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Tag: Religious Indoctrination

Understanding Our Evangelical Past Through the Lenses of Indoctrination and Conditioning

religious indoctrination

Thousands of the readers of this blog are former Evangelicals; devout Christians who devoted their lives to God and the church; people who were saved, sanctified, Holy Ghost-filled followers of Jesus. While many of these people have left Christianity altogether, others have tried to find ways to hang onto their faith. Regardless of where they are presently, most of them struggle as they try to reconcile their Evangelical past, with its attendant beliefs, practices, and behaviors, with the people they have now become. I know for me personally, when I look at my past as an Evangelical pastor and a proponent of strict patriarchalism, I have a hard time reconciling my two very different lives. I struggle with guilt over my past life; the things I said and did. I was abusive, arrogant, and self-righteous. I psychologically, and, at times, physically harmed my wife, our six children, and the people who lovingly called me “preacher.” A decade of counseling hasn’t been able to rid me of the guilt I feel over the past. I suspect many of you know exactly what I am talking about.

The question I am focused on these days is why? Why did I become the man, husband, father, and preacher that I did? While the answers to this question are complex, I have concluded that my beliefs and behavior as an Evangelical husband, father, and preacher can be traced back to indoctrination and conditioning. I was raised in an Evangelical home, attended Evangelical churches for fifty years, trained for the ministry at an Evangelical college, married an Evangelical pastor’s daughter, and spent twenty-five years of my life pastoring Evangelical churches. How could I have not turned out exactly as I did? I was surrounded by family, preachers, and professors who reinforced my beliefs; beliefs that were rarely, if ever, challenged. The indoctrination and conditioning were such that I never doubted or questioned my beliefs. It is a miracle that my wife and I are atheists today. Everything militated against a loss of faith, yet somehow, some way, questions and doubts crept in. I know that it is rare for someone like me to deconvert. Am I special? Nope. If anything I’m lucky. By all accounts, I should still be preaching the gospel, winning souls, and pastoring an Evangelical church. Yet, here I am, a godless heathen. Go figure. ūüôā

When I interact with devout Evangelicals on this site, I try to remember that I was once just like them. I know they have a hard time believing this to be true, but I can confidently say that had they known me in the 1980s or 1990s they would have considered me a man of God, a faithful preacher of the good news. They might even have joined my church.

I find myself in a somewhat unique position. I have been on both sides of aisle: devout Evangelical pastor, out-and-proud atheist. This allows me to have a perspective other people may not have. Many of you have similar unique perspectives. Hopefully, these experiences give us compassion for people who are still immersed in Evangelicalism. “Such were some of you,” the Bible says. It’s easy to become annoyed and irritated by Evangelical zealots. I know I have an increasingly short temper with God’s chosen ones. I have to remind myself, “Bruce you were once just like them. Be patient. Be kind. Be that still small voice in their heads.”

Religious indoctrination and conditioning cause untold heartache and harm. For those of us who have been delivered from Evangelicalism, we must give the Evangelicals we interact with the space to see the “light.” That’s not to say that some Evangelicals aren’t so deeply corrupted that it’s impossible to reach them. No amount of interaction with them will change their minds. The Revival Fires, Derrick Thiessens, and Kent Hovinds of the world are too far gone. They have committed the unpardonable sin. There’s no hope for them. We must be careful, however, to not treat other Evangelicals as we do Revival Fires, Thiessen, and Hovind. To quote the Apostle Paul, we must become all things to all men, so that by all means we might save some. If our goal is to reach Evangelicals who have been deeply indoctrinated and conditioned, we must be loving, patient, and kind. We must, even when they don’t, evidence the fruit of the Spirit in our godforsaken lives — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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How to Grow an IFB Preacher, From Seed to Harvest

seed

The path to the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pulpit takes many roads. Some IFB preachers had a crisis in their adult lives, got saved, felt the call of God to the ministry, went to Bible college, and then started pastoring a church. Men with substance abuse problems or horn dog tendencies sometimes take this path. I met a number of preachers who were alcoholics or drug addicts before entering the ministry. Others were fornicators and adulterers who thought the ministry would cure them of their sexual urges. As you might imagine, some of these men found that Jesus was no match for their libido.

Other IFB preachers were “backslidden,” got right with God, felt the call of God to the ministry, went to Bible college, and then started pastoring a church. My father-in-law was one such man. At the age of thirty-five, Dad felt God telling him that he had one last chance to get right with God and enter the ministry. Dad heeded God’s call, quit his ten-year job on the railroad, and moved to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College. Four years later, Dad graduated from Midwestern and spent the next few decades working in God’s vineyard as an evangelist, assistant pastor, pastor, and leading church services for nursing homes.

Some men follow either of these roads, except they skip the college part, entering the ministry without any formal training. The only theological training some IFB preachers have is that they can read the King James Bible. Some of the worst preaching I ever heard was by men who thought college and reading any other book but the KJV was unnecessary — a waste of time. These men believe all they need is the Holy Spirit. Years ago, I heard one such man at an IFB church in Lancaster, Ohio. This man thought preaching was reading the text, going verse by verse, and sharing his personal opinion.

Many IFB preachers were what I call seed-to-harvest preachers. These men were raised in IFB homes, attended IFB churches, were active in IFB youth groups, and were either homeschooled or attended IFB schools. After being saved, often as a child, getting baptized, rededicating their lives as teenagers, and acknowledging the call of God on their lives, these young men left home to study for the ministry at IFB or IFB friendly schools such as Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, Crown College of the Bible, Baptist Bible College, Midwestern Baptist College, Hyles-Anderson College, West Coast Baptist Bible College, Trinity Baptist College, Maranatha Baptist University, Heartland Baptist Bible College, Golden State Baptist Bible College, Faith Baptist Bible College, along with a plethora of church-based Bible institutes. All of these schools exist for the express purpose of preparing men to pastor IFB churches. They may offer other programs, but their focus is on training the next generation of “preacher boys” (and providing women for them to marry).

Seed-to-harvest preachers are typically born to devout IFB parents. Their lives are dominated by the church. I can’t emphasize this point enough. My parents were saved at an IFB church in San Diego, California when I was five. From that time forward, I was in church every time the doors were open: Sunday school, Sunday morning, Sunday evening, youth group, midweek service, revivals, conferences, special prayer meetings, visitation, bus visitation, youth rallies, special youth events, and vacation Bible school. I also played on the church’s softball and basketball teams. When “work days” at the church were announced, I was there. After my call to the ministry, I would skip school so I could attend the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship meetings that were held at the church I was attending at the time.

Socially, most of my friends belonged to the same church as I did. Playing sports did allow me the opportunity to have “worldly” friends, but all of my close friends were fellow church members. I only dated “likeminded” girls; girls who either attended the same church I did or attended other IFB churches. I never dated anyone outside of the church. (Such relationships were frowned upon. Be not unequally yoked with the world, the Bible says.)

While I attended a public school, many seed-to-harvest preachers are either homeschooled or attend a Christian school. It is in these settings that these preachers-to-be are deeply indoctrinated in the one true faith. My six children spent virtually every day of their lives in a world where everything revolved around God/Jesus/Bible/Church. The seed-to-harvest preacher spends most of his formative years immersed in the church and the Bible.

Seed-to-harvest preachers learned that being a preacher is best job in the world. They heard pastors tell them that was no greater job than preaching the gospel, saving souls, and building churches. I heard several preachers say that it would be a step down for them to become President.

