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Tag: Preaching

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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Should a Christian Preacher Turned Atheist Stop Using His Public Speaking Skills?

preacherShould a Christian-preacher-turned atheist-stop using his public speaking skills? Before this question can be answered, perhaps we should ascertain whether the person in question actually has public speaking skills. I’ve heard more than a few preachers over the years who were horrible public speakers. Their sermons were poorly crafted and their speaking skills ranged from incoherent to monotonous. Personally, I don’t know how some people listen to this kind of preaching year after year. Perhaps this is their purgatory.

I always prided myself in preaching well-crafted sermons. I worked hard in the study to produce the best sermon possible. I spent hours and days preparing my sermons. My goal was to preach in such a way that people would not only hear me but be moved to make a decision. The goal of every sermon was to force people to choose. Neutrality was never an option. Choose YOU this day whom YOU will serve, the Bible says. Even now, the most powerful speeches are the ones that demand something of listeners.

When I preached I was animated and passionate. In my early years, I moved around a good bit, but as I got older my movement lessened. Over time, I developed a style, a methodology of preaching. Generally, people found my style pleasing and my voice easy to listen to. I wasn’t a raging, fire-breathing, pulpit pounding, aisle running Pentecostal, but neither was I a droning, lifeless Methodist. (sorry for the stereotypes)

Words are powerful tools. Coupled with the methodology of preaching, words have the ability to move people and motivate them to do great things. However, words also have the power to manipulate and control. Numerous readers of this blog can testify to how the words of their pastor were used to sway, exploit, shame and abuse.

Any preacher worth his salt knows the power his words have over others Preachers know that the right word at the right time can elicit a certain response. They know what words can trigger an emotional response. Yes, preaching is supposed to be about knowledge and instruction, but mere knowledge will never cause a people to rise to the occasion and go to  war with Satan, the world, Democrats, secularism, and atheists. Great orators know how to stir people to do that which they might not normally do. Therein lies their power, and that power, when used wrongly, can hurt people or cause them to do things that are harmful, not only to themselves, but to others.

So what is a person such as myself to do? I preached my first sermon at age 15 and my last sermon at age 48 I spent 34 years telling people, thus saith the Lord. I have given thousands of sermons, having preached through most of the books in the Bible. Preaching is very much a part of who and what I am.

As a preacher-turned-atheist, I find myself in uncharted waters. I still have a passion for public speaking. I know I could be good at teaching most anything. I suspect, knowing my skill-set, that people would find me engaging and easy to listen to. As most any former parishioner of mine will attest, my ability to hold a crowd’s attention was never a problem. Oh, I had plenty of problems and shortcomings, but when in the pulpit I was at my best.

I miss preaching. I miss the personal interaction with people. I miss seeing my words move, challenge, and motivate people. As most ex-preachers will tell you, preaching was not the reason they left the ministry or deconverted. It was the stuff outside the pulpit; endless meetings, personal squabbles, or financial struggles that caused the most stress and angst.

In 2012, Pentecostal-preacher-turned-atheist, Jerry DeWitt, delivered a powerful speech at the American Atheist Convention. His speech, dare I say sermon, was given using the preaching skills that had served him well as a Pentecostal preacher.

Dan Fincke, a friend of mine who blogs at Camels with Hammers, wrote a lengthy post  about Dewitt’s message and his speaking skills and style. Dan thoughtfully raised some issues that former preachers like Dewitt and I need to consider carefully:

So, as Richard Wade watched this former evangelical go so far as to present the narrative of his turn to atheism in the precise idiom of a Pentecostal preacher, he turned to me and said, “You were right!” It made the dynamic so clear.

So—is this a good thing? I think in most ways it is, but I have a reservation. There is nothing wrong with a narrative in which “once I was blind but now I see”. This has always been a part of secularism. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the “light of reason” was coopted, for example, by Descartes from St. Augustine. We need to reclaim some of the emotionally resonant metaphorical terrain that is part of our linguistic and cultural means of expressing certain kinds of experiences. Just because a certain emotionally powerful form of personal narrative was cultivated in evangelical circles does not mean it cannot have genuine parallels among apostates. We are not just ripping them off or somehow remaining Christians. But sometimes we do remain evangelicals, only now atheistic kinds. The apostate’s narrative often just has some basic formal similarities that make it true to co-opt similar categories to evangelicals when conceiving of and narrating what is happening within oneself.

