior to gathering at their house, we dutifully attended the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Temple. During the service, Polly’s uncle decided to thoroughly embarrass both of us by pointing out that Polly had a special visitor with her. He then said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirt tail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirt tail is.” I can imagine Polly’s Mom saying to herself, not very long if I have anything to do with it.

After Christmas Eve service, we drove over to the Dennis’ home. As I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but notice the largest pile of Christmas gifts I had ever seen in my life. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but it was quite evident that receiving a lot of gifts came in a close second. Prior to the gift-giving orgy, someone — I can’t remember who — gave a quick devotional, reminding all of us, yet again, as if we haven’t heard before, that Christmas was all about Jesus — his virgin birth, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead. Once the Sermonette for Christianettes® was duly delivered, it was time for the gifts to be distributed. Polly and I had already traded gifts, so I didn’t expect anything for myself. I was surprised (and embarrassed), then, to receive a gift from Polly’s parents — a leather belt.

After Polly and I married, we settled into a holiday routine that had us celebrating Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas Day with mine. Things continue this way until the late 1980s. I had stumbled upon material that purported to reveal the pagan history and true meaning of Christmas. Wanting to be obedient to Christ and untainted by the world, I decided, as the head of the home, that we would no longer practice Christmas. I can only imagine how heartbroken Polly was when I gathered up all of her Christmas decorations and donated them to Goodwill. I did make an allowance for us attending family Christmas gatherings. We bought no gifts for our children, treating Christmas as if it were just another day. For several years, our family drove to the Charity Rescue Mission in Columbus to help serve food to the homeless. Several families from the church I was pastoring at the time — Somerset Baptist Church — went with us. While I deeply regret becoming the Grinch that stole Christmas, I do think feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective.

Somewhere in the 1990s, I realized that you could make Christmas into whatever you wanted it to be. Much to the surprise and delight of our children, we bought a Christmas tree and decorations. We also allowed for limited gift-giving. As I look back on this, I realize that I did with Christmas exactly what the Catholics did when they took a pagan practice and repurposed it for Christian use. Yes, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, as were many of the practices associated with it, but I believed that such things could be used to further the gospel of Christ and give witness to Jesus. From that point forward, in the churches I pastored I allowed Christmas decoration to be put in the church auditorium. For the next decade, our home and the churches I pastored celebrated Christmas as most other American families and churches did. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but gift-giving was a close second. To assuage the lingering guilt I had over consumer-driven gift-giving, I made sure our family and the churches I pastored gave liberally to missionaries and the poor.

Eight years ago, on the last Sunday in November, Polly and I attended church for the last time. For the longest time, we found it impossible to attend anything remotely associated with religion. We had just gone through a nasty divorce with God, and we didn’t want to go anywhere that would remind us of our ex. After a few years, the distance between deconversion and the present was sufficient that we were able to attend Christmas programs and concerts without wanting to commit homicide. If I remember right, our first foray back into the religious world was attending the production of Handel’s Messiah at a nearby church. That same year, we attended a Christmas concert put on by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band — Siberian Solstice. One of the mainstays of the group is my counselor.

Evangelicals often deride me for practicing Christmas. How can an atheist practice a religious holiday? they ask. Christmas is all about Jesus, and are you being hypocritical if you celebrate a holiday set aside to worship a God you don’t believe in! I suppose that this would be a valid question if the evidence at hand showed me that, indeed, Christmas was all about Jesus and his virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving. While many Evangelical churches will attempt to put Christ back in Christmas, most church families will practice Christmas in the same manner as their non-Evangelical neighbors. While Polly’s family still practices Christmas just as they did 40 years ago, it is now evident that the obligatory attendance at the Christmas Eve service and the devotional before presents can be opened are mere formalities — things to be endured until the real reason for Christmas begins.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year. It will interesting to see what local churches will do since Christmas falls on Sunday. The last time this happened, many churches held a short Christmas Eve service (so the tithes and offerings could be collected) and canceled Christmas Day services so congregants could spend time with their families. Some Baptist churches who normally held two services on Sunday canceled their Sunday evening service. Of course, wanting to show that they are not like “liberal” churches, a few Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches maintained their regular schedule of services.

As atheists, we thoroughly enjoy the holiday season. In fact, Polly and I both say that Christmas is far more enjoyable now than it was when I was pastoring churches. Quite frankly, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were so busy that we had little time to enjoy the holidays. Like many Christian churches, who once a year want to show the poor and disadvantaged that they really, really care, we put together several food baskets and delivered them to the poor. (Isn’t it amazing that the poor only need food and help during the holidays?) Not only did we have to do obligatory alms to the poor, we also had to prepare for special services such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the time the new year rolled in, Polly and I were quite glad the holidays were over.

These days, we are free to enjoy Christmas without worrying about whether we are giving Jesus his just dues. For Polly and me, Christmas is all about family. We eat lots of food with no worries about waistlines. Polly loves to bake and I love to eat what she bakes, as do our children and grandchildren. For the next month, Christmas songs will waft through the air of our home —  yes, even religious ones. You might be surprised if you stop by to hear us singing Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, or many of the other religious songs associated with Christmas. The lyrics of the songs are but reminders of our cultural heritage. This is why you will also find us singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For us, family and not Jesus is the reason for the season. If Christians want to focus on Jesus during Christmas, that is certainly their right to do so. However, I refuse to let them ignorantly suggest that Christmas is a Christian-only holiday. When confronted with such historical ignorance, I remind them that Christmas means different things to different people. It is a holiday that should bind all of us together, reminding us of the blessings of family and our common heritage. Evangelicals who stupidly say that there is a war against Christmas deserve a double barrel gun salute. There is no war against Christmas, and no matter how many times Sean Hannity says that there is, the fact remains that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday. Christians are free to worship the baby Jesus and sing praises to his name, the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious garb.

How do you practice Christmas now that you no longer a Christian? Are the holidays stressful for you? Do you still attend Christmas services? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Other posts about Christmas:

Christmas, 1957-2014

Christmas: A Plea To Evangelicals Who Evangelize Non-Christian Family Members

How Fundamentalist Christians Ruin Christmas

1978: Our First Christmas