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Tag: Somerset Baptist Church Mt Perry

I am a Publican and a Heathen — Part One

Jose Maldonado Bruce Gerencser Pat Horner
Pastors Joe Maldonado, Bruce Gerencser, and Pat Horner, Somerset Baptist Church, Fall of 1993

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (Matthew 18:15-17)

Should church members be allowed to leave the church without permission? Bobby Jamieson, writing for 9Marks, answered the question this way:

I think the biblical answer is a resounding “No.” Here’s why: When your church made that person a member, you were declaring to the world that this person belongs to the kingdom of Jesus. By regarding this person as a member, your church affirmed that he is indeed a “brother” in Christ…

So what’s the problem? Hebrews 10:24-25 commands us not to forsake assembling together. Therefore, any professing Christian who quits going to church is living in habitual, unrepentant sin. And the way a church addresses unrepentant sin is not by merrily sending that person on his way, but by removing their affirmation of “member” and “brother”. When the player quits showing up on game day, the team has to take back his jersey.

So pastors, just as you pay careful attention to the front door of your church, keep a close eye on the back door, too. Make sure that the sheep can’t simply open the gate themselves and disappear from sight. Refuse to allow people to resign into thin air, both for the sake of your church’s witness to the gospel and for the good of every single sheep—especially those who tend to wander off.”…

The purpose of the aforementioned quotation will become readily apparent once you have read this series.

In July of 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist in Somerset (later Mt. Perry), Ohio. I pastored the church until March of 1994. In the late 1980s, I became quite disenchanted with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I came to the conclusion that the IFB gospel was a bastardized, corrupt gospel that made no demands of those who said they were followers of Jesus Christ.

Through the writings of Charles Finney, I came to see that repentance — a turning FROM sin and a turning TO Christ, — was an essential component of the Evangelical gospel. In 1989, I read John MacArthur’s  book, The Gospel According to Jesus, and this fundamentally changed my soteriology (theology concerning salvation).

I began to read books written by the Puritans: men such as Thomas Watson and John Owens. I also read the works of men such as John BunyanCharles SpurgeonJC RyleAW PinkAndrew Fuller, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  I also began listening to Calvinistic preaching tapes from the Chapel Tape Library.

rolfe barnard

One preacher’s taped sermons really got my attention, those of the late Rolfe Barnard. Barnard was a fiery Southern Baptist preacher of the Calvinist gospel. I listened to his sermons over and over, and it became clear to me that I had been preaching a false gospel. I also felt that my college professors and mentors had lied to me. Why had they never shared with me the “sovereign grace” gospel?

In a sermon titled, Seeking the Lord, Rolfe Barnard said:

. . .This generation would like to get to heaven, but they just haven’t got time. They had time to make a profession and join a church, but they just haven’t got time to seek the Lord. When I started to preach 36 years ago, people would come hear me preach and I could keep a crowd for a while, and in that way somebody would listen to the Word of God. And since no man has saving faith, and God has to give it to men, He gives it as men hear His Word, and after a while they say “that’s God talking”.

You must hear the law of God preached long enough for God to reveal to you that you are a guilty lost sinner before you will be interested in hearing the good news of the Gospel of Christ. If God can get you lost, He will save you. If God can get you to sit still long enough to let a little of His Word sink in and grant you repentance and faith, He will save you. If you don’t have time to seek the Lord till He is pleased to reveal Himself to you and speak peace to you, why you will just live on a little while, then go to hell. You haven’t had time to hear what is being said.

A personal confrontation of the soul by a gracious redeeming God; this leads to repentance and faith, this leads to the terminating of a self-centered existence, and the beginning of a Christ indwelled life. You will lay down the arms of rebellion and run up the white flag of surrender. That’s what it means to be saved. I don’t know how long it will take you to get there, but it would be time well spent if you got to Christ . . .

In a sermon titled, A Lack of Repentance Preaching has Filled Modern Churches with Hypocrites, (link no longer active) Barnard said:

. . . I am dead certain that the mess we are in religiously and spiritually now, the love-sick so-called “church” people, the sickly sentimental crop of so-called “believers” who are enthusiastic about a fair or a frolic but are conspicuously absent from prayer meeting — I am sure that this is due to the fact that our churches are full of people who are not born right . . .

Somehow or another they got into our professing churches without ever having come face to face with the holy demands of a Holy God, and being brought in the face of those demands to the place of throwing up all hands of self-effort and self-confidence and turning one’s self over lock, stock and barrel to the Sovereign Christ. Somehow or another they have missed the main business. Somehow or another they got in what we call the church without turning in abhorrence and in utter conviction against sin, without turning from their sin to obedience unto God.

And, of course, their lives fail! If we dodge this step [repentance], we miss out on salvation! . . .

As a result of the aforementioned books and tapes, I embraced five-point Calvinism. At the time, I thought God had taken the blinders off my IFB-darkened eyes.  In classic, there is no middle ground, charge Hell with an empty squirt gun fashion, I became a vocal proponent of Calvinism. This change in soteriology, and later a change in ecclesiology (doctrines concerning church polity, discipline) and eschatology (doctrines concerning end times), destroyed whatever connections I had with pastors and churches in the IFB church movement.

I spent my last five years as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church radically changing and restructuring the church. I stopped giving altar calls, and I went from preaching topical/textual sermons to preaching expository sermons. Instead of choosing a new and different text each week, I began preaching systematically through various books of the Bible. I preached over one hundred sermons from the gospel of John.

