Menu Close

Tag: Preaching

Preaching: The Ruminations of a Former Evangelical Pastor — Part Two

bruce gerencser 2002
Bruce Gerencser, 2002

Part Two of a Two-Part Series (part one)

Many Christian sects, and certainly every Evangelical sect, believe that pastors are called by God to preach the gospel. Pastors are ordained by the particular church or denomination of which they are a part. Through their ordination,  the church or denomination is saying we recognize God’s calling in your life.

According to Evangelicals, the Bible is a supernatural book given to them by a supernatural God. God calls pastors to read and study God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word so they will then be able to stand before their congregations and proclaim “thus saith the Lord.”  These men of God are often viewed as people who have a direct line to God. When a church member is confused about what the Bible says, he or she most often seeks out the pastor for clarity. Like mythical oracles, pastors are expected to have ready answers for any question they might be asked.

Most Evangelicals believe in the priesthood of the believer. This means they believe that every Christian has direct access to God. However, as with many things in the church, the stated beliefs are often contradicted by what actually goes on in the church. Instead of directly accessing God, many Christians expect their pastor to be an intermediary between them and God. After all, the pastor is a mature Christian, a font of wisdom and Biblical knowledge, right? Or so many congregants think.

The pastor’s supposed intimate connection with God plays a big part in how parishioners view his sermons. In their eyes, the sermon is a direct message from God. The pastor is just God’s mouthpiece. God could have used an ass to speak as he did in Numbers 22, but he used the pastor instead (that is, until the pastor upsets them, at which time he becomes an ass). When the pastor stands before the congregation the people have an expectation that they are going to hear from God. The pastor expects God to use his sermon to speak to the heart of every person. He desires God to use his sermon to reclaim backsliders and save the lost.

Preaching is not just an intellectual exercise. There is a huge emotional component in preaching, not only for the pastors, but also for those who are listening to sermons. Emotion is often ascribed to God moving, God working, or God calling. I have preached in numerous services where it seemed evident God was in our midst. Emotional levels were high. People were weeping. People were coming down the aisle to the altar to pray. It was evident to everyone that God was using my sermon to bring repentance, renewal, and revival.

Any cursory reading about the First and Second Great Awakenings will reveal that emotions played a huge part in the success of these campaigns. The Evangelical movement can trace its lineage, to some degree, back to revivalist machinations of the 18th and 19th centuries. Emotions have always played a monumental part in any significant move of God (as revivals, awakenings, and movements are called). This should not be surprising since we are, by nature, emotional beings.

What we have here is a perfect storm. A supernatural God, a supernatural book, a God-called, church-ordained pastor, and a congregation of emotional human beings. If the pastor is good at his craft, he knows how to use all of these things to his advantage. The pastor is not necessarily manipulating the emotions of the congregation on purpose. Most pastors grew up in the church. By the time they start preaching they have sat in countless church services and heard hundreds of sermons. Their understanding of how to preach is shaped by the church environment and religious culture they grew up in.

The longer a pastor is in the ministry the more he is keenly aware of what “works.” He becomes more discerning about what his congregation “needs.” What “works” is coupled with what the congregation “needs” and the result is often described by parishioners as God speaking to their hearts. The fundamental problem here is that it is impossible to know whether the “feeling” a person has is God. The deeply affected person believes it is God, but must accept such a claim by faith.

A commenter on a different post wrote:

I don’t believe in Jesus because of arguments for the trustworthiness of the Bible. I believe in Him because I have a relationship with Him-I have heard His voice and I feel His presence. And I am aware that sounds vague and illogical, but I also know that no one can invalidate my experience.

This comment goes to the heart of the difficulty in trying to present an alternative viewpoint to Christians. They know what they have experienced. They were there when Jesus saved them, and they know that their experiences are “real.” It is almost impossible to move people away from their subjective experiences. Rarely do objectivity and facts win a battle against religious subjectivity and faith.

As I look back on the 25 years I spent in the ministry, I have come to see that I used my sermons to manipulate people (and I am not necessarily using the word manipulate in a negative sense). Spend enough time with a group of people and you will learn their strengths and weaknesses. Eat meals with them, pray with them, visit in their homes, and educate their children, and you will certainly know a lot about the people you pastor. With this knowledge at hand, sermons can be crafted to help the congregation (sermons are never preached in a vacuüm). It should come as no surprise, then, that people think that the pastor is preaching right at/to them. This is not God speaking to the particular parishioner as much as it is a human being who has good discernment skills, skills finely tuned by interacting with thousands of people over the course of many years.

Do I think God used me to speak to people? At the time I did. However, I now know that what people were responding to was a well-crafted sermon preached by a sincere man who knew the needs of his congregation. I knew the power of emotions and used them to God’s my advantage. I heard preacher after preacher do the same thing. I was not an anomaly. I was a young man raised in an environment that put a premium on powerful, emotional preaching.  I was encouraged to study the great preachers of the faith, men like Charles Spurgeon, DL Moody, Billy Sunday, John Wesley and Charles Finney. When I became a Calvinist, I studied the great Calvinist preachers, men like Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd Jones, George Whitefield, and Rolfe Barnard. The way I preached was a result of the environment I grew up in and the men I considered my role models.

Because of the power ascribed to sermons, there is a real danger of abuse. The sincere pastor can quickly turn into a huckster who desires to advance his own agenda. Even well-meaning pastors can do this. Have problems in the church? Have people upset with a decision you made? Preach on pastoral authority. Offerings down? Preach on tithing. Want a raise? Preach on the laborer being worthy of his hire or an elder being worthy of double the salary. Better yet, get an evangelist to come in and preach on these things. That way you can blame the evangelist if people are upset about the sermon subject matter.

Liberal or mainline pastors find discussions like this quite amusing. For the most part, they see the ministry as a profession, one used by God, but not in the way Evangelicals think it is.  Most liberal/mainline pastors have far more education than their Evangelical counterparts. And their sermons often reflect it: dry, boring, meaningless exercises in intellectual nothingness. What happened to their passion, their emotions? Preaching without emotion and passion is not worth listening to. A preacher ought to give 100% of himself to the sermon. I can admire a pastor’s passion without necessarily agreeing with his message. I don’t believe God exists, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a well-crafted, passionately-delivered sermon.

