Tag Archive: Preaching

Questions: Bruce, Do You Miss Being A Preacher?

questions

I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.

Victor asked: Do you miss being a preacher?

I preached my first sermon at age fifteen. While attending Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan, I preached on Sunday afternoons at the SHAR House in Detroit — a drug rehab center. I pastored Evangelicals churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan for twenty-five years. All told, I preached thousands of sermons to tens of thousands of people. If the ministry were just about preaching and teaching, I would say, without reservation, that I miss being a preacher. I thoroughly enjoyed preaching and teaching congregants the Word of God. I enjoyed the intellectual work that went into crafting a good sermon. I suspect, if I could choose a career in the secular world, that I would want to be a college professor.

Of course, the ministry entails a lot more than just preaching. I spent countless hours counseling people, performing weddings, conducting funerals, attending congregational/board meetings, and ministering to the social needs of congregants and the community at large. Over the years, I developed a real distaste for internecine warfare and conflict. Behind the scenes, I had to deal with squabbles and fights. I so wanted to scream, WILL EVERYONE PLEASE GROW UP! Evangelicals can be loving and kind one moment and nasty, vicious, and judgmental the next. I was so tired of conflict that I warned the last church I pastored — Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan — that I had no heart for conflict. Evidently, they didn’t believe me, so imagine their surprise when a church business meeting turned into open warfare that I said, I quit! I told you that I had no stomach for church squabbles. And with that, I packed up my family and we moved back to Northwest Ohio.

Two years later, I tried one last time to pastor a church, candidating at several Southern Baptist churches in West Virginia. I found that I no longer had the emotional strength necessary to pastor a church. And with that, my career as a pastor came to an end — three years before I left Christianity. I have many fond memories from my days as a pastor. I also carry deep psychological scars too. The ministry is an admixture of peace, grace, and happiness and disunity, conflict, and loss. Thankfully, the former outweighed the latter for me. I know more than a few men who were savaged by their first congregation, never to pastor again.

I miss, of course, the love and respect I received from congregants. Who doesn’t want to be told week after week how wonderful you are? Pastors stand at the back of the church and shake hands with people as they leave. Church members and visitors alike praise them for their sermons and tell how much what they said helped them. I miss that feeling of connection with my fellow Christians. Of course, many of those same believers turned on me upon finding out that I was no longer a Christian. In some ways, I don’t blame them for their anger and hatred. I broke the bond we had with each other. In their minds, I was Pastor Bruce or Preacher; the man who helped their families, both spiritually and temporally. Now I am, in their eyes, a hater of God, living in denial of everything I once said was true.

If you know of a church looking for an unbeliever just to preach on Sundays, please let me know. I’m your man! I would love to whip up a few post-Jesus sermons.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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.

I Did It For You Jesus — Crank Windows and Vinyl Floor Mats

1984 chevrolet cavalier

1984 Chevrolet Cavalier

In the late 1980s, while I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I purchased a 1984 Chevy Cavalier for $2,900. It had 19,000 miles on the odometer. The car was spartan in every way: crank windows, vinyl mats, AM/FM radio, and no air conditioning. I used the car for my ministerial travels, and we also used it to deliver newspapers for the Zanesville Times-Recorder and the Newark Advocate. If this car could be resurrected from the junk yard, it would have stories to tell about Bruce and Polly Gerencser zipping up and down the hills of Licking, Muskingum, and Perry Counties delivering newspapers. All told, we put 160,000 miles on the car without any major mechanical failures. Tires, brakes, and tune-ups, were all the car required.

If the car could talk it would certainly speak of being abused:

  • Polly hit a mailbox, denting the hood and cracking the windshield.
  • Polly hit some geese, damaging the air dam.
  • Bruce hit a concrete block that had been thrown in the road.
  • Bruce hit a black Labrador retriever, causing damage to the front of the car.
  • Bruce hit a deer, causing damage to the bumper and radiator.
  • A tree limb fell on the car, further damaging the hood.
  • A woman drove into the back of the car while it was parked alongside the road in Corning, Ohio. We found out later that this accident broke the rear frame member.

By the time we were finished with the car, it looked like it had recently been used in a demolition derby. We carried personal liability insurance on the car — no collision — so no repairs were performed after these accidents. We certainly extracted every bit of life we could out of the car. It went to the happy wrecking yard in the sky knowing that it faithfully served Jesus and the Gerencser family.