Seed-to-harvest preachers quickly learned that being a preacher is a place of honor and prominence, a place of love and respect. They likely heard sermons imploring them to become pastors, missionaries, and evangelists. This thinking was reinforced by their youth pastors. Pastors often view “men called to the ministry” much as a gunslinger does after winning a gunfight. Every time a young man enters the ministry, pastors put another notch on their gospel gun. I’ve heard numerous preachers brag about how many men were called to preach under their ministry.

Now take a step back and look at what I have written. What do you see? Indoctrination. Conditioning. Manipulation. Young, impressionable men becoming a means to an end. My oldest son, Jason, was on the seed-to-harvest path. Everyone expected him to become an IFB preacher just like his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. In the spring of Jason’s senior year, he was accepted to study for the ministry at Pensacola Christian College. PCC offered free tuition for pastors’ children. Many IFB schools do the same, using the free tuition as a way to draw other students from the church to the college.

Jason began having doubts about his salvation. I found this strange because he was a rock-solid Christian, devoted to Jesus and the church. I remember sitting down with Jason and talking with him about his doubts. What I learned is that he felt pressured to join the family business; that he really didn’t want to be a preacher. As soon as I told him he didn’t have to be a preacher, his “doubts” disappeared. For years after, his IFB grandfather would publicly lament the fact that “Jake” didn’t become a preacher. While I was disappointed that he didn’t want to follow in my footsteps, I knew that the ministry wasn’t for everyone.

At the age of five, I told my mom that I wanted to be a preacher. I would gather the neighborhood kids together in the backyard and preach to them. At the age of fifteen, I was saved, baptized, and called to preach. Several weeks later, under the tutelage of Bruce Turner (please see Dear Bruce Turner), I preached my first sermon at the Sunday night youth group meeting. I would preach my last sermon thirty-three years later. All told, I preached over 4,000 sermons.

As I look at my life, I can see how my parents, pastors, and other Christians led me down the path that led to the pulpit. Everything in my life led to the ministry. While I worked numerous “secular” jobs over the years, I saw them as a means to an end, a way for me to make money so I could keep pastoring churches.

Could I have chosen another path? I doubt it. The indoctrination, conditioning, and control was such that I never even entertained a different path. After I married Polly, who was also raised in an IFB home, the die was set. It wasn’t until my late forties that I saw a different path for me. I left the ministry in 2005, and three years later, I left Christianity altogether. I have spent the past fourteen years charting a new path for my life, one where I am the captain, one where my choices are endless (within the constraints of my failing health and limited resources).

Were you a seed-to-harvest preacher? Does what I write in this post ring true to you? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

How Evangelical Churches Exploit Children to Advance Their Agenda

warning sign

Contrary to popular belief, Evangelical churches are not safe spaces for children. In fact, I would argue that churches can be and are dangerous places, and if parents must take their children to church, they shouldn’t let them out of their sight. If the Black Collar Crimes Series has shown me anything, it is that abusers, rapists, and child molesters hide in plain sight behind the pulpits of countless Evangelical churches. Policies, procedures, and criminal background checks do little to protect children (and adults) from predator preachers. Until a Jesus-loving predator preacher has been convicted of a crime, nothing will show up on a background check. We know that predators often commit crimes for years, and even decades, before they are caught, having a clean background check proves nothing. One IFB megachurch preacher committed sex crimes for fifty years before he was caught. Such stories are not uncommon. Just because a preacher is winsome, smiles a lot, shakes your hand, and preaches oratorial gems doesn’t mean he is safe to be around. This is especially true when it comes to youth pastors — young men (and women) with raging hormones who are tasked with teaching and caring for church teenagers. Youth pastor sexual misconduct is so common that I can’t imagine a scenario where it is advisable to let teens participate in church youth programs. Well, maybe if eighty-year-old Granny Sue is the youth director it might be okay to let your teens attend youth group. Note, I said maybe. More than a few of the sexual predators featured in the Black Collar Crimes Series are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties (all men, most of whom preyed on women and children for years before they were caught).

While it is true most Evangelical preachers are not sexual predators, there’s another way these so-called men of God and their churches materially harm children. How? By exploiting children through indoctrination to advance their agendas. The goal is to indoctrinate children, turning them into the next generation of soldiers for God. This training begins as soon as church children are placed in the nursery, places where church workers feed them, hold them, change their diapers, sing religious songs, and read Bible verses to them. Soon these children are enrolled in preschool classes where Bible stories are used to “teach” children “truth.” From there, children move on to children’s church/junior church. It is at this juncture that deep indoctrination begins. Children are taught they are vile sinners, enemies of God. They are told about the Christian blood cult, and how Jesus died on the cross to pay for their sins. Children are pressed to admit they are broken sinners needing salvation through the blood of Jesus. It is not uncommon for church children to make public professions of faith in elementary school. Imagine the pressure placed on children to conform to certain theological and social beliefs. This pressure only increases as children get older, especially teenagers. Teens are expected to fully embrace the Evangelical cult.

Evangelical churches invest boatloads of money and time trying to indoctrinate children. The goal, of course, is to keep children in the church when they grow up. Churches use all sorts of methods and programs to “reach” children — both inside and outside of the church. Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF). Vacation Bible School (VBS). Youth Camp. Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Bible studies in public schools (allegedly student-sponsored). Off-time revival meetings in public schools. Gideon Bible distribution. Ignoring this puts children at risk for religious indoctrination at a time when they lack the requisite skills necessary to separate fact from fiction (and Evangelicals know this, and that’s why they go after children when they are young).

Why do churches separate children from their parents? Rarely do families worship together these days. One youth pastor at a church we attended years ago would badger us about allowing our children to attend youth church during the main worship service. I had to tell him NO repeatedly before he finally got the point. What better way to indoctrinate children than to separate them from their adult caregivers? Sermons can be boring to children (not mine, of course — just don’t ask my kids) so churches segregate children by age and provide trained indoctrination experts to “teach” them the “truth.”

As an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor, I aggressively and shamelessly used every available method to indoctrinate them. Were my motives sincere? Sure. I believed Hell was real, and once a child was old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong he or she could go to Hell unless they were born-again/saved. Who wouldn’t try to keep children from being tortured by God in the Lake of Fire for eternity? However, children lack the mental capacity to make rational decisions about God/Jesus/Bible/Christianity/Heaven/Hell. And even when children reach their teenage years and have the ability to think skeptically and rationally, churches/pastors/and parents often manipulate them by not telling them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You are never going to see an objective comparative religion class taught in Evangelical churches. Children are never going to be exposed to other religions or atheism. And it is for these reasons, and others, churches are dangerous places for children. The goal is not their well-being. The goal is evangelization and indoctrination, thus providing the church with another generation of indoctrinated soldiers for Christ.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Do Fundamentalist Christians Indoctrinate Their Children?

religious indoctrination

When using the word ‚Äúindoctrinate‚ÄĚ in connection with the manner in which Fundamentalist Christian parents raise their children, objectors say that I am using a word that should only be used when describing cult child training methods. According to the defenders of all things Evangelical, it is Fundamentalist religious cults that indoctrinate children, not God-fearing, Bible-believing, Evangelical Christians. (See Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) While I am sure this is the case in many Evangelical homes, only the deliberately blind refuse to see that certain flavors of Evangelical belief are awash in cultic practices, including the indoctrination of children.

In 1 Samuel 1:21-28, Hannah dedicates to the Lord the child (Samuel) God has given her:

And the man Elkanah, and all his house, went up to offer unto the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and his vow.  But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the Lord, and there abide for ever. And Elkanah her husband said unto her, Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have weaned him; only the Lord establish his word. So the woman abode, and gave her son suck until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the Lord in Shiloh: and the child was young. And they slew a bullock, and brought the child to Eli. And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the Lord.For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him: Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshipped the Lord there.