From 2002 through 2008, my wife and I visited over a hundred churches. Most of the sermons we heard were forgettable, and sadly a lot of them were downright awful. We did hear a few pastors who took their calling seriously. It was evident that they worked very hard to deliver a good sermon. Regardless of what I believe about Christianity, I admire any person who works hard at his craft. I may despise the message, but I can still appreciate the way the messenger goes about his work.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Preaching: The Ruminations of a Former Evangelical Pastor — Part One

bruce gerencser 2002
Bruce Gerencser, 2002

Part One of a Two-Part Series (part two)

For many Evangelical church attendees, the manner in which the pastor gets his sermons has an aura of wonder about it. How does he, week after week, come up with sermons that speak directly to them? Where do these sermons come from? How are they prepared? In this two-part series, I will focus on pastors and their preaching.

I have little respect for lazy-ass preachers who rarely, if ever, spend any time crafting their own sermons. Week after week they rip off the work of others and pass it off as their own. They scour the Internet looking for sermons to preach. They subscribe to sermon clubs that provide them with new sermon material. They buy sermon outline books or lectionaries and use them to prepare sermons that they then pass off as their own; anything that allows them more time for schmoozing with their fellow clergymen at the local golf course or diner. In any other profession, they would be considered thieves.

Let me give a few examples of what I’m talking about.

In 2005, my family and I visited for a number of weeks at a local nondenominational church. On our second visit, I began to sense something wasn’t right about the pastor’s sermons. He quoted a lot of Scripture, but his quotations were from various Bible translations. Lots of them. I thought “hmm . . . there’s something about this that seems familiar.” I went home and consulted the mind of God (aka the Google) and my suspicions were quickly confirmed. The pastor was ripping off the sermons of Rick Warren and preaching them as his own, word for word. We visited this church half a dozen times and the pastor never preached an original sermon of his own. Ironically, one Sunday the pastor asked for testimonies from congregants and several people stood up and praised Jesus for how wonderful the pastor’s sermons were. I thought “If they only knew.”

For several years, on an off-and-on basis, we visited the local Episcopal church. When the parish priest was there the sermons, as a rule, were excellent. However, there were many Sundays when the priest was absent, and at those times the sermons ranged from mediocre to absolutely dreadful. The worst ones were the sermons that were taken from books, magazines, or lectionaries and read to the congregation (These sermons reminded me of some of the worthless college classes I took where the professor read the textbook to us). The justification for reading the sermon was “Hey, it is better than nothing.” No, it wasn’t.

In 1984 I invited a pastor I knew come to the church I was pastoring to hold a week of special meetings. He asked me what I wanted him to preach. He then proceeded to list off numerous sermons of other preachers which he had memorized — famous sermons by noted preachers. I was shocked by his willingness to rip off the sermons of others and pass them off as his own. I told him I would rather he preach his own material. Little did I know, at the time, that using sermons preached by others was a common practice.

Many pastors recycle their sermons. The average Baptist pastor changes churches every 2-3 years. No need to craft new sermons, just reuse the sermons you preached before. If they worked well in Ohio, surely they will work well in Texas, right? I remember one well-known evangelist named Phil Shuler who kept long silver cases filled with recordings of his previous sermons. After collecting his sermons for many years, he would just pick a recording to re-familiarize himself with the sermon and then preach it that night. Rarely did he preach new material.

One more example: in the mid-1980s, I managed a Christian bookstore in Newark, Ohio for Bill and Peggie Beard. Over the course of my employment, I came into contact with dozens of pastors from a variety of denominations. I was astounded by how many pastors bought sermon outline books or lectionaries. I was beginning to wonder if any preacher crafted his own sermons!

Now, I don’t necessarily blame a pastor for using bought sermon outlines or reading verbatim from a lectionary. Truth is, there are a lot of pastors who lack good communication skills and, in many cases, they received little training in proper sermon construction and delivery. I think some pastors know they suck at preaching, so they do what they can to limit their suckiness.

From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution started by Tom Malone in 1954. Every preacher-in-training was required to take speech and homiletics. The speech class was pretty much a waste of time, and very little of the instruction transferred over to the art of preaching a sermon. In fact, my homiletics teacher, Levi Corey — a world-class preacher — told the class on day one that we needed to forget everything we were taught in speech class.  According to him, preaching a sermon was all about the text and the pastor’s ability to deliver it passionately. Outlines and illustrations were essential to successfully delivering a sermon.

Years ago, I was acquainted with a pastor who had horrible preaching skills. He was a Bible college graduate, yet he didn’t even know how to make a sermon outline. I tried to show him how to make a basic outline, but he had a hard time understanding the process. His approach was quite simple: read the text, chase rabbits, bring it back to Jesus, pray, and give an altar call. I never heard this man preach a coherent sermon. While he had great people skills, his preaching, at every point, was lacking.

There are a lot of preachers like the man mentioned above. Poorly trained or lacking the requisite skills necessary to effectively communicate with others through a well-preached sermon, they go from church to church killing everything they touch. They may have great people skills, but if they can’t preach passionately and effectively, they often do more harm than good.

Far too many men become preachers because someone told them that their gift of gab made them great candidates for the ministry. The truth is, running on at the mouth is not a gift at all, especially in the pastorate. All of us have heard those sermons that drone on and on and on. Don’t blame the preacher. Blame the person who told him he would make a great pulpiteer.

By the way, what I have said here also applies to other teaching-related jobs in the church such as Sunday school teacher, youth leader, or bible-study leader. I’ve had to sit through more aimless, heresy-ridden, ill-prepared Sunday School lessons than I care to remember. One man, my high school Sunday school teacher, told me that he studied his lesson on Saturday night while he was sitting in the bathtub. As this man’s class on Sundays proved, a lack of preparation yields a barren crop.

Here’s my point: the ability to preach and teach is a gift (not in a supernatural sense) just like the ability to do virtually anything else people do. Each of us has things we do that come easily to us. We enjoy it. And if we are smart, we will further develop the things we enjoy. Far too many people spend their lifetime trying to become things they will never be good at. It’s less than honest to tell everyone they can be anything they want to be. The sky is not the limit, and, no, not everyone can become President. A lot of men enter the ministry lacking the requisite skills necessary to be a good preacher. They simply are in the wrong profession, but since they believe GOD called them to the ministry, they refuse to admit that maybe they might be better off doing something else.