Our Chevy Cavalier is a perfect illustration of our life in the ministry. Unlike Catholics, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers don’t take a vow of poverty. That said, the eleven years I spent as pastor of Somerset Baptist can be best described as the “poverty years.”  I put God, the ministry, and the church before my wife and children. We did without so the church could make ends meet, thinking that God would someday reward us for our voluntary poverty.

Pastoring Somerset Baptist was a seven-day a week job. I was always on call, with rarely a day off. And as a workaholic, I liked it that way. During the late 1980s, for example, I was preaching on the street two days a week, teaching Sunday school, preaching twice on Sunday and once on Thursday. On Wednesdays, I would preach at the local nursing home. On Saturdays, I would help visit the homes of bus riders and try to round up new riders. I also helped start a multi-church youth fellowship. We had monthly activities for church teens. And then there were revival meetings, special services, Bible conferences, watch night services, pastors’ conferences, and the like. Throw in visiting church members in their homes and when they were hospitalized, and virtually every waking hour of my day was consumed by the work of the ministry.  And lest I forget, we also took in foster children, many of whom were teenagers placed in our home by the court. I believed, then, I could “reach” these children and transform their lives through the gospel and regular church attendance. I was, in retrospect, quite naïve.

But, wait, there’s more! — I am starting to sound like a Billy May commercial. In 1989, I started a tuition-free private Christian school for church children. I was the school’s administrator. I also taught a few classes. Polly taught the elementary age children. Many of these children have fond memories of Mrs. Gerencser teaching them to read. Students have no such memories of me, the stern taskmaster they called Preacher.

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.

For the last five years at Somerset Baptist, we were up at 6:00 AM and rarely went to bed before midnight. When I started the church in 1983, we had two children, ages two and four. Eleven years later, we had six children, ages fifteen, thirteen, ten, five, three, and one. Our home was patriarchal in every way. Polly cared for our home — a dilapidated 12×60 trailer — cooked meals, and changed thousands of diapers; and not the disposable kind either. Polly used God-approved cloth diapers with all six children. She also breast-fed all of them.

Why did Bruce and Polly live this way? The short answer is that we believed that living a life of faith on the edge poverty was how Jesus wanted us to live. After all, Jesus didn’t even have a home or a bed, so who were we to complain?  If God wanted us to have more in life, he would give it to us, we thought. Much like the Apostle Paul, we learned to be content in whatever state we were in — rich or poor, it mattered not.

I left Somerset Baptist Church in 1994. I am now a physically broken down old man. The health problems I now face were birthed during my days at Somerset Baptist. There’s no doubt, had I put my family first and prioritized my personal well-being above that of the church, that we would be better off financially and I would be in much better health. As it was, I spent years eating on the run or downing junk food while I was out on visitation. I know we surely must have sat down to eat as family, but I can’t remember doing so. Of course, I can’t remember us having sex either, and our children are proof that we at least had sex six times. All I know is that I was busy, rarely stopping for a breath, and so was Polly. It’s a wonder that our marriage survived the eleven years we spent at Somerset Baptist. It did, I suppose, because we believed that the way we were living was God’s script for our marriage and family. We look back on it now and just shake our heads.

I am sure some readers might read this post and not believe I am telling the truth. Who would voluntarily live this way? Who would voluntarily sacrifice their economic well-being, health, and family? A workaholic madly in love with Jesus, that’s who. A man who believed that whatever he suffered in this life was nothing compared to what Jesus suffered on the cross. A man who believed that someday in Heaven, God was going to say him, well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord. I viewed life as an endurance race, and it was my duty and obligation to keep running for Jesus until he called me home. No one can ever say of Bruce and Polly that they didn’t give their all — all to Jesus I surrender, all to him I humbly give.

beater station wagon

$200 beater. Polly HATED this car. What’s not to like, right?