Using the story of Hannah dedicating Samuel to the Lord as justification, countless Evangelical pastors encourage parents to dedicate their children to the Lord. Scores of Evangelical parents have stood before churches, infants in their arms, and made promises to raise their babies in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Often, grandparents are asked to do the same, promising that they will be good examples of Christian belief and practice to their grandchildren. As with Roman Catholic parents and the often-meaningless rite of infant baptism, many of these I Promise God Evangelicals quickly forget their vows, going on to raise their children in nominally Christian homes. As an Evangelical pastor, I became so frustrated by this lack of commitment to vows made before God and the church that I preached sermons from Deuteronomy 23;21:

When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee.

and Ecclesiastes 5:4-6:

When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?

I warned parents that they were provoking God to anger if they stood before the church and made a vow they had no intentions of keeping. Needless to say, requests for baby dedications dropped precipitously.

Having said that, there is a sizable minority within Evangelicalism that takes child dedication vows seriously. These parents do everything they can to indoctrinate their children into the faith once delivered to the saints ‚ÄĒ Evangelical Christianity. Some Evangelical mothers play Christian music or read the Bible out loud while their Evangelical-to-be baby is still in the womb. Soon after birth, Evangelicals parents make sure that their new babies are present in worship services, desiring for them to become accustomed to the voice of the man of God and the singing of the saints. With two of our six children, my wife, Polly, was in church less than 24 hours after being released from the hospital. At the time, I lauded her commitment to our new child’s spiritual training. Today? I just hang my head in shame.

From the crib through college, many children¬†are indoctrinated¬†in all things Evangelical. Since Evangelicalism is primarily anti-cultural and anti-intellectual ‚ÄĒ let the Evangelical whining begin ‚ÄĒ it should come as no surprise that many Evangelical parents withdraw their children from the “world,” choosing to expose them to a religious subculture that I oh-so-fondly call the¬†Christian Ghetto.

kansas board of education

Many Evangelical parents make sure their children are at church every time the doors are open. In Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, it is not uncommon for children to attend¬†four¬†services a week, and that doesn’t include youth rallies, revivals, missions conferences, and special prayer meetings. These same children are often sent to private Christian schools or are home schooled. Using curriculum produced by Fundamentalist publishing houses such as A Beka, Bob Jones, Rod & Staff, Accelerated Christian Education, Alpha Omega Publications, Christian Light Publications,¬†Sonlight¬†Curriculum, or Advanced Training Institute (Bill Gothard), Christian parents make sure their children are only taught a Fundamentalist Christian worldview. After graduation, these same children¬†are encouraged¬†to attend often unaccredited Christian colleges and universities, further indoctrinating them in the faith handed down by Jesus, the Apostles, and their Christian forefathers, as interpreted by twenty-first-century Fundamentalists.

As I mentioned above, many Evangelical children spend an inordinate amount of time in church. Most Evangelical pastors,¬†Sunday¬†school teachers, and youth directors consider it their duty to¬†raise¬†new generations of Evangelical warriors for God. Children¬†are taught that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Often, children reach adulthood without ever hearing anything about the errors and contradictions found in the Bible.¬†Dr. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina, says that it is not uncommon for Southern Baptist-raised students¬†to be¬†shocked upon hearing that the Bible is not the book their parents and pastors say it is. Faced with cognitive dissonance of the first degree, these students often run to the house of faith ‚ÄĒ the safe confines of all who¬†have been lied¬†to about the nature and history of the Biblical text.¬†Other students face crises of faith, leading them to modify¬†or outright reject Evangelical beliefs ‚ÄĒ beliefs, I might add that aren’t theirs to start with, but those of their pastors and parents.

Most Evangelicals begin adult life with a borrowed system of belief, into which they have been indoctrinated their entire lives. Taught to believe and not think, these young adults are thrown out into a world that has no regard for their beliefs. Unable to defend their beliefs and moral pronouncements, these fully grown Evangelicals either lose their faith or once again retreat to the safety of their houses of worship, places where questions and doubts are washed away with a magic potion of faith and obedience.

Evangelicalism is inherently¬†revivalistic, focusing on¬†the salvation of¬†sinners ‚ÄĒ those who have not repented of their sins and expressed faith in Jesus Christ. Evangelicals of all stripes believe that children come into the world as sinners, broken and alienated from God, and in need of eternal salvation. Most, if not all, Evangelical sects say that children aren’t accountable for their sin until they understand the difference between right and wrong. (Calvinists would beg to differ, I’m sure.) This standard, of course,¬†is established by the Biblical interpretations of pastors and parents, and varies from church to church and family to family. Most Evangelical pastors and parents would agree that it is best for children¬†to be¬†saved (born again) at an early age. As a result, it is not uncommon to hear of Evangelical children being saved at ages as young as four or five. Both my wife and I were saved¬†the first time at age five, and like many Evangelical children, we later rededicated our lives to the Lord as teenagers. I have had parents tell me that their¬†three-year-old toddlers had asked Jesus into their heart. These toddlers, as are most Evangelical children,¬†were taught¬†that disobeying their parents was sin. If these toddlers understood what it meant to obey and disobey their parents this meant that they were “sinners” and were now in danger of dying and going to Hell. No Evangelical parent wants their child to go to Hell, so with sincere intentions, these parents encourage (goad?) their progeny to pray to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Viola! Their children are miraculously forgiven of their sins and booked for a room in God’s mansion in the sky ‚ÄĒ a room Jesus is now preparing just for them.

Many Evangelical churches spend a significant amount of money and time on programs that¬†are meant¬†to thoroughly indoctrinate children in the teachings of the Bible. Countless church workers warn their little charges of the dangers of sin, the need of salvation, the wonders of heaven, and the horrors of Hell. These methods result in¬†numerous children and teenagers getting “saved.” Once saved, these born-again children¬†are encouraged¬†to dedicate their lives in the service of the Lord. Children are encouraged to serve the Lord full time as pastors, evangelists, missionaries, Christian school teachers, and pastors‚Äô wives. More than a few Evangelicals pastors from my youth told me that becoming a pastor was the most important job in the world, greater than even becoming¬†the president of¬†the United States. (I was five years old when I first said I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up.)

westboro baptist children

Is it any shock, then, based on what I have written, that critics of Evangelicalism such as myself say that many Evangelical churches, pastors, and parents use cult-like indoctrination methods to¬†ensure¬†that their children continue to worship the family/cultural God? Evangelical children are not taught to reason and think (for the most part). Faith trumps reason, beliefs trump facts. Years ago, I tried to show a colleague and best friend of mine several of the errors that are found in the King James Bible. He believed that the King James Bible was the inerrant Word of God. I had, but a few weeks previous, similar beliefs,¬†but I had recently found out that the KJV translation did indeed have errors and contradictions. I thought,¬†at the time, that my good friend surely would want to know this, but I quickly found out that no matter what I showed him, he had no intentions of changing his beliefs. With a raised faith-filled voice, my friend told me,¬†I don’t care if you can show me errors in the King James. By faith, I am going to believe that the KJV is the perfect Word of God.

