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Tag: Somerset Baptist Church Mt Perry

Growing an IFB Church: Targeting Vulnerable People

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1987-2

Earlier today, Troy left the following comment on the post titled IFB Church Movement: Win Them, Wet Them, Work Them, Waste Them:

I wonder if traditional cult-like tactics were ever used, like using a pretty girl as bait or targeting the lonely. Considering the goal was mere numbers rather than paying parishioners I’m guessing probably not.

Troy wanted to know if IFB churches targeted specific groups of people. The short answer is yes. While the goal was allegedly to win souls, it is hard not to conclude that many ministries in IFB churches were primarily used to drive church attendance.

In the mid-1980s, I pastored one of the largest non-Catholic churches in Perry County, Ohio. For a time, Somerset Baptist Church was booming. Everything seemed right. Sunday services were electric, with attendees actually excited about what was going on. The auditorium was packed, as was the junior church service in the annex. Even Sunday nights had an air of excitement. What was the driving force behind our church’s growth?

I started Somerset Baptist Church in July 1983. We immediately bought a dilapidated church bus from Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster. Faith Memorial, pastored by John Maxwell at the time, was one of the fastest growing churches in the country. We paid $200 for the bus.

We started busing children and adults to the church from Somerset and nearby rural communities. Two years later, with attendance in the 50s, we bought an abandoned United Methodist Church five miles east of town. Over the course of the next 18 months, we added three more buses to our fleet. On Sundays, buses from Somerset Baptist spread out over a three-county area picking up people for church. We also started running a bus route on Sunday night. It was not long, thanks to aggressive visitation tactics, promotions, and advertising, that our church buildings were overflowing with bus riders. Our goal was to win souls, but, damn, increased attendance numbers sure gave Pastor Bruce something to brag about. His dick was finally bigger than that of most of the IFB churches in the area.

I still remember the day we had our first attendance over 200. What a day. It was if the Shekinah glory of God had shined down upon my ministry! God was blessing all of my hard work. Two years later, attendance dropped to the low 70s. What happened?

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1987

The year church attendance hit 200, our annual income was $40,000 — the highest in the 11 years I was there. Fifty percent of our attendance came in on the buses. We had attracted a significant number of people from two local IFB churches that went through splits. Most of these people were middle-class wage earners, unlike the bus riders and the people who helped build the church. Before these people came on board, the highest wage earner in the church made $21,000 a year. Most of the families were on some sort of public assistance.

The families who found refuge at Somerset Baptist Church, bit by bit, returned to the churches they had left, taking their money with them. By the next year, our income had dropped in half. I was forced to stop the bus routes and sell off our fleet. And just like that, our glory days were over. By then, I had distanced myself from the IFB church movement, embraced Calvinism, and started a free Christian school for church children.

I felt like a failure. I had pastored a growing church, and now I was back to pastoring a small country church. As I was wont to do, I threw myself into a new ministry, the school. My goal was to raise new Calvinistic warriors for Christ. While I found great satisfaction in teaching the next generation of church members, I missed the days when our buses brought scores of people to church. Was I driven by a desire to win souls or attendance growth? Probably both. Even today, I find it hard to judge my motives.

I do know that I was taught at Midwestern Baptist College to use ministries to win souls and grow church attendance. Did soulwinning become before attendance? I want to think so, but after years spent hobnobbing with IFB preachers, I concluded that, for many pastors, it was all about the numbers. As I mentioned in IFB Church Movement: Win Them, Wet Them, Work Them, Waste Them, success was measured by attendance. Want to be respected and admired by your fellow preachers? Have big church attendance numbers. Want to be a conference speaker? Pastor a growing church.

I spent the first 32 years of my life in the IFB church movement. I saw all sorts of ministries used to build church attendance:

  • Bus ministry
  • Youth ministry
  • Deaf ministry
  • Senior ministry
  • Retarded ministry (as it was called, at the time)

These types of ministries were typically frequented by lower-income people, people who were not going to put much money, if any, in the offering plate on Sundays. While their “souls” were certainly important, a fair-minded person would have to conclude that these ministries primarily existed to drive church attendance. Sure, attendees benefited from these ministries, but I suspect the real benefit went to pastors who could then brag about church attendance at the next preacher’s meeting. Polly and I were talking today about the bus ministry at Somerset Baptist. Why were mothers — it was almost ALWAYS mothers — so willing to let their children ride one of our buses? Simple. Their children would be gone for 3-5 hours. FREEDOM! By picking up their children, we provided free babysitting. We seemed to be “nice” people; why not let your children ride the bus with their friends? (And we really pushed riders to invite their friends, a subject I really must write about one of these days.)