Many pastors would have you believe that their sermons come directly from God. I know I believed this for many years. I was certain that God was leading and directing me to preach on a particular Biblical text. I believed that God was guiding me through the delivery of the sermon all the way to the altar call. I was simply God’s mouthpiece.

As I look back over the thousands of God-inspired sermons I preached, I can now see who it was that was guiding me. It wasn’t God. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was me. Through my own thought processes, I decided what the church needed to hear. Sometimes I had an agenda that I wanted to advance and what better way to do so than to couch my agenda in “Thus saith the Lord” terms.

Preaching came easy for me. I loved the intellectual aspect of preparing the sermon. I loved to read and study, preparing my mind for delivering the sermon. I devoted hours of study to virtually every sermon I preached (though I also was quite comfortable preaching extemporaneously). While most preachers won’t admit it, lest they give the impression that they are taking praise and glory away from God, they love the attention that preaching brings their way. As a person who has struggled with self-esteem issues his entire life, I found the love, respect, and adoration showered on me by parishioners quite affirming.

Remembering my preaching is one of the things that makes my defection from the Christian faith so troubling for many former parishioners. As Baptists, we believed once saved, always saved (eternal security, perseverance of the saints). This means that once people put their faith and trust in Jesus they can never, ever lose their salvation. People are left, then, with either believing I am still a Christian or that I never was. Neither choice sits well with them, especially for those who heard me preach and viewed me as someone who played an important part in their spiritual formation.

I’ve been criticized for a lot of things I did as a pastor, and rightly so. I was arrogant, narrow-minded, and rarely put up with dissent. I ran off a lot of good people. That said, few people have ever criticized my preaching. For the most part, the people I pastored found my sermons well crafted, worth listening to, and, at times, quite humorous and entertaining.

Hundreds and hundreds of people made public professions of faith as a result of my sermons. Lives were changed and people were delivered from sins. If I was never saved, what does that say about all the fruit I gathered over the course of 25 years in the ministry? If by their fruits ye shall know them, surely I proved that I was a great fruit grower?

I have no doubt that I could, even as an atheist, go to a church and preach a sermon that everyone would find inspirational and entertaining. I’m sure those listening to me would think God was speaking through me or using me to touch their hearts. What if I then told them I was an atheist? How would they explain their response to my oratorical gem?

Effective preaching requires passion and charisma.  Two of our recent presidents are good examples of what I mean here. Forget the party affiliation or platform for a moment. Who would you rather listen to giving a stump speech? Barack Obama or George W Bush?

Good preaching moves people to go beyond themselves. Good preaching inspires and motivates. A good example of this is Martin Luther King, Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. And this is why preachers who excel at their craft are so dangerous. The potential for abuse and manipulation is great. Far too often, parishioners check their minds at the church door. When the winsome, charismatic pastor preaches they soak up his words like a sponge. If they are not careful and cognizant of the potential for manipulation they can easily be led astray. (Please see Should a Christian Preacher Turned Atheist Stop Using His Public Speaking Skills?)

I still like hearing a well-crafted sermon. I respect people who attempt to excel at what they do. Sadly, I have heard more sorry, pathetic, poorly-crafted, rabbit-trail sermons than any one person should ever have to listen to. I feel sad for church members who have to sit under this kind of preaching week after week. In fact, they sit under it long enough that they begin to think that their preacher’s pathetic sermons are the norm.

Why I am being so hard of preachers? Why should I, a card-carrying atheist, give a rat’s ass over the quality of sermons in the Christian church?

First, preaching is what I did for many years and I still like to talk about it.

Second, I think people should do what they do well. I hate half-assed wherever I find it, whether it be in the pulpit or the local fast-food restaurant.

Third, I realize that the world is always going to be predominantly religious. If that is so, I think people of faith should have leaders that thoughtfully and honestly teach them the beliefs of their particular religions. They deserve to have leaders who are passionate about what they do. Sadly, in many denominations, the higher a man rises in the denominational hierarchy the more worthless he becomes. Does anyone consider any of the popes a great orator?

I know this post is pretty pointed. I am of the general opinion that the United States is awash in mediocrity. It seems everything has been turned into an audition for American Idol or America’s Got Talent. People are told that they can be whatever they want to be, so they become what they want to be and not what they ought to be. Result? School teachers who can’t teach. Retail workers without basic people skills. And yes, preachers who can’t preach.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Conferences and Fellowship Meetings: Where Evangelical Preachers Go to Gossip and Talk Shop

gossip

Most Evangelical preachers belong to one or more fellowship groups. These groups are usually built around certain doctrinal beliefs — King James Onlyism, Calvinism — or around Evangelical colleges. For example, Midwestern Baptist College men tend to fellowship with Midwestern men; Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF) men tend to associate with BBF men; Bob Jones University men tend to hobnob with Bob Jones men. Preachers who believe the King James Bible is the preserved Word of God for English-speaking people often fellowship with like-minded pastors. Calvinistic preachers often associate with men who are Calvinists or Reformed. The groupings are endless, a reminder of the fractured, exclusionary nature of Evangelicalism. Some preachers will belong to several groups, not wanting to align themselves with any one group.

I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. I spent the bulk of my ministerial years in Ohio. During this time, I attended the meetings of the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship and the Buckeye Independent Baptist Fellowship. I also attended college-associated meetings: Midwestern Baptist College, Massillon Baptist College. I also attended numerous conferences: Sword of the Lord, Bread of Life Camp Meeting (Fellowship Baptist Church, Lebanon, Ohio), Family Camp (Midway Bible Baptist Church, Fishersville, Virginia), and Tri-County Baptist Temple Camp Meeting, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. And then there were Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and Christian Union fellowship meetings. For several years, I drove once a month to Mansfield, Ohio so I could attend a Calvinistic fellowship called the Pastor’s Clinic. As you can see, I did quite a bit of “fellowshipping.”