Of course, my devotion to God, the church, and the ministry was a waste of time and money. One of the biggest regrets I have is that I wasted the prime of my life in service to a non-existent God. While certainly I helped many people along the way, I could have done the same work as a social worker and retired with a great pension. Instead, all I got was a gold star for being an obedient slave. I am not bitter, nor is Polly. We have many fond memories of the time we spent at Somerset Baptist Church. But, both of us would certainly say that we would never, ever want to live that way again. We loved the people and the scenery, but the God? No thanks. We feel at this juncture in life as if we have been delivered from bondage. We are now free to live as we wish to live, with no strings attached. And, there’s not a dilapidated Chevrolet Cavalier sitting in our driveway. No sir, we have electric windows, electric seats, air-conditioning, and the greatest invention of all time for a back ravaged by osteoarthritis — heated seats. We may be going to hell when we die, but me and misses sure plan on enjoying life until we do.

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 Failure of My Homophobic Preaching

homosexuality a sin

I came of age as an Evangelical pastor during the eleven years I spent at Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. I was young, brash, full of energy, and convinced that God was going to use me to build a large country church. And sure enough, thanks to aggressive evangelism, the bus ministry, and congregational splits among several nearby Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, Somerset Baptist grew to over two hundred people.

For many of the eleven years I pastored Somerset Baptist, I preached topical/textual sermons. In the late 1980s, I moved away from such preaching and began taking an expositional approach to my sermons. Textual/topical preaching fit well with my IFB ideology. Want to preach against a particular sin? Find proof texts that validate your viewpoint and build them into a sermon. Homosexuality was one such sin that got a lot of attention from me. I was loud and forceful in my preaching, leaving no doubt as to what I — er, I mean God — believed about sodomites and the sin of sodomy.

I was quite certain that if there were any closeted homosexuals in the congregations, my preaching would drive the gay right out of them. I never, of course, used the word gay to describe homosexuals. There is nothing GAY about the homosexual lifestyle, I told congregants, many of whom showered my homophobia with AMENS!  The children and teens of the church, in particular, faced the wrath of Pastor Bruce as he railed against sexual sin. I felt duty-bound to protect their virginity, warning them that physical contact with the opposite sex was the gateway to fornication. The Bible says in I Corinthians 7:1, I hollered from the pulpit, It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Girls were warned that no girl ever got pregnant without holding hands with a boy first. Want to stay pure until your wedding day? I asked. Don’t let a boy touch you! And just to make sure that teenagers put my preaching into practice, I instituted a no-touching rule in our Christian school and I asked their parents to not let their daughters get in cars with boys.

My preaching against homosexuality was meant as a preventative. I was certain that there were NO homosexuals among the faithful. From time to time, we had lesbians or gay men ride one of our buses, and I made sure they knew the “truth” about their vile lifestyle. There was one particular area where we picked up bus riders that was known for its immorality, especially incest. On more than one occasion, several women came to church with their children who had been fathered by their brothers. This inbreeding led to all sorts of physical maladies, including developmental disability (also known as retardation back in the day). No matter how fiery my sermons were, my edicts against their fornication pretty much went over their heads.

In 1989, I became a born-again Calvinist. Church attendance was declining. Those who had left other IFB churches returned home, taking their tithes and offerings with them. This caused severe financial difficulties, forcing us to stop running four bus routes. At this juncture in my ministry, I felt “led” of God to start a tuition-free Christian school for the church’s children. Our highest enrollment was fifteen students.

Fast forward to today. Through social media and private email, I have been in contact with a handful of the school’s students. I have apologized to them for my harsh preaching, especially my rants against homosexuality. Why this sin in particular? Three out of the fifteen students are now gay. That’s right, twenty percent of the student body came out of the closet as adults, proving that all the anti-gay preaching in the world, complete with Bible verses, won’t change who and what people are.

Evangelical preachers continue to rail against what they deem sexual sin. Few people forsake their nature. Instead, they learn to hide who they really are. In the case of teenagers, they bide their time until they can leave home. Once free of their parents’ fundamentalism, they embrace their true sexual nature. Some of them lose their faith, while others find ways to reconcile the Bible’s anti-LGBTQ stance with who and what they are. I do know this: the three people I mentioned in the post have turned into loving, caring adults. It’s too bad they had to spend years being beaten over their heads with the Bible by their pastor and parents. That any of them wants to have a relationship with me is a testimony to their kindness and character. I wouldn’t blame any of them if they spit in my face and told me to go to hell.

Were you raised in a church where your preacher railed against fornication in general and homosexuality in particular? How did things turn out people once they became adults? Please share your thoughts 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.

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

I’m Thinking About Returning to Christianity

bruce-gerencser-comes-back-to-jesusDid the post title get your attention?