But what about the Pentecostal delivery? I can imagine some atheists with what I like to call “religious PTSD” rejecting it out of hand for its “triggering” connotations that remind them of the shameless charlatans who pioneered, and up through today still, exploit those techniques to manipulate people into falsehoods and religiously based moral corruption. But the vast majority of the auditorium seemed happy to play along with DeWitt and to really enjoy the experiment. He got a hearty standing ovation from a good portion of the room when he was done and was one of the day’s leaders for applause lines for sure.

But the Pentecostal style might also simply look so well practiced and formulaic and manipulative that it is the equivalent of a shameless Hallmark card or a schmaltzy movie providing cheap emotional triggers using the easiest and least respectable methods in the book for pushing people’s buttons.

I think that if the emotional button pushing is a way to make an end-run around reason, that is corrupt and despicable. But if it is to package and deliver rational truths and moral ideals of rationalism to people in a way that will properly align their emotions to what is actually true and ethical, then ultimately I am not convinced there’s anything dishonest or manipulative about that. I am open to arguments though….

…As I also explained to Richard the morning before seeing DeWitt, I have preachers’ rhetorical skills and yet for the most part I assiduously avoid them in my classrooms, and instead work with my students dialectically and put the stress on the development of their own reasoning skills. Occasionally, I will get on a roll about something I’m passionate about and reach back to make a rhetorically boosted little speech. But even then I hold back on going quite to preacher levels. And if I do, it’s tempered and not exploitative.

There are two reasons for my hesitation. One is purely technical. I once picked up the interesting advice that if you can do something exceptionally well you should do it only selectively, so as not to diminish its impact. In general you should only put as much rhetorical push into an idea as it needs and save your force for when it’s really needed, always calibrating force applied precisely to what is necessary at every level.

But the more morally serious and germane reason I hesitate to go into preacher mode is that it can be downright anti-dialectical and counter-productive to cultivating an atmosphere of rationalism and habits of careful reasoning. Preaching, rather than just teaching or guiding through questions, runs the risk of inherently training and reinforcing the audience’s infamous preexisting susceptibilities to falling for passions and pretty words at the expense of rational thought. Even if you convince them of your point with your bluster and poetry, you do not train them in careful critical thinking in the process, and so you have not guaranteed they have learned to think for themselves, so much as to simply think like you. And you may have just contributed to their ever ongoing habituation throughout the culture in being led by irrationalistic appeals rather than rational ones. This is not just a pitfall of the parts of our movement that dance with religious forms but also the ones which dance with dubious political rhetorical tactics too.

I’m not sure if it is the case that the preacher’s style is always mutually exclusive with training in critical thinking. Clearly a major part of why it’s so dangerous in actual religions is because it is explicitly coupled with injunctions to just have faith and with countless dubious appeals to unjustified authorities. Can a rationalism which explicitly denounces such things be compatible with some fiery preaching? Can one preach successfully against authoritarianism and faith or is there an implicit bogus appeal to faith in the ungrounded authority of the speaker that is structurally there every time a teacher takes recourse to the tactics of the preacher?

Dan waves the red flag of warning and rightly so. Preaching, particularly certain styles of preaching, can be used to manipulate and control. Dan wisely warns about making an end-run around reason. Far too often preaching is nothing more than the reinforcing of this we believe and we shall not be moved from this we believe.

As a preacher turned atheist, I cannot turn off the speaking skills I used to ply my trade for 34 years. They are very much a part of who I am. The best I can do is be mindful of the power of the skills I have and make sure I use them in such a way that people are not only moved but instructed. I need to be aware of the power I have to manipulate people with my words. Self-awareness of this fact will keep me from falling back into using the tricks of the preaching trade to elicit the desired response from those listening to me.

That said, I want to put in a plug for passionate, pointed, challenging public speaking. Quite frankly, the atheist and humanist movement needs a bit of life pumped into it. I have listened to many speeches, lectures, seminars, and debates that people told me were wonderful. Well-known atheists and humanists, aren’t they great? Uh, no. B-o-r-i-n-g. Dry. Monotonous. Some  atheist and humanist speakers would be better off if they stuck to doing  what they do best: writing books and magazine articles. Leave the public speaking to those who do it well. If they are unwilling to do so, then they need to go back to school and take a few speech classes.