Most of the aforementioned meetings were geared towards pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. These meetings had four common themes: food, preaching, fellowship, and gossip. The host church would usually provide one or more meals for the preachers (and their wives) in attendance. The focus was always on hearing the preaching of the Word of God. A typical fellowship meeting would feature numerous sermons. Some of these meetings only had big-name preachers preach, while others would allow no-name preachers to strut their wares. Both would deliver what is commonly called “candy stick sermons.” Candy stick sermons are messages preachers have preached before. These are often the sermons preached when a preacher is giving a trial sermon at a prospective new church. Every preacher has an arsenal of sweet-tasting sermons that he knows inside and out. No one wants to preach before his peers and bomb, so candy stick sermons are typical fare at fellowship meetings. It’s all about the show and the approbation of fellow preachers.

During lunch, preachers gather into smaller groups and talk shop. Remember your preacher’s sermons about gossip and speaking poorly of others? Well, while attending fellowship meetings, preachers are exempt from practicing what they preach. Preachers routinely swap war stories — stories about rebellious members, bull-headed deacons, and church business meetings. Preachers also express concern (gossip) over this or that colleague who has left his church, had a split, or found sweet love in the arms of a secretary. Scandals are delectable truffles. Did you hear what happened at Bro. Righteous’ church? whisper, whisper, whisper — I can’t believe Bro. Bombastic is divorcing his wife. I heard he was having an affair with his sister-in-law. whisper, whisper, whisper — I heard Bro. Soulwinner’s church had a split. whisper, whisper, whisper Did you hear ________________? whisper, whisper, whisper — I can’t believe Bro. Doctrine is now a Calvinist/Arminian/Liberal/Southern Baptist, ___________. whisper, whisper, whisper — and on and on the gossip goes. Think what you told your preacher in confidence is safe? Think again. Your pastor might make your “sins” or “problems” a topic of discussion at the next fellowship meeting. The Evangelical version of the Catholic confessional, these lunch discussions are times when preachers can safely share the burdens of their hearts (also known as airing dirty laundry). Their stories are often carried home by other preachers and incorporated into their sermons.

The next time you share your burdens or sins with your preacher, remember that he might make your problems a topic of discussion at the next fellowship meeting. Or he might use you as an unnamed illustration in his candy stick sermon. One thing is for certain . . . preachers will never hear sermons at fellowship meetings on the sin of gossip (or gluttony). Preaching on gossip would ruin lunch, forcing preachers to practice what they preach.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

I’m Thinking About Returning to Christianity

bruce gerencser repents

Did the post title get your attention?

Several years ago, I pondered ways to generate income. I thought, I can’t be a porn actor or stripper, but maybe I could return to what I know — preaching and pastoring churches. What do you think, dear readers? Should I tell Jesus, sorry Dude, I was wrong. I repent of my evil blog posts and reaffirm my membership in the One True Faith®? I know, Lord, that the calling of God can never be taken away, so I plan to start a brand-new church in sinful, dark Defiance, Ohio. There’s lots of Christian churches in Defiance, Lord, but none of them is pastored by a man with a testimony such as mine. Imagine, Lord, what I can do for Y-O-U!

Perhaps the Lord will tell me that there are enough churches in Defiance. While I certainly would be disappointed, I know there are other “opportunities” for me in the Lord’s vineyard. How about a traveling evangelistic ministry, Lord?

A former charismatic pastor by the name of Jim is a dear friend of mine. He and I have a lot in common, including a lifetime spent loving, worshiping, and serving a fictional deity. Jim now lives in Arizona, but I have had thoughts about how he and I might be able to make a lot of money by putting our past ministerial skills to work. I thought, we should get a big tent, a trailer to hold the tent and ministry essentials, and an expensive motor home to pull the trailer and provide creature comforts for Jim and Bruce — two humble, suffering servants of JESUS.  On the side of the motor home we could put life-size pictures of Preachers Jim and Bruce, along with the name of our scam, I mean ministry — (please leave possible ministry names in the comment section).

Off we would go, night after night, telling our stories of deliverance from godlessness. Jim, having the gifts of healing and exorcism, could lay hands on people, delivering them from atheistic demons. I, having the gift of helps, could pray for people, all the while sticking my hand in their purses and back pockets. Oh, sorry sister, I didn’t mean to give you The Donald®! Throw in a hot worship band with a sexy female leader in leather pants — why, I bet we could be rolling in cash in a matter of weeks! After each night’s show, uh I mean mighty move of God, Jim and I could go back to the motor home and talk about what great deeds our God hath done. One for me, one for you. One for me, one for you.

Does anyone doubt that preachers Jim and Bruce could successfully fleece the flock? I know I don’t. I guarantee you that either of us could dust off our Bible, put on our Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, go to an Evangelical church and preach a soul-saving, sin-chasing, bringing-down-the-Shekinah-glory sermon that would leave parishioners praising our anointing and begging us to preach again (in many ways, good preaching is like good sex — always keep them begging for more). We know how to look the part, play the game, and put on our “Christian” veneer. The skills honed over a lifetime didn’t disappear the moment we said we no longer believed. If women can fake orgasms, I am quite certain Jim and Bruce can fake being filled with the Spirit.

Lest a handful of readers miss that this post is Bruce in snark-modeNo, I am not considering a return to Christianity. That ship sailed and fell off the edge of Ken Ham’s flat earth. Christianity, in all of its forms and nuances, is firmly in my rearview mirror. While it saddens me to leave so much cash on the table, I know that integrity, honesty, and truth matter more than money. I will continue to be an itinerant preacher of secularism, humanism, and skepticism, regardless of whether it pays well. In this regard, I am no different from the Evangelical Bruce Gerencser. The message and helping people are far more important than making a buck. Yes, I need more money . . . I’m thinking . . . how about a stripper Santa Claus. What do you think, Polly? Women stuffing twenties in my g-string? Tis the reason for the season, I say. 🙂

Snark-off.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

How Preachers Put the Fear of God into Church Attendees

fearful of god

Fear is a tool used by Evangelical preachers to manipulate and control church attendees. While many Evangelical churches are taking more of a relational approach that focuses on feel-good how-to sermons, hellfire-and-brimstone churches can still be found in virtually every American community. These kinds of churches are known for sin-hating, devil-chasing “hard” preaching. The men — women need not apply — who pastor such churches take pride in the fact that their toe-stomping sermons cause sinners and saints alike to fear God. And in some instances, not only do church attendees fear the Almighty, but they also fear the preacher.