Most IFB churches have abandoned their bus ministries. Years ago, the goal was quantity, but now that parents are not as likely to let their children ride a bus to church, and running a bus ministry is prohibitively expensive, pastors are focused on quality. No more snotty-nosed welfare kids running around the church, just tithing Jesus-lovers carrying leather-bound King James Bibles. If Jesus were alive today, I wonder what he would say? Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:14)

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

1995: Meeting My First Gay Person

christians condemn gays

As a card-carrying-member of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, I often preached sermons condeming homosexuality. According to my infallible interpretation, the Bible condemned homosexual sex. Being the faithful Bible preacher that I was, I thought it important to preach against man-with-man, woman-with-woman sex. Never mind the fact that I did not personally know anyone who was gay. Well, I had my suspicions about several people — Polly’s late uncle comes to mind — but as far as actually knowing someone who was gay? Not one. I would learn years later that several of the students in our Christian school were gay or bisexual. Consider this statistic. I was a raging homophobe who railed against homosexuality and sexual “sin” in general. Yet, one-third of the students in our school were either gay or bisexual. Add to that the students who likely engaged in premarital sex, and I think I can safely say my preaching did little to change hearts and minds on sexual identity and activity.

In March of 1994, I left a church I had pastored for almost twelve years and moved to San Antonio, Texas to co-pastor Community Baptist Church. This move proved to be a disaster, and in the fall that same year, we packed up our belongings and moved to Frazeysburg, Ohio. With the help of Polly’s parents, we bought a newish manufactured home — a $25,000 upgrade from our previous mobile home.

We lived in Frazeysburg for six months. Needing immediate employment, I turned to restaurant management. I was hired by Charley’s Steakery (now called Charleys Philly Steaks) to be the general manager of their franchise at the Colony Square Mall in Zanesville. I continued to work for this restaurant until March 1995, when I assumed the pastorate of Olive Branch Christian Union Church in Fayette.

The restaurant I managed had a drink refill policy for mall employees. If employees stopped at the restaurant with their cups, we refilled them free of charge. Some employees would stop every day they worked to get their large plastic cups refilled. One such employee was a man who worked at a nearby store.

This man was in his twenties. The first time I personally refilled his cup for him, my infallible, never-wrong (I am joking) gaydar went off. I thought, “OMG, this guy is gay. What if he has AIDS?” Quite frankly, I am surprised he didn’t see the disgust on my face. Maybe he did, but ignored it. I dutifully put ice in his cup, filled it with pop, and handed it back to him. After he walked away from the service counter, I would quickly run to the kitchen and thoroughly wash my hands, fearing that I might catch AIDS.

Over time, this man and I struck up casual conversations. He was quite friendly, and truth be told, I liked talking to him. As I got to know him better, I found that I no longer was disgusted or worried about getting AIDS. I even stopped washing my hands after serving him. What changed?

My theology didn’t change. And neither did my irrational fear of gay people. Coming to where I am today, a supporter of LGBTQ rights with numerous gay and transgender friends, took years. What needed washing was my proverbial heart, not my hands.

This story is a reminder of the fact that it is hard to condemn people when you actually know them; when you have actually talked with them or broken bread with them. Countless Evangelical preachers rail against atheists, yet most of them don’t know any atheists personally. I have two Evangelical friends — a married couple. That’s it. I have been friends with the man for almost 55 years. For several years, I was their pastor. I know their children and grandchildren and extended family. Until the pandemic hit, three or four times a year, we would go out to eat, thoroughly enjoying one another’s company. We agreed that we wouldn’t talk about religion. If asked a question, I would answer it, but outside of that, we focused on the things we had in common: family, grandchildren, food, and travel.

Our friendship has survived because we see each other as human beings, people we love and respect. Yes, my friends are deeply disappointed over my loss of faith. They might even pray that I will come back to the Lord. But, my friends have never let my atheism get in the way of our relationship. I thank them for doing what 99.9% of my Evangelical friends couldn’t or refused to do: see me as a person, to see Polly and me as the same people we were back when we followed Jesus. Our character and personalities remain the same. Sure, we don’t believe in God, but does that make us bad people?