So it is in many Evangelical churches and homes. Atheists often wrongly think that Evangelicals will turn from their beliefs if they are confronted with the true nature of the Bible. They are astonished when Evangelicals reject evidence and facts and appeal to faith. These atheists fail to understand that no amount of evidence or argumentation can penetrate a worldview built upon a foundation of Fundamentalist Biblical belief. Properly indoctrinated (and conditioned) Evangelicals will rebuff attempts to lead them away from their beliefs. Is this not exactly what their parents and pastors warned them would happen? False teachers lurk in the shadows, ready and willing to lead you away from your Biblical beliefs, countless Evangelical pastors warn. Doubt and questions are tools of Satan used to lead you astray! Flee from anyone who causes you to doubt your faith! Unshaken will their faith remain until something causes them to at least consider that one or more of their beliefs might be wrong.

Rarely will arguments with atheists produce such doubts. This is why I don’t try to argue anyone out of his or her faith. I¬†encourage¬†Evangelicals to read, and then ask questions ‚ÄĒLOTS¬†of questions. I¬†encourage¬†them to ask their pastors questions, noting their responses. If their pastors sidestep questions, appeal to faith, or quote a number of Bible verses, it is safe to assume said pastors are trying to hide something or are ignorant themselves. Sometimes, events will happen in their lives that cause Evangelicals to doubt the love, justice, and fairness of God. These doubts often¬†provide¬†a springboard for discussions¬†concerning¬†suffering and God’s culpability in the things that afflict humans and animals alike. Knowing that many Evangelicals have intellects that¬†have been smothered by dogma, rote learning, and proof-texting, those of us who want to help people break free of Fundamentalist bondage¬†must be¬†willing¬†to be¬†longsuffering, patient, and kind, knowing that the path out of Evangelicalism is often fraught with false starts, trepidation, and much intellectual and emotional anguish. To quote the Rolling Stones,¬†time is on my (our) side, yes it is. We know the Evangelical God is a fiction, and that Heaven¬†and Hell¬†are mythical places used as carrots and sticks by preachers to¬†ensure¬†the fidelity of parishioners to the one true faith (and continued money in offering plates). I am willing to wait patiently as truth does its perfect works in the minds of those who sincerely believe¬†in the existence of¬†the Evangelical God and¬†the infallibility of the Christian Bible

As I look back over my own life, I am left to conclude that it was impossible for me to grow up to be anything but an Evangelical preacher. My mind was so saturated from the religious indoctrination of my parents, pastors, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and college professors that my fate was sealed. Sadly I was almost fifty years old before I finally figured out that my life was constructed on a false foundation and an elaborate framework of lies. It pains me to admit this, but in doing so I sincerely hope I can help others steer clear of Evangelicalism and its intellect-numbing worldview.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Questions: Bruce, Is the IFB Church Movement a Cult?

questions

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Anne asked:

Is the IFB considered to be a cult in America?

The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement is a group of autonomous local churches that trace their lineage back to the liberal/modernist vs. Evangelical/Fundamentalist controversy in the 20th century. Thousands of churches left denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and American Baptist Convention, to name a few, and establish independent churches. Many of these churches “fellowshipped” (grouped) around IFB and other Fundamentalist colleges (Bob Jones University, Maranatha Baptist College, Midwestern Baptist College, Tennessee Temple, Pensacola Christian College, The Crown College, Hyles-Anderson College, Baptist Bible College, Massillon Baptist College, Trinity Baptist College, West Coast Baptist College, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, and others) IFB missions groups, pastor’s fellowships, and IFB fellowship groups such as the Sword of the Lord and the Southwide Baptist Fellowship. Some IFB churches were/are fiercely independent, choosing not to fellowship with anyone. (Please see Let‚Äôs Go Camping: Understanding Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Camps.)

In the 1960s-1980s, many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB congregations. Today, many of those churches and colleges are in numeric decline or have closed their doors. From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Established by Tom Malone, the pastor of a nearby IFB megachurch, Emmanuel Baptist Church, the college churned out scores of pastors, evangelists, missionaries, Christian school teachers, and pastor’s wives. Today, the church is dead, the college campus has been turned into efficiency apartments and a senior center, and the college continues to hold classes for a handful of students at Shalom Baptist Church in Orion, Michigan. Midwestern’s website hasn’t been updated in a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the college closed its doors.

While at Midwestern, I married the daughter of Lee Shope, an IFB pastor and graduate of the college. After our marriage in 1978, Polly and I spent the twenty-five years pastoring IFB and other Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Both of us were raised in IFB homes and attended IFB churches. Our lives were deeply shaped (and marred) by the IFB church movement. Both of us are unbelievers today, but the IFB beliefs and practices still lurk deep within the recesses of our minds. That’s what religious indoctrination will do to you.

Anne asks if the IFB church movement is a cult. The short answer is yes. (Please see One Man’s Christianity is Another Man’s Cult and The IFB Blood Cult: I’m Not Brainwashed, I’m Bloodwashed.

In January 2021, Dr. Steven Hassan, a mental health professional and former member of the Unification Church, published a dissertation titled The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking and the Law. Using Hassan’s BITE model, it is apparent that the IFB church movement is a cult, as are many other Evangelical sects and churches.

The following describes the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people. Note that it is not necessary for a group to engage in all the behaviors mentioned below to be considered a cult:

Behavior Control

1. Regulate individual’s physical reality
2. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member
lives and associates or isolates
3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
4. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
5. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
7. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
8. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
9. Major time spent with group indoctrination and
rituals and/or self indoctrination including the
Internet
10. Permission required for major decisions
11. Thoughts, feelings, and activities (of self and
others) reported to superiors
12. Rewards and punishments used to modify
behaviors, both positive and negative
13. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
14. Impose rigid rules and regulations
15. Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning,
cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
16. Threaten harm to family and friends
17. Force individual to rape or be raped
18. Instill dependency and obedience
19. Encourage and engage in corporal punishment

II. Information Control

1. Deception:
a. Deliberately withhold information
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
c. Systematically lie to the cult member
2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
b. Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
b. Control information at different levels and missions within group
c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
4. Encourage spying on other members
a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
b. Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies
and other media
b. Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
6. Unethical use of confession
a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories.

III. Thought Control

1. Require members to internalize the group’s
doctrine as truth
a. Adopting the group’s ‚Äėmap of reality‚Äô as
reality
b. Instill black and white thinking
c. Decide between good vs. evil
d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs.
outsiders)
2. Change person’s name and identity
3. Use of loaded language and clichés which
constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and
reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
4. Encourage only ‚Äėgood and proper‚Äô thoughts
5. Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states,
undermine critical thinking and even to age regress
the member
6. Memories are manipulated and false memories are
created
7. Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut
down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts
and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful
thinking
b. Chanting
c. Meditating
d. Praying
e. Speaking in tongues
f. Singing or humming
8. Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking,
constructive criticism
9. Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or
policy allowed
10. Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate,
evil, or not useful
11. Instill new ‚Äúmap of reality‚ÄĚ

IV. Emotional Control

1. Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings ‚Äď some emotions and/or needs are
deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
2. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger,
doubt
3. Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s
or the group’s fault
4. Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as
a. Identity guilt
b. You are not living up to your potential
c. Your family is deficient
d. Your past is suspect
e. Your affiliations are unwise
f. Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
g. Social guilt
h. Historical guilt
5. Instill fear, such as fear of:
a. Thinking independently
b. The outside world
c. Enemies
d. Losing one’s salvation
e. Leaving or being shunned by the group
f. Other’s disapproval
6. Extremes of emotional highs and lows ‚Äď love bombing and praise one moment
and then declaring you are horrible sinner
7. Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
8. Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or
questioning the leader’s authority
a. No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
b. Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable
diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
c. Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
d. Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak,
undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or
seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
e. Threats of harm to ex-member and family

Freedom of Mind Resource Center

One of the difficult things I had to come to terms with is the fact that I was raised in a cult, and attended this cult’s churches and college. I would then marry a woman also raised in this cult, and we would spend most of our married life pastoring cultic churches. My life was dominated by cultic beliefs and practices until I was in my 40s. Simply put, I was a cult leader.