There are two methods commonly used by preachers to cause people to fear God. First, there are various Bible verses that promote fear of God. The book of Hebrews says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon said that the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments. The Bible also says that people should fear he who has the keys of life and death, “he” being, of course, God. Then there are also various Bible stories that remind people of what might happen if they disobey God. Preachers remind congregants that disobeying God shows that they have a lack of fear. Church members who are not regular attendees or faithful tithers are told that their disobedience reveals a heart that does not fear God. No matter the sin, according to Evangelical preachers, the root cause is a lack of fear of God. If people feared God they would do all that God commands them to do. Of course, far too many Evangelical preachers confuse their personal convictions and way of life with the laws, commands, and precepts found in the Bible. I have written several posts in the past about the long list of rules and regulations that can be found in many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches. (Please see An Independent Baptist Hate List and The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook) These rules and regulations are little more than personal interpretations of various Bible verses. There are no verses in the Bible that prohibit many of the things that Evangelical preachers preach against, but this does not keep them from conflating personal beliefs with the teachings of the Bible. While many Evangelical churches have softened their stance on many social issues, plenty of churches still preach against “sins” such as alcohol drinking, drug use, gambling, mixed bathing, movie attendance, swearing, immodest clothing, long hair on men, pants on women, rock ‘n roll music, dancing, petting, and premarital sex. Preachers scour their Bibles looking for verses and stories that can be used to prop up their peculiar social and moral codes. Again, the main purpose is to put the fear of God into people so they will not do the things that preachers and churches consider sin.

The second method that Evangelical preachers use to promote the fear of God is the telling of personal stories that are meant to remind people of what happens when people ignore God and live in ways that show a lack of fear. Remember, people show that they rightly fear God by obeying God and the teachings of the Bible. People who attend church, yet ignore God’s commands, are treading on thin ice, and if they do not repent, God could bring judgment down upon their heads. Preachers often tell stories about former church members who ignored their preaching and stern admonitions, only to find themselves being punished or even killed by God. Years ago, I listened to a preaching tape by Calvinistic Southern Baptist evangelist Rolfe Barnard. His sermon was titled, God kills people. Will he have to kill you? The purpose of Barnard’s sermon was to provoke church members to explicitly obey the commands of God. Threatening people with death was certainly a good way to get their attention. Of course, despite all the fear-mongering, most church members remain passive attendees who throw a few shekels in the offering plate and say, great show for a buck.

Evangelists are often the best storytellers. These merchandisers of fear and judgment use unverifiable stories about people in other churches who did not fear God. With thundering voices and apocalyptic pronouncements, these men of God tell stories about people who angered God. This God made them sick, took away their jobs, killed their children, or caused them to suffer any of a number of other reversals of fortune. Instead of seeing such things as shit happens, evangelists see these things as signs of God chastising his children.

I vividly remember a revival meeting with Don Hardman in the late 1980s when the evangelist left the pulpit and came down to where the church teenagers were sitting. With a raised voice, Hardman pointed his finger at each teenager, telling them that GOD sees everything they do. He then recited a list of the typical “sins” committed by rambunctious, hormone-raging young people. By the time he was done, I could see that the teenagers were fearful. I thought, at the time, that God was using Hardman to ferret out sin and rebellion against God. I now know that the church teenagers did not fear God as much as they feared Don Hardman. Or perhaps they feared being found out. Either way, come invitation time, numerous teenagers came to the altar to pray. I suspect very little changed for these teenagers, but by coming to the altar to pray, they showed, outwardly at least, that they had received God’s and Evangelist Hardman’s message.

Many Evangelical preachers save their best fear-mongering stories for unsaved church attendees. This kind of story is used to show unsaved people what could happen to them if they put off getting saved. Every Evangelical preacher knows of people who heard the gospel and had an opportunity to be saved, yet put off their decision to another day. And before they could be saved, some sort of tragic accident happened that led to their death. Once dead, these sinners no longer had an opportunity to make things right with God. They should have feared God and taken him up on his offer of eternal salvation, but because they didn’t, they are now burning in Hell.

I wish I could say that I did not use such manipulative stories and means to get people saved, but I did. I justified it, at the time, by reminding myself that the Apostle Paul became all things to all men so that by all means he could save some. What is the harm of a psychologically manipulative story if the end result is sinners saved from the fiery pit of Hell? I employed all sorts of justifications for my use of heart-wrenching, tear-inducing stories of human tragedy, suffering, and death. Believing that I somehow had to get people’s attention, I used these stories to force people to see the brevity of life and the importance of putting their faith in Jesus Christ. Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of people came forward at invitation time, knelt at the altar, and asked Jesus to save them. Nearby, at the same altar, would be saved church members who were also doing business with God — confessing secret and not-so-secret sins.

Putting the fear of God into people is good for business. Without it, I suspect many people would not bother to attend church. Without fear and threats of judgment, most people would choose to sleep in on Sundays and enjoy a leisurely brunch before they turn on the game. I know I would have. One of the greatest joys that came with becoming an atheist was that I no longer feared God. Since God doesn’t exist, I no longer have a need to quake in my boots at the very mention of his name. Of course, Evangelicals are fond of reminding me that there is coming a day when Bruce Gerencser WILL fear God, but I am confident that when that day comes, the fear-inducing God will be AWOL. This God is little more than a tool used by preachers and churches to keep asses the pews and money in the offering plates. Remove fear from the equation, and I suspect there will be a lot more Baptists at the lake on Sunday morning.

Did you attend a church where the preacher regularly made use of fear-inducing sermon illustrations? Was his fear-mongering successful? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

It’s Been Fifteen Years Since I Preached My Last Sermon

It’s been fifteen years since I preached my last sermon. Well, according to my counselor, it’s been fifteen years since I preached my last CHRISTIAN sermon. He thinks I am still very much a preacher and a pastor. I’m playing for the other team, but I’m still playing the game. While I certainly continue to preach the good news of reason, secularism, godlessness, and scientific inquiry, I am no longer driven to make converts lest they die in their sins and go to Hell. I wish more Americans would heed my preaching, but I know they won’t until there is some sort of crisis of faith. So, I preach, but I no longer concern myself with the outcome. To use parable of the sower, all I can do is sow the seed. Most of the seed will fall on barren ground, but some will fall on fertile ground, and up will sprout a person of reason, skepticism, and science.