Several days ago, as 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 J-EESUS.  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 could, having the gift of helps, pray for people, all the while sticking my hand in their pockets books and back pockets. Oh, sorry sister, I didn’t mean to give you The Donald®! Throw in a hot worship band with a sexy leader – 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 rear view 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 to make money….I’m thinking….how about a stripper Santa Claus. What do you think, Polly? Women stuffing twenties in my 3x G-string? Tis the reason for the season, I say.

Snark-off.

1995: Charley’s Steakery, the Itch to Preach, and Sex for Tacos 

charleys-steakery

 

After leaving Community Baptist Church in the fall of 1994, we moved to the small central Ohio village of Frazeysburg, 16 miles east of Newark, Ohio, where Polly’s mom and dad lived. Polly’s parents gave us enough money for a down payment on a fairly new 14′ x 70′ mobile home. We lived in Williamsburg Square — a well-kept manufactured home community that catered to older families without children and younger families with two children or fewer. The only reason we were allowed to live in Williamsburg Square was because we had previously bought a mobile home from Williamsburg, and after observing how well behaved our children were, the owners decided it would be safe to allow the Gerencser children to prowl the neighborhood. Our older neighbors were delighted to have our children around, especially when it came time to rake leaves and shovel snow. Believing that it was important for our children to serve others, we asked them to help our neighbors without pay. This they gladly did, even though several neighbors were insistent that our children be paid.

After getting settled in Frazeysburg, I went about looking for suitable employment to provide for my family. In less than a week I had secured a job working as general manager for a Charley’s Steakery in Zanesville, Ohio.  As it was with every time I needed to secure secular employment, I made substantially more money working in the “world” than I did working as a pastor. Having managed restaurants in the past, I was well-suited for my new job. The owner was a Taiwanese man who operated a restaurant in Columbus. He was a hands-off owner who expected me to manage every aspect of his franchise. I would talk to him on the phone every few days, and every month or so he would stop by for a short while to see how things were going. Outside of these contacts, I was on my own.

The restaurant had been run into the ground by the previous manager. It’s owner would later tell me, after contacting me to testify in a wage-hour dispute, that I was the best manager he had ever hired. He told me that he knew that I would just take care of things and that he wouldn’t have to worry about whether I was doing my job. Working for Charley’s Steakery was by far the best job I ever had. I had the freedom to hire the necessary people to ensure that the restaurant ran smoothly. Unfortunately, this meant reassigning or firing many of the existing employees, most of whom treated their job like a weekend at a spa. They learned quickly that I was a no-nonsense, the-customer-comes-first, if-you-have-time-to-lean-you-have-time-to-clean, trust-but-verify manager.

During this foray into the secular world, we attended Fallsburg Baptist Church, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation in Fallsburg. Ohio. The church was pastored by my then-best friend Keith Troyer. (Keith currently pastors Grace Baptist Church in Greenville, Pennsylvania.) Attending Keith’s church allowed us an opportunity to recover from the wounds inflicted upon us through our horrific experiences at Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas. (Please see the series I am a Publican and a Heathen.) In retrospect, we should have spent more time recuperating, but as I shall share in a moment, the not-preaching bug bit me and after a few months on the sideline I was ready to return to the pastorate. Keith tried to satiate my need by allowing me to preach from time to time. Though our friendship did not survive my loss of faith, I have always appreciated what Keith did for our family.

Going to work at Charley’s Steakery six days a week allowed me to stay busy. It was not uncommon for me to work 60-70 hours a week – workaholic that I am. Part of the reason I had to work long hours is that I had a hard time attracting and keeping employees. I’m sure some of the problem was that new employees quickly realized that they would actually have to work once they took the job, and didn’t stay long.  Over the years, I hired scores of entry-level employees and managers. Some of these new hires turned out to be wonderful employees. However, far too many of them were indolent people looking to make as much money as possible for the least amount of work. Such people, of course, frustrated the hell out of me. Workaholics have a hard time understanding why everyone is not just like them. I spent much of my life as a pastor planting new churches. This type of work lends itself to driven workaholics. I was always perturbed by pastors who viewed the pastorate as a vacation gig, one where they preached on Sundays and played golf and hung out with their preacher friends the rest of the week. Again, I projected my own work ethic and way of looking at life on others. While I still think many pastors are as lazy as a coon dog in front of a fireplace on a cold winter’s night, I do realize that my judgments of others were often unfair or misguided.