A gay customer taught me a valuable lesson years ago, one I am still learning. It is far too easy to sequester yourself with people who only think and act like you. Our nation is overrun with racist, white nationalist people. It’s easy to put the blame all on Donald Trump and the Republican Party, but I suspect that a lot of racists don’t have friends of color. They live in communities and are members of churches and groups where the sign on the door might as well say, WHITES ONLY. So it is in many Evangelical churches — particularly IFB congregations. Such churches are monocultures, places where everyone thinks, acts, and looks the same way. Until they are exposed in a friendly, nonthreatening way to people different from them, it is unlikely they will change their minds.

Were you a homophobe, racist, or bigot? What changed your mind? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Short Stories: The Missing Hammer

hammer

From 1983-1994, I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. After meeting for two years in several rented buildings in Somerset, we purchased an abandoned, brick United Methodist Church five miles east of town. Cost? $5,000.

The sanctuary was built in 1831, and a flat roof annex was built in the 1960s. Both buildings were in horrible states of disrepair. I spent the next ten years repairing and remodeling the buildings, as did some church members and my three oldest sons. Rarely did a week go by when we weren’t working on one of the buildings. Keep in mind, I had ZERO construction skills, so I was learning on the job — everything from plumbing to electrical work to tarring a flat roof to framing walls.

In 1989, I purchased a broken-down 12’x60′ mobile home for my family and me to live in. I parked it 50 feet from the church sanctuary. Think about that for a moment: 720 square feet for a family of eight. I had to do all sorts of building projects to make the mobile home fit for us to live in. Again, I had to learn on the job, as did my sons.

At the time, we had a Sears credit card. When I needed tools — and it seemed I always needed tools — I bought Sears’ Craftsman tools. One such purchase was the hammer pictured above. I loved this hammer. Well-balanced, perfect for my use.

One day, my favorite hammer disappeared. I looked and looked and looked for the hammer, without success. I was fairly certain that one of my sons had “borrowed” the hammer and left it “somewhere.” Of course, no one confessed to the crime. I ended up having to buy a new hammer.

Years later, on a crisp fall day, my sons and several church boys were raking leaves along the back fence of the cemetery. As was typical back in the day, the boys burned the leaves. One of my sons decided to help the fire along with gasoline. This quickly turned the leaves into a raging fire, burning all the leaves along the fence line. Fortunately, the fire didn’t jump to our neighbors farm field.

After the fire died down and was extinguished, guess what showed up? My hammer — surprisingly unscathed by the fire. “Someone” had left my hammer in the weeds along the fence line, and there it lay until the fire.

I still use this hammer, and I am always reminded of the fire when I do. I suspect after I am dead and gone that my oldest sons will battle over who gets the hammer. Such memories . . . And maybe, just maybe someone will confess to leaving the hammer in the weeds.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Short Stories: The Church Christmas Tree

somerset baptist church 1989

In July, 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

In 1985, the congregation bought an abandoned Methodist church building five miles east of Somerset on top of what was commonly called Sego Hill. After months of remodeling, the sanctuary was ready to use. Built in the 1830s, the church had oak floors, colored glass windows, and a 25-foot vaulted ceiling. The building was classic for its era, one of the oldest church buildings in the county. Purchased for $5,000, the sanctuary and annex required $15,000 in improvements, including two gas furnaces to replace the coal-converted-to-propane monster in the basement. We would later install a wood/coal furnace after propane costs skyrocketed one year.

December, 1985 was our first Christmas in the new building. I decided that we would purchase a Christmas tree and put it in the back of the sanctuary. After discussing with several congregants whether to get an artificial or real tree, one man spoke up and said, “preacher, I can get us a real Christmas tree and it won’t cost us anything.” I replied, “that would be great.”