In the fall of 2003, I resigned as pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan. Victory Baptist was a dysfunctional, dying Southern Baptist church — the perfect church for Bruce Almighty to work a miracle. When I took the church, I told the congregation that I was not a fighter, and I would resign if there was any substantial conflict. Twenty-three years of pastoring churches had taken the fight out of me. All I wanted to do was preach three times a week, visit the sick, marry the young, bury the dead, and help the church grow and mature. Unfortunately, conflict came anyway, and true to my word I resigned. Two years later, the church closed its door.

We moved back to Ohio and rented a house in Stryker. We lived in Stryker for about six months. In February of 2004, my sister, who lived in Yuma at the time, offered to move us to Arizona. She thought the weather would be physically good for me. So, we packed up our household goods and moved 2,000 miles to what many consider the armpit of the southwest. My sister and her cardiologist husband bought a beautiful house for us to live in and we quickly settled into our new life in the desert. It was a fun time for us, but the pull of family became such that we moved back to Ohio in late September. We decided to relocate in Newark so we could be near Polly’s parents. It was during this time that Polly’s sister Kathy was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident.

In the spring of 2005, I got the hankering to once again pastor a church. I sent my résumé to several Southern Baptist area missionaries and it wasn’t long before my phone was ringing off the hook. It was a repeat of what I went through in 2003. Once churches knew I was available, I was quickly inundated with inquiries. At this juncture, Polly and I decided that we were no longer willing to pastor a church that couldn’t pay me a fair salary, complete with benefits. This requirement quickly winnowed the field since most of the churches were small and unable or unwilling to pay a pastor a living wage.

I did candidate at two churches, Hedgesville Baptist Church and New Life Southern Baptist Church, both in West Virginia. While both churches were interested in me being their pastor, I decided not to proceed. A month or so later, a pastor friend of mine tried to entice me to start a Christian Union church in Zanesville, Ohio, but I decided I no longer wanted to go through the rigors necessary to plant a new church.  I came to conclusion that the fire had died and I no longer wanted to pastor a church.

My sermon at Hedgesville Baptist was the last time I stood before a group of people, opened up the Bible, and preached to them the unsearchable riches of Christ. For the three years that followed, Polly and I tried to find a church to call home. (Please see But, Our Church is Different!) We moved from Newark back to northwest Ohio so we could live near our children and grandchildren. We diligently continued to seek a church that took seriously the teachings of Christ. Alas, our search was in vain. As we became more disenchanted with Christianity, our doubts and questions grew. Long-held beliefs were challenged as we attempted to determine what we really believed. In the end, we concluded that the claims of Christianity could no longer withstand rational inquiry and investigation. We attended church, Ney United Methodist Church, for the last time in November of 2008. From that point forward we no longer considered ourselves Christians.

I preached my first sermon at the age of 15, and I was 48 when I preached my last. I entered the ministry as a fire-breathing, sin-hating, soulwinning Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB). I left the ministry as a Progressive Christian who was sympathetic towards the Red-Letter Christian and Emerging church movements. When I started preaching, I subscribed to Christianity Today, The Biblical Evangelist, and the Sword of the Lord. When I stopped preaching I subscribed to Sojourners and Mother Jones. In the late 1970s, my library consisted of books by John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, Harry Ironside, and other Fundamentalist writers. Twenty-five years later, the Fundamentalist books of my youth had been donated to charity and in their place stood books by Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Dorothy Day. In between, hundreds of  Calvinistic, Mennonite, Baptist, and Reformed tomes came and went, offered up to Christians on eBay. Time and experience had fundamentally changed me. I have no doubt that I would not be the man I am today without experiencing the joys and heartaches of the ministry.

I miss preaching and teaching. I wish I had been younger and in better health when I deconverted. I could have gone back to college and gotten a degree so I could teach at the college level. I think I have the requisite skills necessary to do so, but without a degree there’s no hope of me teaching. I’d love to teach a World Religions class at the nearby community college. Since that path is no longer open to me, I content myself to write for this blog, hoping that I can, in some small way, be a help to others. Perhaps, my counselor is right: Always a preacher, always a pastor.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

I’m Not Preaching Now, I’m Telling the Truth

preaching

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

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from 1976-1979. Midwestern, started in 1954 by Alabama preacher Tom Malone, was a small Evangelical college known for producing fiery Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers. Malone pastored nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. College students were required to attend Emmanuel. In the 1970s, Emmanuel was one of the largest churches in the country. Today, its buildings are shuttered and a FOR SALE sign sits in the dust-covered main entrance door. (I recently heard that the buildings might have finally sold. The college campus was purchased and converted into community buildings and apartments.)

During my time at Midwestern, I heard Tom Malone preach several hundred times. Considered by many to be a great pulpiteer, Malone was a fervent preacher who punctuated his sermons with illustrations meant to drive home the point he was making. During one sermon, Malone said something I never forgot. In the middle of sharing an illustration, Malone said:

I’m not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.

Everyone laughed and then he finished his illustration.

Over the march of my life from infancy to the present, I’ve heard thousands of sermons and preached thousands more. I’ve heard some men who had no public speaking skills and others who were wordsmiths capable of enchanting hearers with their preaching and illustrations. Sadly, there are a lot more of the former than the latter. Even though I am an atheist, I still enjoy hearing a well-crafted sermon delivered by a man who knows how to turn a word into an epic Broadway production.

Preaching only the Bible is boring, uninspiring oratory. An effective sermon requires illustrations. Jesus himself was a master storyteller. His sermons made ample use of illustrations meant to drive home a spiritual point. A preacher who is good at his craft knows that illustrations are key to helping listeners understand and embrace his sermon. And therein lies the danger.

When I started preaching, I used illustrations from illustration books. As I aged and experienced more of life, I began to use more and more illustrations about my experiences and personal life. If a preacher isn’t careful, it is easy to massage his illustrations to “fit” a particular sermon or audience. Sometimes, the illustration becomes a lie.