The restaurant I managed was in the food court at the Colony Square Mall on the north side of Zanesville. I had to compete with restaurants such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Mr. Hot Dog, and a Chinese restaurant. We not only competed for food dollars, we also battled one another over employees. Charley’s Steakery shared a back hallway with Taco Bell. Employees would enter their respective restaurants via this hallway. Taco Bell was the first restaurant after employees entered the hallway. The manager of Taco Bell, noticing the quality of several of my employees, began poaching them, offering them better wages than I could offer. After a few weeks of losing employees, I decided to contact the Taco Bell manager. I asked her to please stop soliciting my employees. There, I thought to myself. I have put an end to that problem.

Several days later, the director of franchise operations called me about a disturbing call he had just received from the Taco Bell manager. According to her, I had asked her to please stop offering sex to my employees as an enticement for coming to work for her. That’s right, because I use the word “soliciting,” the Taco Bell manager thought I was talking about her prostituting herself. Of course, I did no such thing. I assumed that she had at least a cursory understanding of the English language and knew that the words solicit/soliciting/solicitation actually have several meanings, but she did not. After explaining to the franchise operations director what my intent was, he suggested (demanded?) that I contact her and apologize. My first thought was, apologize? What did I do that was wrong? It’s not my fault this dumb hillbilly doesn’t know what the word soliciting means. After pondering what to do for several days, my what-would-Jesus-do guilt kicked in, and I sat down and wrote a letter to the Taco Bell manager apologizing for our misunderstanding. But, before I uttered the words “I’m sorry”, I made sure she understood the dictionary definition of the word “soliciting.”

The Taco Bell manager quit soliciting my employees and I went back to trying to find meaning and purpose in secular work. But five months after I took the job, I could no longer push down the urge, need, and desire — the Holy Spirit — to pastor another church. In February, 1995, some friends of ours, Marv and Louise Hartman, stop by the restaurant to visit with me. They lived in the northwest Ohio city of Bryan — the city of my birth. (We currently live five miles south of Bryan.) I had known the Hartmans for many years. Their oldest son Lyle was, at the time, a good friend of mine. As a teenager, I attended First Baptist Church in Bryan, as did the Hartmans. Marv and I played church league softball together and Louise help me save money for college by managing my savings account. (After sending out my infamous letter, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners, Louise sent me a blistering letter that said I had been taken over by Satan. She later wrote and apologized for the first letter. Our friendship did not survive.)

The Hartmans told me about a church that was looking for a pastor near where they lived — Olive Branch Christian Union Church, near Fayette, Ohio. A few short weeks later, we packed up our belongings and moved our mobile home to a trailer pad next to the church for what would be a short seven month pastorate. In retrospect, as I shared above, we should have taken more time to heal before taking another church the pastor. Despite advice from several friends who suggested that I slow down and do pulpit supply, revivals, and itinerant work, I felt the need to be about my Father’s business, and that feeling was so great that neither money, common sense, nor my wife’s objections would keep me from quitting a job that paid twice what Olive Branch Christian Union Church was offering me. All that mattered was that God had called me to preach and I needed to be busy preaching. This is why it always amuses me when people suggest that I was in the ministry for the money. I ALWAYS made more money in the secular world than I did as pastor. If I had it to do all over again, I would have worked bi-vocationally, providing for my family and scratching my God-inspired itch to preach. We wouldn’t be facing some of the financial problems we now face if I had put my family first.

As Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story.

Why Evangelical Beliefs and Practices are Psychologically Harmful — Part One

born in sin

Cartoon by David Hayward

In light of a recent comment on the post Do Evangelical Beliefs Lead to Psychological Damage?, I thought I would give several reasons why I think Evangelical beliefs and practices are psychologically harmful.

Evangelical Christianity teaches that everyone is born with a sinful nature. People do not become sinners, they are, by nature, sinners. From the moment people come into this world they are sinners who are at variance with God. This is the lot of the human race. No one, except Jesus, is exempt.

What is sin? Sin is, according to Evangelicals, transgression of the law of God. God is Holy. He hates sin and those who do it.  All of us deserve to be eternally punished in the Lake of Fire for our sins. We deserve, because of Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden, to be tortured in the flame of Hell for eternity.