The atheist and humanist movement needs people who have the ability to passionately move people to action. I would rather suffer a bit with Jerry Dewitt’s preaching style (and I am not a fan of the Pentecostal style of preaching), than listen to a well-educated, boring man WOW me right into an afternoon nap. We are in a battle against religious zealots and theocrats, and we need speakers who can stir and motivate people to action.

Some atheists and humanists naïvely believe that knowledge is all that matters. Like Joe Friday, they think if they just give people the facts they will see the error of their way. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important; it’s essential. Way too many people becomeatheists out of anger or disappointment with the Christian church. Just like the Christian zealot, the atheist should know why he believes what he does. Or as the Bible says, the atheist should be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within them. But, at the same time, we should not divorce our beliefs from our emotions. Some things matter, and if they matter, our emotions should be stirred, motivating us to act accordingly.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians, wrote about being a voice heard above all others. There is so much clamoring for truth these days. Who do people turn to? Those who stir them; those who speak to them. As atheists and humanists we must not disconnect our intellect from our emotions. If we believe we have the answer to what ails our universe, then we must be passionate about it, and that passion ought to come out in our public speaking. Yes, people need to hear what we have to say, but they also need to feel it.

Ten Years Since I Preached My Last Sermon

preaching against sin

It’s been ten years since I preached my last sermon. Well, according to my counselor, it’s been ten 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 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, offered to move us to Arizona. She thought the weather would be 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 doctor husband bought a beautiful house for us to live in and we quickly settled in to 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 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 church to call home. (See But, Our Church is Different!) We moved from Newark back to NW 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 Christian.

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. 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 1970’s, my library consisted of books by John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, Harry Ironside, and other fundamentalist writers. 25 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 Dorthy 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 teach at the college level, 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.

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

preaching

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from 1976-1979. Midwestern, started in 1954 by Alabama preacher Tom Malone, was a small fundamentalist Baptist college.  Malone pastored nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. In the 1970’s, 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.

During my time at Midwestern, I heard Tom Malone preach several hundred times. Considered by many to be a great pulpiteer, Malone’s preaching was fervent and punctuated 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 grave, I’ve heard thousands of sermons and preached thousands more. I’ve heard men that 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 preaching. An effective sermon requires illustrations. Jesus was a master storyteller. His sermons made ample use of illustrations meant to drive home a spiritual point. A preacher that 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 don’t understand they are doing so. Often, a speaker can tell the same lie over and over until they reach a point where the lie become reality and they think it is 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 and 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 roiled 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 Saviour 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 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.

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.

I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. Baptized a Lutheran and later making a public profession of faith in a Baptist church at the age of fifteen, I had 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, 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. 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. 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 judgment based not on the evidence of the life I lived, but their peculiar interpretation 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 Arminians have less of a problem explaining my life. While they are “troubled” by my apostasy, they recognize that I 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 who leave the ministry, few leave it as I did so late in life. 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 Christian people have 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 family, 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 was 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.

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1983-1994

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 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 kingdom on this earth. Their focus was on their job, career, home, land, 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!

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

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 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 like 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 with 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 2015 Ford Escape 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 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? In about three years, I will officially “retire.” I will 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? Did you do without for the sake of Jesus and the church? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

082216

Preachers and The Lies They Tell About Heaven

heaven and hell
Heaven and Hell

Several years ago, 3 young Ohio boys fell through the ice on the Sandusky River and drowned. What a terrible, terrible tragedy. Two of the boys were brothers.

The pastor of the church where their funeral was held said the following: (link no longer active)

A minister has told mourners that three Ohio boys who fell through ice and died together in a river are now playing together in heaven.

This statement is restated many different ways during countless Christian funerals.

  • Granny is running around heaven now with no pain!
  • Gramps is in heaven now and doesn’t need a wheelchair to get around any more.
  • ________is in heaven and there is no more pain, sickness, disease, suffering, etc.

Here’s the problem…

Statements like these are not true.