As I mentioned above, I’ve heard a lot of sermons. I’ve heard thousands of illustrations and personal stories, all meant to get my attention or drive home a point. Over time, I came to understand that many preachers played loose with the truth, often shaping their stories to make a particular point or to cast themselves in a positive light. In other words, they lied, even if they didn’t understand they were doing so. Often, a speaker can tell the same Holy Spirit-inspired lie over and over until they reach a point where the lie becomes reality and they think it’s the truth.

Take Jack Hyles — by all accounts a masterful speaker and storyteller. He was also a narcissistic liar. I heard Hyles preach numerous times at Sword of the Lord/Bible conferences. His sermons were usually long on illustrations and short on Scripture and exegesis. For Hyles, it was all about the sermon, the story, and the invitation. Everything he said was meant to bring hearers to a point of making a decision for or against Jesus.

Here’s a story Hyles told about winning an auto mechanic to Christ:

When I got to his house, he was working under the car. He was lying face up on a creeper and could not see me as I arrived. “Hyles Mechanic Service!” I shouted. “Who called you?” he asked.” I was not called,” I replied, “I was sent.” “Well, roll yourself under and see if you can see what is the trouble. “I got another creeper, laid down on it, and rolled myself under the car with him. “Looks like to me you need the valves ground,” I shouted. “How can you tell from under here?” “I am not talking about your car. I am talking about you.” “Who are you?” he asked. “I am Pastor Hyles of First Baptist Church.” Then he became inquisitive, and I explained to him that he needed Christ as Savior to make him a new creature and that he was in worse shape than the car. With both of us lying on our backs looking up at the bottom side of the car, I told him how to be saved. When time came to pray the sinner’s prayer, he closed by saying, “Lord, I am just coming for a general overhauling.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both. The next Sunday he came forward in our service professing his faith in Christ.

Great story, and one I have no doubt is an admixture of truth and lie. Every time I read a story like this I am reminded of that Sunday morning almost forty-five years ago when I heard Tom Malone say, “I’m not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.”  Now, that will preach, as the Baptists like to say.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bruce, Why Did You Leave the Ministry?

bruce and polly gerencser 1985
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Sweetheart Banquet, 1985

I preached my first sermon at the age of fifteen. From that point forward, I would preach over 4,000 sermons. While many of the young men who studied for the ministry at Midwestern Baptist College had zero preaching experience prior to entering college, I was somewhat experienced. I added to that experience while at Midwestern, holding Sunday services at the SHAR House in Detroit — a drug rehab center. These early experiences prepared me well for the 25 years I would spend in the ministry.

In February 1979, I became the assistant pastor of a Baptist church in Montpelier, Ohio. From there, my ministerial travels took me to churches in Buckeye Lake, Ohio, Somerset, Ohio, Elmendorf, Texas, Fayette, Ohio, West Unity, Ohio, and Clare, Michigan.

I left the ministry in the Spring of 2005. We were living, at the time, in Newark, Ohio. I made a good faith effort to pastor yet another church, but after candidating at two churches, one in Weston, West Virginia and another in Hedgesville, West Virginia, I concluded that I no longer had the drive and passion necessary to be a pastor. Simply put, the fire had gone out.

When my Evangelical critics comb through my life looking for the slightest mistake or gaffe, they are looking for an explanation for why, exactly, a man with 25 years of pastoral experience walked away from the ministry and deconverted.

I have been accused of having secrets, the “real” reasons for why I left the ministry and later walked away from Jesus. “Surely, there must be secret sin in Bruce’s life,” Evangelical detectives say. Yet, try as they might, they have been unable to ferret out any “sin.” No criminal behavior. No financial impropriety. No sexual peccadilloes. None of the things that typically drive men from the ministry. I was far from perfect, but people will search in vain to find evidence for the behaviors mentioned above.

I left the ministry because I no longer thought that what I did mattered. I was tired of Sunday morning Christianity. The passivity and indifference found in the lives of most congregants forced me to ask, “why bother?” I realized that no matter how hard I worked, people were people. I suspect I had expectations that were too high. So, after I made a halfhearted effort to pastor again, I decided, I am done. Time to use my talents elsewhere.

Several dear pastor friends tried to bait me with job offers, financial aid, etc., hoping the fiery preacher Bruce Gerencser would spring back to life. My refusal to accept their offers left them befuddled. “What has happened to Bruce?” People continue to ask this question today.

Former colleagues in the ministry and church members forgot one important thing: Polly. You see, I was “done, ” but Polly was really, really, really done. For twenty-five years, she had lived with a husband who was never home. She was mother to six children, and was her preacher husband’s go-fer. When I told her that I was done pastoring churches, she let out a sigh of relief.

Polly’s church experiences were far different from mine. While I was praised and showered with adoration, she labored in the background, little more an appendage to her husband’s career. When I said, “I quit,” she quickly ran out to the driveway, started the car, and said, “let’s go.” Not literally of course, but Polly was ready for a new chapter of life. Neither of us knew that three years later we would lose our faith, but we knew that our wading through the trenches of the ministry were over.

While I miss certain aspects of the ministry: being the center of attention, teaching/preaching, helping others — Polly misses nothing. Polly played the piano during the 25 years we spent in the ministry. After we exited stage left, Polly was no longer interested in playing the piano. In fact, we no longer own one. The piano, I believe, was Polly’s way of saying, “I’m done!”

Forty plus years ago a bold, on-fire young preacher and his wife went out into the world to evangelize the lost and teach Christians the Bible. Today, that couple, now aged and with thirteen children, are on to another chapter in their life. Several of our older grandchildren have asked, “Grandpa, were you a preacher?” You see, the Bruce Gerencser they know isn’t a pastor or a religious man. Hopefully, they will one day read my book and learn about the Grandpa and Nana they never knew.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

I Did it All for Jesus, My Life of Self-Denial

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2
Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us.

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

I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. Having been baptized a Lutheran and later making a public profession of faith in a Baptist church at the age of fifteen, I have been a part of the Christian church most of my life. I preached my first sermon at the age of fifteen, attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college as a young man, married an IFB pastor’s daughter, and pastored churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.

I never went through the angst many people go through when determining what to do with their lives. At the age of five, I told my mother I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. From the age of fifteen to the age of fifty, I was a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I had no doubt that God had called me to preach to sinners the unsearchable riches of Christ.