Jesus came to earth to redeem people from their sins. According to Evangelicals, God demands human sin be atoned for through a blood sacrifice. When Jesus was on the cross the wrath of God the Father was poured out on Him —wrath that Jesus did not deserve. Taking our sins and punishments upon himself, Jesus died on the cross to satisfy our sin debt.

Justification by faith is central to Evangelical soteriology. Simply put, the term means that God looks at a saved (born again) sinner “just as if they never sinned.” How is this possible? God hasn’t changed! He still hates sin and those who do it. He still throws people in the Lake of Fire to be tormented for eternity. God is God and this is what God does. It is only through the merit and work of Jesus that born-again sinners are saved from the fury of a wrathful God. Jesus stands between the saved sinner and God, taking on the violence that right rightfully belongs to saved and unsaved sinners alike. When God looks at saved sinners all he see is his son Jesus.

What I have written above is Evangelicalism 101. It is classic substitutionary-atonement, justified-by-faith, Protestant theology. Understanding this will be key to what follows.

How do Evangelicals view themselves?

  • I am a sinner. I sin daily in word, thought, and deed.
  • Even now, I deserve hell and punishment from God.
  • The only difference between me and the worst of sinners is that I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. The blood of Jesus covers my sin and I am, by faith, justified before God through the merit and work of Jesus.
  • No matter what suffering and pain comes in my life, I should be grateful that I am saved and that I have escaped eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire.

Most Evangelical pastors spend a significant amount of time preaching about sin. These men self-described men of God really can’t be faulted for doing this. As People of the Book, they must preach what the Bible says — and the Good Book certainly has a lot to say about sin, judgment, and chastisement.

In the Old Testament alone there are 635 laws. Then there is the New Testament with all the new laws added by Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter.  Add to these the personal interpretation of the laws, commands, and precepts by Evangelical preachers…well there’s plenty of sin to preach about.

Needless to say there is a lot of guilt and fear among Evangelical believers. For all their talk about grace, Evangelical preachers spent significant amounts of time preaching sermons meant to cause listeners to feel guilty and fearful. Despite being miraculously saved, Evangelicals still sin —often more so than the uncircumcised, degenerate Philistines of the world. No matter how often pastors preach about this or that sin, preachers and congregants alike continue to sin. Evangelicals commit sexual sins, divorce, commit felony crimes, and have abortions, all at levels similar to those who never darken the doors of Christian churches. And thanks to the internet, we now know that Evangelical pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, youth directors, and run-of-the-mill congregants abuse and sexually assault children and prey on vulnerable teenagers and adults.

Despite knowing all of this, Evangelicals preachers — ignoring their own secret sins — continue to berate and badger congregants over their sinful behaviors. How DARE you sin!, Evangelicals preachers proclaim. Look at what Jesus did for you! The Bible says, how dare they, who have been freed from sin, continue any longer therein?

Evangelicals believe that the third person of the Trinity — the Holy Spirit — lives inside of them and is their teacher and guide. The Holy Spirit is a sin-o-meter of sorts. When temptation comes the sin meter starts saying, NO! NO! Don’t do this! Turn! Run! Leave! Stop!

Yet, even with Jesus saving them, the Holy Spirit living inside of them, the Bible as the Words of God, and thundering preachers reminding them of the dangers of sins, Evangelicals still sin like just like the rest of us. Try as they might, Evangelicals can’t kick their sin habit. This ever-present reality results in a lifetime of guilt and fear.

Evangelical church altars are routinely lined with people “getting right with God.” Churches hold revival services so congregants can wipe their sin slates clean and return to walking the straight and narrow way. Pastors weekly spend hours counseling church members who find themselves ensnared by Satan — caught up in temptation and sin. Preachers themselves are routinely caught up in this or that sin. If preacher can’t walk the talk, is it realistic to expect lesser Christians to do so?

For all their talk about forgiveness and deliverance, sin is still the number one problem Evangelicals daily face. No matter how much they pray, asking for forgiveness, sin keeps returning, spoiling their attempts to live a Godly life. A lifetime of this kind of living makes people emotional train wrecks. Over time, Evangelicals learn how to “hide” their sin. They learn the right things to say when asked about how things are in their lives. They learn how to play the “I am right with God” game. These bought-by-the-blood Evangelicals learn to erect a façade that masks the reality of their lives.