A few days later, the man showed up at the church with a huge Christmas tree in the back of his 1960s Ford pickup. The man unloaded the tree, carried it into the church, and propped the monstrosity in the back corner. Proudly, he asked, “preacher, what do you think?” as I looked at the scrawny pine tree — 12 feet in height. I thought, “man, this tree sure is scrawny. I wonder where he bought it?” I told the man, “looks great! — a lie to be sure, but better than wounding the man’s spirit. He was so proud of doing this for me that I didn’t want to discourage him. It’s just a tree, I told myself. No big deal. “Where did you get this tree?” I asked. The man replied, “oh I went up on Route 13 and cut down one of the trees growing along the highway.” “You WHAT?” I alarmingly replied. “You do know that those trees are government property?” The man genuinely seemed clueless about the ownership question.  And then, without missing a beat, he replied, “well, preacher, those trees belong to God!”

This tree would be the first and last Christmas tree in the sanctuary. Two years later, I came out against Christmas and its excesses, putting an end to any sort of tree or decorations in the sanctuary. In their place, the sanctuary rang with sermons against Christmas and the excesses of the season. I am sure, compared to my guilt-inducing sermons, congregants missed the scrawny Christmas tree, regardless of its provenance.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Bus Ministry Promotion: Five Pound Chocolate Rabbit

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1987
Somerset Baptist Church, Mt Perry, Ohio, circa 1987.

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

In July of 1983, I planted a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church, Somerset Baptist Church, in the southeast Ohio community of Somerset. For a few months, services were held at what was commonly called the old shoe store. The church then moved to the second story of the Landmark building where it would remain until it bought an abandoned Methodist church five miles east of Somerset in 1985.

Having spent most of my life around churches that operated bus ministries, I determined that the Somerset Baptist Church would have a bus ministry. In late 1983, the church bought an old, dilapidated bus from Faith Memorial Church in nearby Lancaster. By mid-1987, the church would own four buses, running routes throughout Perry County and to nearby Lancaster and Zanesville. Attendance would peak at 200, making Somerset Baptist Church the largest non-Catholic church in Perry County, a distinction I proudly advertised. Whether this was actually true is unknown, but it sure made for a great advertising slogan. I also advertised the church as the fastest growing church in the county, an accurate portrayal of the explosive attendance growth the church had for several years.

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1985
Somerset Baptist Church, Our First Bus, 1985

I was committed to using every available means to reach people with the gospel. I took the Apostle Paul’s approach: I became all things to all men that I might by all means save some.

Luke 14:23 says:

And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.

This verse (and others) was the impetus for the church having an aggressive bus ministry. Every Saturday, bus workers would fan out over the bus operation area, visiting regular riders and canvassing for new ones.  Each bus had a captain who was in charge of the route, along with a driver and several workers. It was the captains’ responsibility to make sure EVERYONE on their bus route was visited EVERY Saturday.

Prior to going out on bus visitation, bus workers met with me at the church for a time of prayer and motivation. Running a bus route was hard, thankless work, and keeping people engaged in the work God had called us to do required me to constantly motivate bus workers, often massaging their egos lest they quit.

As in the capitalistic business world where gaining new customers is always part and parcel of growing a thriving business, a successful bus ministry had to continue to find new riders. Using the Apostle Paul’s “all things to all men” methodology, I planned weekly or monthly promotions that bus workers used to entice regular riders to invite their friends, family, and neighbors to church. I also planned promotions for the bus workers, rewarding the bus crew that brought in the most riders and visitors.

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1987-2
Somerset Baptist Church, 3 of our buses, circa early 1987

One Easter, I decided we would give away a five-pound solid chocolate rabbit to the person who brought the most visitors to church (on one of the buses). One of the ladies of the church was a candy maker, so she made the chocolate rabbit. A few days before the giveaway, we put the rabbit in my office. The next morning, as I walked into the office to prepare for Saturday bus visitation, I noticed that something was wrong with the rabbit. Sometime during the night, mice had gnawed on the ears of the rabbit. I asked the woman who made the chocolate rabbit if she could patch the rabbit’s ears. Oh yes, I did! The giveaway was the next day.

Both she and her husband were appalled that I would even think of giving the rabbit to one of the bus kids. Throw it away, they said, and off they went to buy five more pounds of chocolate so a new rabbit could be made. The next day, we awarded the new rabbit to the person who brought the most visitors to church.

The deformed rabbit? I cut the ears off the rabbit and gave it to my children. None of them gave one thought to the mice chewing the ears off the rabbit. All they saw was chocolate, a rare commodity in the Gerencser household.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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

Bruce Gerencser