I am sure IFB pastors and church members who stumble upon this blog will object to being labeled a cult. The Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Moonies are cults, not us! We are “Biblical” Christians. We pastor New Testament Churches. We can trace our lineage all the way back to Jesus. And on and on it goes. However, using the BITE model, it is clear the IFB church movement is a cult; that its pastors are cult leaders; that its colleges continue to train the next generation of cult leaders.

If it walks, talks, and acts like a cult, it is a cult.

I have written 451 posts about the IFB church movement and its colleges and pastors. Here’s a selection from these posts:

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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An Example of How I Indoctrinated Children as an IFB Pastor

bruce-gerencser-street-preaching-september-7-1990
Bruce Gerencser, preaching on a Zanesville, Ohio street corner, September 7, 1990. This photograph was on the front page of the Zanesville Times-Recorder.

I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio for eleven years, from 1983-1994. I started the church in a storefront with 16 people. The church later grew to over 200 people. In 1989, after stopping our multi-county bus ministry due to costs, I started a tuition-free non-chartered Christian school for church children.

For five years, Polly and I, along with a handful of dedicated church members, got up early each morning and made our way to Somerset Baptist Academy (SBA) to teach our church’s children. Best described as a one-room schoolhouse, SBA had fifteen students. Most of the students were lacking academically, and though in retrospect some aspects of our school program were lacking, when it came to the basics, we excelled.

During this time, I was introduced to street preaching by Evangelist Don Hardman. Annually, Hardman would come to our church and hold a fifteen-day protracted meeting — the highlight of the church calendar year. Hardman and I later had a falling out due to my embrace of Calvinism. (Please see the series, My Life as a Street Preacher.)

Several times a week, I would take the church children with me to Newark and Zanesville where I preached and they handed out tracts and attempted to evangelize passersby. After a few years of doing this, I stopped due to increasing criticism from locals, suggesting that it was wrong (cultic) for me to use the children in this manner. While I wholeheartedly objected to their assertions — how was selling school raffle tickets any different? — I recognized that their continued participation was harming the church’s “testimony.”

What follows is a story written in 1990 by then Newark Advocate writer Kathy Wesley (behind paywall). The main character in the story is Shawn Nelson, a ninth-grade student at Somerset Baptist Academy.

You Never Realize How Wicked the World Is by Kathy Wesley, a features writer for The Advocate. Published September 16, 1990

NEWARK– The summer breeze is playing tricks with Shawn Nelson’s sandy hair, blowing it to and fro like wheat straw.

The sun is bright, the afternoon warm, the streets full of people. But Shawn sees darkness around the Courthouse Square.

“You never realize how wicked the world is until you get out there and see it,” the 14-year-old says, glancing around. “You see women in these short skirts, and men wearing no shirts at all, yelling and cussing at their kids.”

While many of his friends are back on the public school playground tossing footballs or dribbling basketballs, Shawn is toting his well-worn Bible in a race against evil on the Courthouse Square.

He spends three hours a week on the streets of Newark and Zanesville with 11 classmates from Somerset Baptist Academy, handing out tracts and opening their Bibles to anyone who will listen.

‚ÄúIt’s fun,” he says, shifting his Good Book from one hand to another and fingering his quarter-inch-thick packet of tracts. “You get to show people how to go to heaven.”

A well-dressed woman passes by, brusquely refusing Shawn’s tract, which asks on its front cover, “Where are you going to spend eternity?”

“It’s OK,” he says afterward. “You get used to it.”

Shawn’s been on the streets since May, when a traveling evangelist sold his pastor, the Rev. Bruce Gerenscer [sic], on street ministering. It felt strange at first to walk up to complete strangers and push Bible tracts into their hands, but Shawn is now a pro.

The latter-day apostle knows all the ropes: don’t give people a chance to say no, don’t step off the sidewalk. ‚ÄúAs long as you’re on the sidewalk,‚ÄĚ he explains, ‚Äúyou’re on public property and no one can arrest you.‚ÄĚ

Like the other children, ranging in age from 9 to 16, Shawn has a Bible marked at the two verses they are to show to people who might stop to ask them for spiritual guidance: John 3:16 (” For God so loved the world ‚Ķ “) and Revelations [sic] 3:20.

In four months on the street, nobody’s asked Shawn to show them the way to salvation, but he’s ready. He’s in the midst of memorizing his Bible.

‚ÄúI want to memorize the whole thing,” he says. “That way, when someone asks you a Bible question, you’ll immediately know the answer.”

There’s not a lot of Bible quizzes given on the streets of downtown Newark, but Shawn seems fairly confident already. His answers to questions of faith spill quickly from memory with childlike enthusiasm.

‚ÄúIn the old days religion was different,” he says. “Then men decided they wanted new religions, which had nothing to do with the Bible.”

‚ÄúThe Mormons and Presbyterians, among others, are in trouble with the Bible,‚ÄĚ Shawn says. “They believe in a different way to go to heaven. Some say you have to work your way to heaven ‚Ķ but the Bible says the only way to heaven is through the Father.”

He’s not sure what it is to be a Christian, “except that you should obey the Bible and you shouldn’t sin.” But the details of those requirements seem to be a little hazy.

With the exception of his ambition to memorize the Bible, Shawn’s future is likewise fuzzy. He hasn’t thought about a career, although he acknowledges he has a fondness for automobiles and engines.

It’s fun for him to be on the street; he recalls with delight the lemonade a Zanesville street vendor gave him one day. But behind it all is his deadly serious mission.

Unlike his predecessor Paul, who spread the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the streets of downtown Ephesus in the First Century, Shawn doesn’t have to dodge spears and unfriendly government officials. He just has to put up with the rejection of people who walk a half block out of their way to go around him, and the taunts of children his own age who pass on bicycles.

“Sometimes they ride by and they mock us,” Shawn says, “and I don’t like it.”

But not, he says, because they hurt his feelings.

“I don’t like it,” he says quietly, with the firmness of childhood certainty, “because I know they’re going to die and go to hell.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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The Danger of IFB Summer Youth Camps

youth camp

Many former Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church members can remember attending summer youth camps during their teenage years. (Please see Camp Chautauqua, Miamisburg, Ohio.) I attended camp every summer between my seventh and tenth grade school years. The summer after seventh grade, I attended an Ohio-based Bible church youth camp. The next year, I attended Camp Patmos — a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) camp. The following two years, I attended Camp Chautauqua in Miamisburg, Ohio — a camp facility owned and operated by the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship.

I always looked forward to attending camp. It was one week out of the summer when I could get away from home and meet up with friends from other churches, meet new acquaintances and, most of all, fall in love. While there were plenty of girls to date at my home church, camp afforded me the opportunity to meet and pursue new loves. At the end of every camp, my new girlfriend and I traded addresses, promising to write one another. Surely, our “love” would survive until next year’s camp, right? Alas, such relationships died by the time the church bus turned out of the camp’s driveway headed for home. Forty-five years later, I am still waiting for that beautiful black-haired girl from Elyria to write me. Something tells me that she won’t be writing, and much like her redheaded flame, she found that absence does not make the heart grow fonder, and a nice-looking boy at church is a lot more appealing than the promise of letters to come.