It was not uncommon for me to spend several full days each week studying and preparing a sermon. This study and preparation became the focus of my ministry. Calvinism appeals to people such as myself, those who love reading and enjoy intellectual pursuits. I also came to see that I had a duty to reach the members of Somerset Baptist Church with the TRUE gospel, the gospel of sovereign grace. I feared that many of the church members were unsaved. I spent the first half of my time at Somerset Baptist getting congregants saved, and I spent the last half trying to get them unsaved.

I began traveling to preaching meetings at Calvinistic churches. At these meetings, I met men such as Don Fortner and Henry Mahan. Mahan would later come to Somerset Baptist and hold a meeting. I also began associating with Reformed Baptist pastors. Men such as Al Martin and Walt Chantry were prominent voices in the Reformed Baptist movement, as were men associated with the Southern Baptist Founder’s Group (now called Founders Ministries). Al Mohler is a prominent member of the Founder’s Group.

Every month, I would travel seventy miles to a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) church in Mansfield, Ohio, pastored by Mark Furman, so I could attend a meeting of like-minded Calvinistic pastors. This meeting was called The Pastor’s Clinic. Several pastors would present papers on a particular theological subject, we would discuss the papers, and then eat lunch before heading for home. I found the meetings intellectually stimulating, and they helped assure me that the Calvinistic gospel was the TRUE gospel.

Under my leadership, Somerset Baptist Church began a tape lending library similar to that of the Chapel Library. We sent preaching tapes free of charge to anyone who requested them. I also began publishing a monthly newsletter titled, The Sovereign Grace Reporter. This newsletter was sent to hundreds of Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic pastors. The newsletter incited rage among my non-Calvinistic friends and their outrage ruined a fifteen-church Youth Fellowship I had started years before. I knew that the newsletter would provoke some of the pastors, but I didn’t care. I thought, they need to hear about the TRUE gospel.

I lost almost all of my professional connections, save a friendship I had with Keith Troyer and another (ironically) with Polly’s uncle James (Jim) Dennis. At the time, Keith was pastor of the Fallsburg Baptist Church in Fallsburg, Ohio and Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath Ohio.

Jim Dennis was not a five-point Calvinist in the classic sense of the word, but his soteriological beliefs were closer to the Calvinistic position than the one-point Calvinist/Arminian position of the IFB church movement.  Keith Troyer was a young pastor when I met him. I am about ten years older than he is. I began to give Keith books written by Calvinistic writers, and, for a time, he was greatly influenced by me and the books I gave him. Many of my former ministerial colleagues believe that I had a negative influence on Keith. Whatever influence I may or may not have had, Keith is not a Calvinistic pastor. He currently pastors Grace Baptist Church in Greenville, Pennsylvania. With both of these men, I could freely talk about Calvinism. Both men would later come and preach for me, not only at Somerset, but at Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio (which was originally named Grace Baptist Church).

Through the publication of the Sovereign Grace Reporter, I came into contact with men such as Andy Sandlin and Pat Horner. Both Sandlin and Horner were originally part of the IFB church movement. Sandlin, for many years, was associated with Rousas Rushdoony and the Chalcedon Foundation. Horner was a sovereign grace Baptist pastor who pastored Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas.

While Andy and I had a much more casual relationship, Pat and I began to develop a friendship. Over time, Pat become comfortable enough with me that he invited me to speak at his church’s annual Bible conference in March of 1993. At this conference, I came into contact with numerous sovereign grace Baptist pastors. Both Polly and I were overwhelmed by the friendliness and vibrancy of Community Baptist Church.

Over the course of the summer of 1993, Horner and I continued to keep in touch. Pat eventually asked if I would consider coming to Elmendorf to be the co-pastor of the church. He knew I was beginning to “feel” that my work in Somerset was done and that perhaps God was leading me to go somewhere else. He also knew that I was gifted when it came to evangelism, and he hoped I could help with planting new churches, along with starting a Christian school. After considering Pat’s offer for several weeks, I came to the conclusion that God wanted me to stay in Somerset. I called Pat and declined his offer.

move to community baptist church
One of the trailers used to move our belongings to Community Baptist Church

A few weeks later, I was sitting in my office and suddenly a flood of emotion came over me. I began weeping uncontrollably. My thoughts turned to the church in Texas and Pat’s offer. And, in that moment, I changed my mind and decided to accept the offer to become the co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas.

I called Pat and asked him if the offer was still open. He said, yes, and a few weeks later Polly and I drove to Texas to meet with the church elders and the church family. They overwhelmingly agreed that I should come to Texas and become the co-pastor of the church. In March of 1994, men from Community Baptist Church came to Ohio, helped us pack up our furniture and goods, and we moved 1,400 miles to a new and exciting ministry opportunity.

What should have been a wonderful time for my family and me, over the course of seven months, turned into a disaster that resulted in me resigning from the church and Pat Horner and the church excommunicating me.

To this day, Pat Horner and the Community Baptist Church (now pastored by Kyle White) consider me unsaved — a publican and a heathen.

In the next post in this series, I will discuss how we settled into the work of the ministry at Community Baptist, and how my conflicts with Horner ultimately led to me resigning, being excommunicated, and moving my family back to Ohio.

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bruce Gerencser