Sinning Evangelicals know they are frauds and hypocrites, yet they dare not admit this to anyone. Little do they know that EVERYONE, including the pastor, is just like they are. Some Evangelicals, after decades of being on the sin roller coaster, decide to get off. They crave an opportunity to live authentic lives, lives that are free from the emotional weight of guilt, fear, and condemnation.

Getting off the roller coaster is not easy. The emotional baggage weighs the people down. Isn’t their walking away the BIGGEST sin of them all? Doesn’t this prove that they never were real followers of Jesus? Their churches, pastors, and  Evangelical family will condemn them for throwing in the towel. Their defection will be viewed in light of what they Bible says about them: they went out from us because they were not of us. For if they were of us, they would have continued with us.” Leaving is PROOF that they never were the real deal. No matter how many years they faithfully walked the straight and narrow, the singular act of leaving undoes all the good they did in the name of Jesus.

Once free, an interesting thing happens: guilt and fear begins to recede. Psychological stress start to fade. For the first times in years, they experience peace. For them, it took leaving the Prince of Peace to experience inner peace.

Instead of live dominated by thoughts of their sinfulness, these former Evangelicals learn that many (most) of the actions the Bible, along with what their pastors and churches called sin, are not sin at all. As time goes on their “sin” list becomes smaller and smaller. Perhaps they learn that there isn’t really any such thing as sin. People do good and bad things and should be judged, not by a moral standard found in an antiquated book, but by a basic humanistic, common morality —  morality that respects the private acts of consenting adults; a morality that recognizes that many of the acts of other human beings are none of their business.

These former Evangelicals now have the freedom to live their lives on their own terms. Evangelical zealots from their past will warn them that they have made themselves their own God and that if they are not careful, they will become reprobates — those whom God has given over to the list of sins recorded in Romans 1 and 2. These type of threats no longer have the desired effect. Why? Because their minds having been freed from the chains of Evangelical Christianity. They now know what it is to have true freedom. Once free, having experienced the peace that passeth all Evangelicalism, they will never return to the garlic and leeks of Evangelical Christianity. To quote an old Southern Gospel song…They have gone too far to turn back now!

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 community. These kind of churches are known for sin-hating, devil-chasing “hard” preaching. The men 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, they also fear the preacher.

There are two ways commonly used by preachers to cause people to feel afraid of God. First, there are the various Bible verses that promote a healthy 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 church attendees 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 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 remained passive attendees who threw a few bucks in the offering plate and said, Great Show.

Evangelists were 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, and He made them sick, took away their jobs, killed their children, or suffered any of a number of other reversals of fortune people face in this life. 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. These kind of stories are used to show unsaved people what could happen to them if they put off getting saved. Every Evangelical preacher knows of people who had heard the gospel and had an opportunity to be saved, yet they 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, the 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 church members — people who were saved — 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. One of the greatest joys that came with becoming an atheist is that I no longer fear 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 found nowhere. This God is little more than a tool used by preachers and churches to keep people in 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.

IFB Preacher Steven Anderson’s Advice to Pastors

pastor steven anderson

This is a picture of Steven  Anderson, his wife Zsuzanna , and their seven children. Since the taking of this photo, the Anderson’s have added another child. Pity their children.

Steven Anderson, pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe Arizona, offered up the following advice to pastors:

Preach DOCTRINAL sermons. This is good advice for any pastor. Don’t fall into the trap of this liberal “relevant” and “practical” type preaching. These are the buzz words of the new-evangelicals. I preach sermons on SPECIFIC subjects such as eternal security, baptism, King James Bible only, exclusivism, the death penalty, the resurrection, the trinity, creation, Bible reading, Bible memorization, verbal inspiration, and also sermons against specific sins such as nudity, drinking, television, birth control, sodomy, wrong music, etc.

Anderson, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher, thinks that topical preaching is the best way to preach. For those of you who are not familiar with topical preaching, preaching topically means choosing a particular topic and then finding verses that support the chosen subject. Topical preaching abuses the text of the Bible, often providing little more than proof texts for the subject at hand. This kind of preaching allows preachers to make the Bible say what they want it to say, regardless of context or proper exegesis. Evangelicals can use the Bible to “prove” almost anything. By preaching topically, Anderson can give his political views the air of authority, leading church members to think that God is against such things as gun control, drinking alcohol, public schools, and watching television. Anderson is famous for his sermon on the sin of “men sitting down to pee.” That’s right, according to Anderson, the Bible commands men to stand when they pee. See? You really can use the Bible to prove almost anything.