In 2016, I wrote a post detailing my experiences at Camp Chautauqua:

I have many fond memories of the two summers I spent at Camp Chautauqua. The spiritual emphasis was intense and played an instrumental part in my call to the ministry. A number of the big-gun Baptist preachers preached at the evening chapel services. I can still remember Peter Ruckman’s sermons, complete with his famous chalk drawings. I also remember John Rawlings, then pastor of Landmark Baptist Temple (now Landmark Church) in Cincinnati, preaching one night, and during his sermon he told an illustration about cleaning shit out of the barn when he was young. He actually said the word SHIT!! Needless to say, I was stunned. Later in life, I learned that some Christians didn’t think shit was a curse word, especially when used to describe animal manure.

Camp brought upwards of a thousand youth together for one week. Camp Chautauqua had a lot of real estate for meandering teens to get lost in. Follow me for a moment…It’s the 70s. A thousand teenagers, ninth through twelfth grades. Lots of real estate in which hormone-raging teens could get lost. Well, use your imagination. The highlight of youth camp for me was the girls.

….

The first year I went to Camp Chautauqua, Gene Milioni, the pastor of Trinity Baptist, was our cabin counselor. He was pretty easy to outwit. The next year, the youth pastor, Bruce Turner, was the cabin counselor, (please see Dear Bruce Turner) and he proved to be every bit our match. He was not so far removed from his own youth that he had forgotten the dangers of putting a bunch of teenage boys and girls in proximity to one another.

Practical jokes were an everyday occurrence. The jokes were fun to pull on others, but payback could be brutal. From stolen bedding and purloined light bulbs to shaving cream in sleeping bags, practical jokes were a part of what made camp a great experience. And besides, I was a pretty good joke perpetrator.

The music was another highlight of camp. Most of the churches that brought their teens to camp were mid-size to large churches, so the music talent level was superb. Wonderful music. To this day, I think some of the best singing I have ever heard was at Camp Chautauqua.

If I had a negative experience at camp, I don’t remember it. Perhaps, this is the wistful remembering of an old man trying to recall what happened 45 years ago during the glory days of his youth. Perhaps my fond memories are a reflection of the fact that camp, for me and for many others, was a respite from our fundamentalist churches and family dysfunction. Camp was the one week out the year that I got to hang out with my friends and meet new people without having adults watching my every move.

This summer, thousands of IFB teenagers will go to camp. Some teens will attend camps at the facilities mentioned above. Others will attend camps such as the Bill Rice Ranch or The Wilds. My wife’s family is deeply ensconced in the IFB church movement. Many of her relatives send their teens to the Bill Rice Ranch — an uber-fundamentalist camping program. Some IFB churches, wanting to preserve their INDEPENDENT status, hold their own camps. I did this for several years in southeast Ohio. We would rent a camp for a week, and then invite like-minded churches to attend. The last camp I participated in featured a preacher from Fort Wayne who believed Christians could be demon-possessed. He spent the week excusing all sorts of bad behavior as demon possession. By the time the week was over, I wanted to strangle the man. Come the next Sunday, I made sure the teens and adults from my church who attended the camp knew that I totally disagreed with the notion of Christian demon possession.

Over the weekend, I pondered my experiences attending IFB youth camps, and whether my feel-good camp experiences covered up something insidious; that these camps, regardless of how much fun campers have, are tools used by IFB churches and pastors to indoctrinate children and teenagers. IFB church leaders know that they must draw in children and teens before they can be indoctrinated. Thus, camp advertising materials focus on all the fun campers will have, and not the fact that there will be hours-long Bible studies, devotionals, church services, and afterglows (highly emotional after-service campfires). High-powered IFB evangelists, youth pastors, and conference speakers are brought in to evangelize the lost and indoctrinate the saved. Most camp attendees will return to their home churches “on-fire” for God. Perhaps former IFB church members will remember the Sundays after camp when attendees were paraded in front of their churches and asked to give testimonies about what God had done for them over the past week. Passionate testimonies of conversion or getting right with God, complete with tears, are often heard. Adults shout ‚ÄúAMEN!‚ÄĚ, praising God for the work he has done in the lives of church teenagers. Yet, in a matter of weeks or months, life for these “changed” teenagers returns to normal, just in time for the church’s annual youth revival or other event meant to stir religious passions.

Many IFB teenagers become immune to indoctrination, enjoying the fun and enduring the Jesus stuff. Others, such as myself, become caught up in a constant cycle of sinning and getting right with God; a continual striving for holiness and perfection. The ultimate goal of camps, youth revivals, youth rallies, and youth conferences is to thoroughly indoctrinate teenagers so they will actually “feel” God calling them to full-time service as pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and Christian school teachers. Those feeling “called” will be further indoctrinated, hopefully leading them to “feel” God calling them to attend an IFB college. (Many IFB preachers see teens called into the ministry as the highwater mark of their ministries, the passing on of the Fundamentalist Baptist torch.) Countless IFB preachers felt the “call” of God at youth camp. While I felt the “call” during a service preached by IFB evangelist Al Lacy, there’s no doubt summer youth camp played an instrumental part in my decisions to become a preacher, attend Midwestern Baptist College, and pastor Evangelical churches for twenty-five years.

How about you? Did you attend IFB summer youth camp? Please share your experiences in the comment section. Non-IFB church camp stories are welcome too!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

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Bruce, If God Isn’t Real, Who is to Blame for Your Life as a Pastor?

never question god

My recent post titled Dear Jesus, I Want a Refund has really made a mark and is getting a lot of attention. As I pondered what I had written, I thought about what questions people might ask me. This post is an attempt to answer one of the questions that came to mind: Bruce, If God Isn’t Real, Who is to Blame for Your Life as a Pastor?

The¬†Dear Jesus¬†post is written from the perspective that Jesus is God, and that he is alive and well somewhere in the Christian God’s heaven. Now, I don’t believe that to be true, but I wrote the post from that perspective because it allowed me to share with readers the emotional struggles I have faced coming to terms with how I lived my life as a devout, committed pastor.¬†Dear Jesus¬†allows readers to see my struggles and perhaps, in doing so, it might help them to understand their own battles with the past.

Let me be clear, I am an atheist. Anyone suggesting otherwise has failed to understand my story. If you happen to be one such doubting Thomas, I would love to know what in my journey leads you to conclude that I am not what I claim to be. Over the years, countless Evangelicals have attempted to cast doubt, suggesting that I am still a Christian; that deep down in my heart of hearts I still believe; that my writing reveals that I still yearn for a relationship with Jesus. None of these things, of course, is true. Who knows me better than yours truly? So, when I say I am an atheist, I am telling the truth. There’s no ulterior motive here, neither is there a yearning for the good old days when me are J.C. were best buds. These days, the only bud I want grows on a leafy green plant.

Ultimately, I am to blame for the decisions I made during my years as a Christian and as an Evangelical pastor. All of us are responsible for the choices we make. The issue then, is what influenced my decision-making? Why did I make these decisions? God, of course, had nothing to do with it — he doesn’t exist. Yet, for fifty years I believed God was speaking to me, directing my life, and leading me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. If God wasn’t speaking to me, who or what were the voices I heard? If it wasn’t God impressing on my mind certain Bible verses or decisions, who was?

I grew up in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) home. I was raised by parents who believed, at least outwardly, that the Christian deity was the one true God and the Bible was his revealed will for mankind. The Gerencser family attended church every time the doors were open. This stopped for the rest of my family when my parents divorced. I was fifteen at the time. Unlike my family, I continued on in the faith, attending church every time the doors were open. I believed every word in the Bible was the words of God. I believed in a God who was personally and intimately involved in my life. My parents may have forsaken the way, but I was determined to stay the course. Church friends from my high school days will tell you that I was a true-blue believer, as will my heathen friends whom I attempted to evangelize.