Historic, orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that when people die, they go to the grave. They are DEAD. The body remains in the grave until the resurrection. At the resurrection those who have died will receive a new body (1 Cor 15).

So why is it that preachers lie? Why did I lie?

Sentimentality.

Families are grieving. They have lost a loved one. They want to believe there is a divine purpose, and they want to believe that life continues after the grave.

So preachers concoct grand stories about heaven and the immediate transport of the dead from earth to heaven.

Belief in the afterlife requires faith. No one has ever come back from the dead to tell us the what lies beyond the grave (if anything). Anyone who says he has is a liar.

Even Jesus himself didn’t talk about the afterlife after his resurrection from the dead. His disciples did, the apostles did, but not Jesus. He told his disciples that wherever he was they too would be some day. He never mentioned one time any of the things commonly heard in Christian funeral sermons.

Even the notion of spending eternity in heaven is not taught in the Bible. Search all you might, it is not there.

What IS taught in the Bible is that followers of Jesus Christ will live forever in God’s eternal kingdom (on a new earth). On this point the Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably closer in belief to what the Bible teaches than many Evangelical Christians.

The same could be said about hell. Those who are not followers of Jesus will NOT spend eternity in hell. The Bible doesn’t teach that. The Bible DOES teach that unbelievers will spend eternity in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14).

Sentimentality allows preachers, who are supposed to be guardians of Christian doctrine, to ignore what the Bible teaches in favor of telling stories to comfort a grieving family.

I understand WHY they do it but let me be clear here…

Preacher, if you can’t tell the truth when it really matters the most, how can you expect people to believe anything you say? If sentimentality allows you to ignore what the Bible teaches about heaven (and hell) how do we know that you are telling the truth any other time? Not telling the truth in hard circumstances results in a loss of credibility.

As an atheist, I have serious reservations about the notion of an afterlife. At this point in life I lack the requisite faith necessary to believe. I am of the opinion that each of us had best get to living life because it is the only one we have. That said, if you are a Christian you are bound by what the Bible teaches. As a preacher you are obligated to tell the truth. In fact you owe it to your congregants to tell them the truth, even when it is hard to do so.

06/04/16

Dear Bruce Turner

bruce turner
Bruce Turner

Bruce Turner was my youth pastor in the early 1970s. Bruce played a very important part in my life, from my profession of faith in Christ to my call to the ministry. I have published this letter before. As with the previous letters I have posted, I want this letter to be a part of the historical narrative of my life.

Dear Bruce,

I see you found my blog. I am sure the current state of my “soul” troubles you. My “spiritual” condition troubles many as they try to wrap their theological minds around my twenty-five years in the ministry and my present atheistic views.

I plan to address the comment you left at the end of the letter, but before I do so I want to talk about the relationship you and I had and about the influence you had on my life.

You came to Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, fresh out of Baptist Bible College. Trinity was looking to hire a full-time youth pastor and you were the one they hired. You joined the staff of a busy, growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church.

You were there when I put my faith and trust in Jesus. You were there when I was called to preach. You helped me prepare my first sermon (2 Corinthians 5:20). You and I worked a bus route together and went out on visitation.

My parents had recently divorced and you became a surrogate father to me. When my Dad remarried and moved us to Arizona I was devastated. In a few months, I returned to Ohio, and in late summer of 1973, I moved from Bryan to Findlay.

You helped me find a place to live, first with the Bolanders, and then with Gladys Canterbury. For almost a year I went to school, worked a job at Bill Knapp’s, and immersed myself in the ministry of Trinity Baptist Church.  You were there to guide me every step of the way.

When I first moved to Findlay a divorcee and her young daughter wanted to take me in. You wisely made sure that didn’t happen, knowing such a home would not be healthy for me.

When I became enamored with Bob Harrington ( I loved his It’s Fun Being Saved record) you warned me about worshiping big name preachers and you told me to pay attention not only to what they preached but what they didn’t.

You even catered to my personal desires. In the summer of 1973, I had a whirlwind romance with Charlotte Brandenburg. Charlotte was the daughter of the couple who came to hold a Super Summer Bible Rally (VBS) at Trinity. For one solid week, we spent every day with each other. I was smitten with Charlotte.