Topical preaching allows cult leaders such as Anderson to justify any belief that pops into their brains. Anderson has zero theological training, yet he passes himself off as an expert on the Bible’s teachings. His followers fawn over him, viewing him as a Donald Trump-like straight-shooting son-of-a-gun. Numerous devotees of Anderson have told me that his preaching is Devil-chasing, sin-hating, step-on-toes proclamations of God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Bible — King James-only. They think that the uneducated Anderson is the best preacher in America.

Steven Anderson, along with men such as the late Fred Phelps and evangelist Phil Kidd, mistake their attacks on all who disagree with them for Biblical preaching. Such preachers believe in what is called “hard” preaching — sermons that deliberately offend. Sadly, Anderson has learned his craft well. Now that Fred Phelps is dead, Anderson is widely considered the most hateful preacher in America, a label he wears with pride. In coming months, as I publish some of Anderson’s sermon clips for The Sounds of Fundamentalism series, readers (listeners) will hear Anderson make the most outlandish of statements. Many of you will likely conclude that Anderson belongs in a padded cell. Just remember, several hundred people call him pastor and thousands more think he is a great man of God. Worse yet, come Sunday, countless Steven Andersons will stand behind church pulpits and spew hatred and bigotry — all in the name of God and according to words found in the King James Bible. That countless Evangelicals willingly call such men pastor is disturbing. Wanting moral certainty and believing God speaks through men such as Steven Anderson, these church members will discard reason and common sense and with one voice shout, AMEN, PREACHER. KEEP TELLING IT LIKE IT IS! Until they can be brought to understand that such preaching is abusive and harmful, there is no hope for them. As long as people see these cult leaders as prophets of God instead of molesters of men’s minds, they will continue to think that what they hear preached on Sunday is straight from the mouth of God.

If you have not read Understanding Steven Anderson, Pastor Faithful Word Baptist Church, Tempe, Arizona, I encourage you to do so.

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 Evangelical colleges. Midwestern Baptist College men tend to fellowship with Midwestern men. Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF) men tend to associate with BBF men. Bob Jones men tend to hobnob with Bob Jones men. Preachers who believe the King James Bible is the only text 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 25 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 Sword of the Lord conferences, Bread of Life Camp Meeting (Fellowship Baptist Church, Lebanon, Ohio), Family Camp (Midway Bible Baptist Church, Fishersville, Virginia) and Tri-County Baptist Church Camp Meeting, Rossville, Georgia. Further, I attended Southern Baptist Convention and Christian Union fellowships. For several years, once a month I drove 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 preachers and other church staff. These meeting had three common themes: food, preaching, and gossip. The host church would usually provide one or more meals for the attending pastors. 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 have no-name preachers deliver what are 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 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 most fellowship meetings. It’s all about the show.

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 the next Sunday’s sermons.

The next time you share your burdens or sins with your preacher, just remember 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.

 

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 us 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 is 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 the backslidden and save the lost.

Preaching is not just an intellectual exercise. There is a huge emotional component in preaching, not only for the pastor, but also with those who are listening to the sermon. 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 the midst. The 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 Awakening 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 momentous 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 this 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 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, as a rule, their sermons 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.

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, Bob Jones-associated, evangelist 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. (I know, not a word)

From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan, a fundamentalist 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, 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 the 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.

BTW, what I have said here also applies to other teaching-related jobs in the church such Sunday School teacher or bible-study leader. I’ve had to sit though  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 bath tub. 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 pastor. 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 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 a mouthpiece for God.

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 justly 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 entertaining.

Hundreds of people made public professions of faith as a result of one of my sermons. Lives were changed and people were delivered from sin. 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.  Our last two 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? Only Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh would dare say George 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 mind at the church door. When the winsome pastor preaches they soak up his words like a sponge. If they are not careful and cognizant of the potential of 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 so 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 dogma 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 America is awash in mediocrity. It seems everything has been turned into an audition for American Idol. 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.

Note

While the ability to preach well is a gift, every preacher would benefit from further instruction and training.

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