From my preschool years forward, my mind was bombarded with sermons and¬†Sunday¬†school lessons. By the time I was eighteen, I had heard almost four thousand Evangelicals sermons and lessons. Those whom I listened to had several motivations. First, they wanted to lead me to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Second, they wanted to teach me the¬†way, truth, and life¬†found within the pages of the King James Bible. Third, they wanted to indoctrinate me in the¬†one true faith. Week after week and year after year, these promoters of what they believed was the old-time religion assaulted my mind with Biblical “truth.” They wanted to make sure that I was steadfast in the faith, and that when I entered the “world”¬†my faith would stand; and it did until I was fifty years old.

At the age of fifteen, I believed God spoke to me, saying that he wanted me to be a preacher. At the age of nineteen, I enrolled in classes at¬†Midwestern Baptist College¬†in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was known as a premi√®re IFB preacher training school (and it was cheaper than many other IFB schools). While there, I met a pretty dark-haired girl who believed God had spoken to her too. God wanted Polly to be a pastor’s wife. Both of us had minds open wide for whatever it was these great men of God were going to teach us. And for three years, our minds were pummeled with preaching and teaching that only reinforced the beliefs we entered college with.

This is not to say that I was blind to the contradictions that surrounded me; not textual contradictions, but failures of preachers and teachers to practice what they preached. During my three years at Midwestern I noticed that there was a¬†do as I say, not as I do¬†mentality. Girls weren’t allowed to wear slacks, but the college president’s wife and daughters were allowed to do so as long as they were away from the college. The president’s youngest daughter was permitted to single-date, while the rest of the single students were required to double-date. Dating students were not allowed to physically touch each other; that is, unless they were in one of the college’s Shakespearean productions. Then touching, kissing, and even cursing was permitted. Students were not permitted to listen to secular music, yet at the annual Valentine’s banquet, secular songs such as¬†I’m on the Top of the World¬†by the Carpenters were performed by college students. Silly stuff, right? But there were serious contractions too. One of the teachers was a homosexual. He lived in the dorm and often had students as his “roommates.”¬†Homosexuality was considered a sin above all sins, yet the college administration turned a blind eye to this man’s “sin.”

During my sophomore year, a huge scandal broke out. The college basketball coach and drama department chair had an affair with the wife of the college dean. The matter was quietly and discreetly handled, with the offenders being dismissed from their jobs. Not one word was said to the student body. Gossip and complaining (griping) were swiftly and severely punished. After three years at Midwestern — having experienced and seen behaviors that were contrary to the company line — you would think that I would have had doubts about Christianity. Sadly, I didn’t. I developed a¬†people are¬†people¬†approach to moral and ethical failures. The Devil and the flesh were the problems, not God and the Bible.

I left Midwestern in the spring of 1979 with a pregnant wife in tow. My faith was stronger than ever, and I was ready to make my mark as a God-called, spirit-filled preacher of the gospel. Over the course of the next four decades, my beliefs and practices would change, but my commitment to God endured. While I considered myself a progressive when I left the ministry in 2005, I still believed the basic tenets of Christianity were true.

When I look back over my life, the only conclusion I can come to when attempting to understand why I made certain decisions is that I had been deeply and thoroughly indoctrinated by Evangelical preachers and teachers. Even as a pastor, I continued to immerse myself in books that validated my beliefs. I attended conferences and special meetings that only reinforced my beliefs. Worse yet, I took my beliefs and passed them on to thousands of other people; people who saw me as a man of God; people who believed my sermons and teachings were straight from God; people who wanted someone to stand between them and God and tell them what to believe and how to live. That the churches I pastored prospered (until they didn’t) was evidence of God’s blessing. This was especially true during the eleven years I pastored Somerset Baptist Church in Southeast Ohio.

The question then, based on how I was raised and what I was taught in the churches I attended and as a college student, how could I have turned out any other way? If I were to psychoanalyze myself, I suspect I would conclude that the church became stand-in for my parents after my mom and dad divorced. I would also likely conclude that Evangelicalism fed my perfectionist, OCPD tendencies. I had a deep-seated need to be right. I also had a need to be wanted, loved, and respected. The ministry gave me all these things.

So yes, the decisions I made as an Evangelical pastor were mine, but they were not made in a vacu√ľm. The only way to understand how and why I made the decisions I did, including the ones the harmed me personally and my family, is to view them from a sociological or environmental perspective. The sum of my experiences affected how and why I made certain decisions. The decisions were mine, of course, but now you know why I made these choices (ignoring here, for now, discussions about whether any of us has free will).

My Christian faith rested on a Bible foundation. I believed the Bible was a supernatural book written by a supernatural God.¬† The Bible was God’s roadmap or blueprint for my life and the lives of my wife and children. It was only when I learned that the Bible was not what Evangelicals claim it is that my Christian house came tumbling to the ground. Once I understood that the Bible was written by fallible, errant men, and that it was not in any way inspired, inerrant, or infallible, I was then free, for the first time, to seriously and thoroughly investigate the claims of Christianity. And when I did, I found out that the emperor had no clothes, and that the wizard behind the screen was self, not God. Understanding this ripped my life to shreds, forcing me to rebuild it from the ground up. Every former belief and presupposition was investigated and tossed aside. At the age of fifty, I was forced (or better put, had the opportunity) to build my life anew. I am blessed to have my wife and children walking along with me as I find my way through this wild, woolly world. My writing is my way of helping those who may be where I once was or who have recently exited the cult. I am not an expert or an authority, but I am one man who knows that it is possible to live a wonderful, abundant, satisfying life post-Jesus. I hope, by telling my story, that people will see that a good life is possible without all the religious baggage. And sleeping in on Sundays? Priceless….

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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Are Children Born Atheists?

babies

Recent discussions on Fundamentalist¬†Tony Breeden’s deconstruction of my life¬†have revealed that I need to clarify something I wrote several years ago in the series titled¬†From Evangelicalism to Atheism. In¬†Part Two of the series, I said:

One of the questions I am often asked is, Why did you become an Evangelical or Why did you become an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist?

This is the wrong question. The real question is, how could I NOT have become an Evangelical or Independent Fundamentalist Baptist?

Every child born into this world is an atheist. Not one of them knows one thing about god or religion, nor about sin, salvation, or morality. As far as god and religion are concerned, every newborn is a blank slate.

Belief in god must be taught and learned. This teaching is done by parents, extended family, and the culture/society the child grows up in. Children taken to a church, temple, or synagogue, are taught to KNOW god, to know their parents’ religion.

Most children embrace the religion of their parents. Parents who worship the Christian god generally raise children who are Christian. This is especially the case when it comes to Evangelical children. From the toddler years forward, Evangelical children are taught that they are sinners in need of salvation. They are taught that unless they ask Jesus into their hearts, they will end up in hell when they die. Every Sunday at church, at home during the week, and at school, if they attend a Christian school, Evangelical children face an onslaught of manipulative evangelistic methods geared to help them accept Jesus as their Savior.

The focus of discussion on Breeden’s blog is my contention that children are born into the world atheists. Scientific studies challenge this notion, so I want to clarify what exactly I mean when I say “Every child born into this world is an atheist.”