Later that same year you planned a youth outing to the Troy Baptist Temple, the church Charlotte attended. We went to see the movie, A Thief in the Night, but my real reason for going was to see Charlotte.

bruce gerencser 1971
Bruce Gerencser, 1971, Ninth Grade

When it came time to leave I lingered as long as possible, I didn’t want to leave Charlotte. Finally, I heard a voice the said, Gerencser, get on the bus (for some reason you liked to call me by my last name). As I came hand-in-hand with Charlotte to the bus you turned a way for a moment and told me to get it over with. I quickly kissed Charlotte goodbye and that was the last time I saw her. We wrote back and forth for a few months but, like all such relationships, our relationship died due to a lack of proximity.

You were my basketball coach. Trinity sponsored a team in the ultra-competitive high school age Church Basketball League. One game I had a terrible night shooting the ball. I was frustrated and I told you I wanted out of the game. You refused and made me play the whole game. My shooting didn’t get any better but I learned a life lesson that I passed on to all my children years later.

I remember when this or that person in the youth group got in trouble. You and Reva were there to help them pick up the pieces of their lives. You were a kind, compassionate man.

I remember you helping us get a singing group started. I still remember singing the song Yesterday during a church service (YouTube video of Cathedral Quartet singing this song). I also remember you singing Fill My Cup Lord. Polly and I sang this same song for many years in most every church I pastored.

Who can ever forget your Youth Group survey? You surveyed our attitudes about alcohol, drugs, music and sex and then you dared to use your findings in a sermon. I remember what a stir your sermon caused. You peeled back the façade and revealed that many of the church’s youth were not unlike their non-Christian peers. (it was the ‘70s)

I saw your bad side too. I remember the youth canoe outing where Reva lost her teeth. Boy were you angry. I felt bad for Reva, but in a strange way I loved you even more. I saw that you were h-u-m-a-n. I already knew Gene Milioni and Ron Johnson, the other pastors, were human, having seen their angry outbursts, and now you were mortal too. (Remember I am writing this from the perspective of a fifteen year old boy.)

In May of 1974, I abruptly left Findlay, one week away from the end of school (a move that resulted in Findlay High School denying me credit for my entire 11th grade year). Subsequently, I dropped out of high school.  My Mom was in a world of hurt mentally and she needed me (and I needed her). In the fall of 1974 she would be admitted to the state mental hospital and my Dad would come and move my siblings and me back to Arizona.

In 1976 I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I met my wife at Midwestern, and after leaving there in the Spring of 1979, we embarked on a twenty-five year journey in the pastorate, a journey that took us to seven churches.

bill beard bruce turner 1986
Bill Beard and Bruce Turner, 1986

In 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio. I put to use the things I learned from you, Dr. Tom Malone, and my professors at Midwestern. I put soul-winning first. I committed myself to being a faithful preacher of the truths found in the King James Bible. And “God” blessed the work I did. Somerset Baptist Church grew from a handful people to over two-hundred. We were the largest non-Catholic church in Perry County.

You and I reconnected and I had you come and preach for us. I believe it was a special service and the church was packed with people. The people loved you and I was thrilled to show off my mentor to them. I suppose, deep down, I needed your approbation.

You invited me to come and preach at your church, Braintree Baptist Temple in Braintree, Massachusetts. I now know that the real reason you had me come and preach was because you saw some things that concerned you. My workaholic, Type-A personality was good for growing a church but not so good for me or my family. Sadly, it took me many more years before I realized this.

We stayed in your home in Massachusetts and spent a few days traveling around the area. This was the first “vacation” our family had ever taken and it would be the last one for many years. I was too busy and thought I was too important to take any time off.  Even when I later took vacations, I never took them just to be taking one. I always had a church or conference to preach at while we were on “vacation.”

bruce turner 1986
Bruce Turner with our three oldest children, 1986

You and your dear wife treated us well. You gave us some “run-around” money and we went out to the Cape. My oldest children still remember dipping their feet in the cold waters of the Atlantic.

We parted, promising to keep in touch, but as with Charlotte and me years ago, our relationship died due to a lack of proximity. I suspect my later adoption of Calvinism ended any chance of a continued relationship.

I did write you several times in the 1990s. I read somewhere that you had Fibromyalgia, and when I was diagnosed with the same I wrote you. You never responded. I was disappointed that you never wrote back, but I chalked up to you being busy.