I am an all-in kind of guy. I have little tolerance for doing things halfway. When Jesus called to me and told me to leave my proverbial nets, I did so immediately. I was a devoted, committed, sold-out follower of Jesus Christ. My passion was for God, his church, and the Word of God. For twenty-five years, my life was consumed by the ministry and the work I believed God had called me to do.

Up until I started blogging in 2007, no one had ever doubted that I was saved, that I was a devoted, committed follower of Jesus. A person who years ago knew me quite well, was shocked when she heard that I was no longer a pastor and that I was now an atheist. She said, Butch (my family nickname) was the real deal. If he’s not a Christian, no one is. It is important to understand this point. NO ONE . . . out of the thousands of people I came in contact with, ever expressed doubt about my salvation, my personal relationship with Jesus. Not one teacher, not one deacon, not one evangelist, not one church member, not one fellow pastor, ever expressed doubt that I was a Christian or that I was a God-called preacher.

Those who now contend I was never a Christian or that I was a false teacher make their judgments based not on the evidence of the life I lived, but on their peculiar interpretations of the Bible. For the Baptists, Calvinists, and many Evangelicals, the only way to square my life with their theology is for them to say I never was a Christian, or that I still am a Christian, just backslidden. Arminians have less of a problem explaining my life. While they are “troubled” by my apostasy, they recognize that I once was a Christian. In their eyes, I fell from grace, and I am now no longer a Christian.

I realize that I am a rare bird. While there are many men (and women) who leave the ministry, few leave it as late in life as I did. Many of the notable preacher-turned-atheists apostatized and left the ministry in their twenties and thirties. I left at the age of fifty. This does not make me special in any way, but it does make me an exception to the rule. And this is why Evangelicals have such a hard time understanding how it is possible for a man to be a Christian for most of his life and to pastor churches for twenty-five years, to then just walk away from it all and renounce Jesus.

Those who know me personally have a difficult time wrapping their mind around Pastor Bruce being an atheist. To quote Nicodemus in John 3, how can these things be? But whether they can understand it or not, here I am. I once was a Christian, I once was a man of God, and now I am not.

My life was motivated by the following verses:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:24,25)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1,2)

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! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

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)

For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. (James 4:14,15)

These verses, along with my commitment to follow every command in the Bible, led me to a life of self-denial and economic simplicity. While most people around me were focused on earning a living, providing for their families, and accumulating material goods, I was focused on making just enough money to keep a roof over my family’s head. I took seriously the command to “learn in whatever state I am to be content.” I practiced a Baptist version of voluntary poverty, and as the head of the home, I led my family to do the same. I figured that whatever money and material goods we had were what God wanted us to have. To desire, require, or want more was a sure sign that I was in love with the things of the world, and not God.

somerset baptist church 1983-1994
Our son Jaime, and our two girls, Bethany and Laura.

Over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry, my family and I were economically at or below the poverty line. For many years, we drove junk cars, and for five years our family of eight lived in a three-bedroom (large closets) 12’x60’ mobile home. I paid $2,800 for the mobile home and parked it next to the church. It was a ratty old mobile home to which I had to do extensive work so we could live in it. As I look back on it now, I see this mobile home as a snapshot of my/our life of self-denial.

Somewhere in the late 1990s, I woke up one day, looked around, and realized that our family was the only one living this way. Everyone else, pastor friends included, were busy building their kingdoms on this earth. Their focus was on their jobs, careers, homes, lands, education, and retirement. My focus was on living a voluntary life of self-denial so that I might preach the gospel. I saw myself as following in the steps of Jesus and Paul. Why wasn’t anyone else living this way?

I still think my interpretation of the Bible was essentially correct. It wasn’t that I took Christianity too seriously, it was that most everyone else didn’t take it seriously enough. After all, did Jesus not say:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (Matthew 6:24, 25)

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19,20)

My heart was squarely focused on Jesus. I treasured the Word of God and preaching the gospel. I saw the world neatly divided into saved and lost. As a saved man, one who believed in a literal Hell, how could I idly sit by while knowing that most people did not know the saving grace of Jesus Christ? I spent most of my married life hustling for Jesus. Preaching, teaching, witnessing, preaching on the street, preaching at nursing homes, visiting prison inmates, knocking on doors, visiting bus routes, handing out tracts, and starting churches. Like the Apostle Paul, I believed, woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!

I took seriously Ezekiel 3:17-19:

Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me, When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

I believed that God would hold me accountable for every soul that went to Hell because I did not witness to them. I felt I was duty-bound to warn sinners of their wicked ways and of the judgment to come. My preaching, methodology, and lifestyle reflected this. Even though I was more committed than anyone else I personally knew, I also knew I was far from perfect, that I was far from being as committed as I could be. I pleaded with God to give me more of his power, more of his Spirit, just as he gave to great preachers like DL MoodyHudson TaylorDavid BrainerdJohn WesleyCharles FinneyAdoniram Judson, and Charles Spurgeon.

I left the ministry in 2005, and I left Christianity in 2008. It is hard for me not to look back on my/our life of self-denial without bitter regret. Yes, I helped a lot of people, and yes, in spite of our poverty, we had a good life. But, a lifetime of self-denial has put my wife and me in an economically difficult place. We are by no means poor. We have more than enough money to pay our bills and live a comfortable life. We still live simply, and outside of a 2020 Ford Edge sitting in the driveway, our home and its furnishings are modest. When we bought our home in 2007, we bought a fixer-upper, and we have been fixing it up and down ever since. Our life is comfortable, dare I say blessed. But I can’t help thinking about where we might now be if I had not been so focused on living a life of self-denial. Last year, I officially “retired.” I draw a minimal social security check because I didn’t pay social security tax for most of the years I was in the ministry. I have no other retirement plan. Polly will likely have to work after she reaches retirement age. I deeply regret this, but decisions have consequences, and because I made a decision years ago to not pay social security tax, and because I thought Jesus and the church would take care of me when I was old, I made no other plans for the future. After all, I planned on dying with my boots on.

Life is one long lesson learned. How about you? Were you a devoted follower of Jesus? Did you take seriously the verses I mentioned in this post? If so, what did your life of self-denial look like then and now? Did you do without for the sake of Jesus and the church? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bruce Gerencser