While there are tentative studies that suggest that humans have some sort of innate disposition towards religion/spirituality, this is hardly settled science. In a recent comment on Breeden’s post, Michael Mock had this to say:

  1. Claiming that human beings are born atheists or religious is at best misleading and at worst wholly incorrect; the actual state of affairs is more complicated than that.\
  2. Research has shown that children have this natural tendency to interpret features as if they have a purpose, but if you look at the incredible variety of human religious beliefs, it‚Äôs extremely hard to argue that ‚Äúthis naturally leads to a belief in a Creator God‚ÄĚ when the vast majority of what it leads to is more along the lines of animism, pantheism, or polytheism. (Seriously, check out a book on traditional creation myths some time. They are, quite literally, all over the place.)
  3. If the tendency towards religious belief is a natural human trait (as we appear to agree that it is), then we should expect it to manifest more strongly in some individuals and less strongly in others ‚Äď as, for example, some people are extremely artistic while others essentially have no use for art at all. Given ‚Äútendency towards religious belief‚ÄĚ as a general human trait, the existence of a minority of atheists isn‚Äôt ‚Äúabnormal‚ÄĚ on the contrary, it‚Äôs expected.

Simply put, if humans have some sort of innate (biological) disposition towards religion/spirituality, it is the result of evolution, not the Christian God. Somewhere in our evolutionary past, it became advantageous for our species to have some sort of religious belief. As Michael makes clear, this belief was and is expressed in countless ways. Monotheism was a late-comer to the religion party, as the Bible clearly shows with its mentions of polytheistic cultures. In fact, a fair, unbiased reading of Genesis 1-3 reveals polytheistic, not monotheistic beliefs. (Please see The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.)

If this innate disposition leads people to embrace some sort of religious belief, it is certain that geography, along with sociological, cultural, and tribal influences¬†determine¬†what that belief will be. (Please see¬†Why Most Americans Are Christian.) And that was the point of what I wrote in the post mentioned above ‚ÄĒ a subject I have returned to several times in recent years. Breeden, ever the young-earth creationist, seizes on minute scientific studies and findings and uses them as a jumping off point for his beliefs¬†concerning¬†the Christian God. What I find amusing is that Breeden ‚ÄĒ a man who rejects evolutionary biology ‚ÄĒ uses a trait possibly given to humans through our species evolution as “proof” of his Fundamentalist beliefs. Lost on Breeden is¬†the fact that¬†the¬†vast majority¬†of humans who have ever walked on the face of the earth have embraced Gods other than Breeden’s Evangelical God. Even today, Christianity in all its forms ‚ÄĒ many of which Breeden considers false religions ‚ÄĒ is a minority religion. Worse yet,¬†WHICH¬†Christianity is true Christianity? Evangelicals, believing that their God is the one true God, can’t even agree on crucial doctrines such as sin, salvation, the nature of God, baptism, and communion.

Leaving behind the scientific debate about whether humans have an innate disposition towards religion/spirituality, I want to¬†conclude¬†this post with¬†a discussion of¬†why people choose a particular religious belief (or none at all). The science is clear on this point: which religious beliefs people choose is largely determined by geography, along with sociological, cultural, and tribal (family) influences. All anyone has to do is look at a map of religion concentration to see that Christian cultures and families beget Christian children, Muslim cultures and families beget Muslim children, and Hindu cultures and families beget Hindu children. And as we are now seeing in secular, non-religious countries, secular cultures and families beget secular children. Here in the America, Evangelicals¬†are alarmed¬†over the rapid increase of¬†NONES¬†‚ÄĒ people who are atheists, agnostics, humanists, or are indifferent towards organized religion. This turning away from religion is similar to that¬†which has been going¬†on in Europe for decades. Will this turning away from Christianity’s Gods ultimately result in most children not having religious beliefs? Time will tell. I know with my own children, I see a rising indifference towards religion. This indifference, of course,¬†is being passed on to my grandchildren ‚ÄĒ to which Nana and Grandpa say AMEN! While several of my children still attend church, they have embraced expressions of faith that Evangelicals considered heretical.

In November of 2008, I attended church for the last time, finally admitting that I was no longer a Christian. Over the past eight years, I have, through my writing, attempted to give an open, honest accounting of my life. Part of this accounting is determining exactly how I became an Evangelical Christian and pastor and why I spent much of my adult life preaching a religion I now believe is false.

I was born almost sixty years ago to Christian parents who lived in a Christian country and a Christian community. My first few years of life¬†were spent¬†in Lutheran and Episcopal churches, but at the age of five my parents moved to California and while there met the Evangelical Jesus (and the God of the John Birch Society). From that moment forward, my parents and the churches we attended indoctrinated me in the one true faith ‚ÄĒ Evangelical Christianity. Is it any surprise, then, that I had several born-again experiences, attended an Evangelical Bible college, married an Evangelical girl, and spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches? Of course not. How could I have possibly turned out any differently from the way I did?¬†I¬†conservatively spent more than 12,000 hours attending church services, along with spending tens of thousands of hours reading and studying the Bible and reading religious books. I no more could have been an atheist than the Pope could be one. Everything in my upbringing and experiences told me that Evangelical Christianity was true and that all other religions were false.

For these reasons, it is rare for someone such as myself to embrace atheism. Most pastors-turned-atheists leave the faith at a much younger age than I did, leading some people to question my motives for doing so. Some atheists have even questioned my mental stability, saying that I should have figured out the truth about Christianity years before I did. What a stupid man you were, Bruce, to give fifty years of your life to a lie, some atheists say. Perhaps, but I was disposed towards being a true-blue, all-in kind of believer. This is why I find dismissals of my past by Evangelicals (and some atheists) so offensive. As countless people will testify, If anyone was a true Christian, it was Bruce Gerencser. That people find my current godlessness troubling and disconcerting is understandable.

How is it possible that the man they once called¬†Pastor Bruce¬†is now an atheist? One former parishioner and dear friend finds my story so troubling that he wrote to tell me that he couldn’t be friends¬†with¬†me anymore. My atheism was causing such psychological discomfort that he was losing sleep. He simply could not wrap his mind around how a Christian man so dear to him could now be working for Team Satan¬ģ. Several former church members have¬†friended¬†me on Facebook, only to¬†unfriend¬†me weeks later because they can’t stomach my atheism. One woman wrote to tell me that she really wanted to¬†remain¬†friends, but she couldn’t because she found my current life discouraging and depressing.

I receive frequent emails from Evangelicals who are having doubts about Christianity. I encourage these doubters to think about WHY they are Christians. Often, after decades of indoctrination, doubters think that the reasons they are Christians is theological in nature. They, after all, remember the date, time, and place Jesus saved them. What I try to do is get them to look at the geographical, familial, societal, and sociological reasons for their beliefs. If these doubters can see that it was outward influences and not Jesus that determined what religion they embraced, they are well on their way to understanding that all religion, including Christianity, is of human origin. Even if it is proven someday that humans have some sort of God gene, this will in no way discredit the human nature of all religions. The only way to dismiss the humanness of religion is to embrace the teachings of this or that religious text (texts that were written, drum roll please, by humans).  This is why it is vitally important to disabuse Evangelicals of the notion that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text written by God. Once they see that the Bible is NOT what their pastors, teachers, and religious culture say it is, they are then free to examine their beliefs in the larger context of why people embrace particular religions. And more often than, such inquiry will lead to their abandonment of Evangelical Christianity.

As long as the Bible, and not science, history, skepticism, and rational inquiry, rule their minds, Evangelicals will continue to think that they are Christians because God chose to save them. Until their minds are unshackled from the Bible, the only thing that can be said of Evangelicals is that they are fortunate to have been born in the right country to the right parents and immersed in the right culture so God could save them from their sins and make them members of Evangelical churches. Quite lucky, don’t you think? I wonder why the Evangelical God didn’t do that for most of the people who have graced the pages of human history? That’s a question for another day.

Bruce Gerencser