Bruce, I wrote all of this to say that you had a profound effect on my life. I will always appreciate what you did for me.

Now to your comment.

You wrote:

Sorry to see your blog and obvious bitterness toward Baptists. Not all of us preached an easy believing Gospel and certainly not all of us lived a perverted life. These King makers you blog about have never had my respect.

Reva and I have been happily married for 44 years. I am sorry your health is so bad and though you apparently have rejected what you once professed, I am praying for you to the God (not preachers) that I trust.

I sincerely hope your health improves and remember some good times in the old days. Stay healthy friend.

Bruce Turner

I am often accused of being bitter, angry, or some other negative emotion. On one hand, I have every reason to be bitter and angry, but my rejection of Christianity is not ultimately defined by anger or bitterness.

I rejected Christianity because I no longer believe the claims made about the Bible and its teachings. I came to see that the Bible was not inspired, inerrant, or infallible. I came to see that a belief in the God of the Bible could not be sustained rationally (this is why faith is necessary), and even if it could be, I wanted nothing to do with such a capricious, vengeful, homicidal God. I later came to see that the Biblical claims for Jesus could not be sustained. While I certainly think a man named Jesus roamed the Judean hillside during the time recorded in the Bible, the Jesus of the Bible is a myth. At best he was a revolutionary, a prophet who was executed for his political and religious beliefs (and I still, to this day, have a real appreciation for the sermon on the Mount and a few other sayings attributed to Jesus).

My journey away from Christianity and the ministry took many anguish-filled years.  I didn’t arrive to where I am today overnight. I looked at progressive Christianity, the Emergent church, liberal Christianity, and even universalism. None of these met my intellectual need. None of them rang true to me. I made many stops along the slippery slope until I came to the place where I had to admit that I was an atheist (and I still think saying I am a Christian means something).

I am not a hater of Christianity. I have no desire to stop people from worshiping the Christian God. I am well aware of the need many people have for certainty. They want to know their life matters and they want to know that there is life beyond the grave. Christianity meets their need.  Who am I to stand in the way of what helps people get through life?  It matters not if it is true. They think it is true and that is fine by me.

The Christianity I oppose is the Evangelical form of Christianity that demands everyone worship their God, believe what they believe, and damns to hell all those who disagree with them. I oppose their attempts to turn America into a theocracy. I oppose their hijacking of the Republican Party. I oppose their incessant whining about persecution and their demands for special status. I oppose their attempts to deny some Americans of the civil and legal rights others have. (What happened to Baptists believing in a strict separation of church and state?) I oppose their attempt to infiltrate our public schools and teach Creationism or its kissing cousin, Intelligent Design, as science (this is what Christian schools are for). I oppose their attempt to make the Ten Commandments the law of the Land.

The kind of Christianity I mentioned above hurts people and hurts our Country politically and socially. The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement has harmed countless people, sometimes scarring their lives so severely that recovery is almost impossible (and telling people to get over it is not the answer). I weep often as I read emails from people whose lives have been destroyed by the extremes found in the IFB church movement. My blog exists because I want to help people like this. I want them to have a safe place to work through the wreckage of their lives, lives ruined by their involvement in Evangelical and IFB churches.

In many ways, I am still a pastor.  I want to help other people. The difference now, or course, is that I don’t have an agenda. I don’t have a list “truths” that must be believed. If I can help people walk the journey they are on with openness, honesty, and integrity, I am happy. I am concerned with their journey not their destination (since I think we are all headed for the same final destination, death).

I too, Bruce, have prayed thousands of times to the Christian God and yet, like the universe itself, he yawns and remains silent. Instead of hoping for a God to fix what ails me, I have chosen to embrace my life as it is. I have chosen to try to change what I can and accept what I can’t. Above all, I have learned that it is what it is.

Through this blog I try to flesh out my understanding of the past and examine the path I am now on. I try to be open and honest. I don’t have all the answers and, for that matter, I don’t even know all the questions. All I know to do is continue to walk forward, however halting my gait may be.

I shall always remember our days in Findlay and I will always appreciate what you did for me. When I write my autobiography someday there will be a chapter titled Bruce Turner.

Thank you.

Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Turner’s website

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