In July of 1983, I started a brand-spanking-new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio — a congregation I would pastor for the next eleven years. During my time as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, we lived in rental houses in New Lexington, Glenford, Somerset, and Junction City. For five years we lived in a 12’x60′ mobile home we parked next door to the church.
Our first rental was a house on Water Street in New Lexington. We only lived here for four months, moving to Glenford two weeks before Christmas of 1983. Polly and I don’t have many memories from our short stay on Water Street, but there is one event both of us remember well.
I was a pop (soda) drinker, at the time. Nothing better than a cold 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi to quench your thirst on a warm summer day. For my younger readers who may not know this, back in the early 1980s, pop came in returnable glass bottles. Empty bottles were returned to the grocery, from which the local distributor/bottler would pick up the bottles, wash them, and refill them with the appropriate flavor of pop.
Empty pop bottles were used for a variety of things: emergency urinals and ashtrays, to name two. The bottles were washed and sanitized, so who cares who did what with the bottles, right?
One early fall day, I came home from work and opened the refrigerator to get a bottle of pop. I have always been a Pepsi/Dr. Pepper/Suncrest Cream Soda fan, but for some reason the only pop in the fridge was Sprite. I pulled a bottle from the fridge, shut the door, and popped the cap off the bottle with an opener. I quickly put the bottle to my lips and turned the bottle upward to take a swig of Sprite. As I did, I felt something hard hit my front teeth. I thought, what the heck (Baptist for “hell”)? I stopped drinking and brought the bottle down to eye level so I could see what it was that clunked me in the teeth.
In the bottle was a woman’s barrette with hair still attached! I quickly became nauseous, and to this day, thirty-five years later, I still find it hard to drink Sprite. Irrational, to be sure, but I can’t shake the memory of a hair-filled barrette.
One common refrain often heard in some corners of the Evangelical world goes something like this: Praise God, I have NEVER changed my beliefs. I am seventy years old and I still have the exact same beliefs I had at age twenty — fifty years ago. There is this idea floating on the backwaters of Evangelicalism that posits that change is bad, or even sinful. Pastors and congregants pride themselves in having held the one true faith their entire life, that their Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, rheumatology, and hamartiology is the same yesterday, today, and forever. These theological purists will also say that their behavior hasn’t changed either. The sins they were against in the 1970s are the same sins they oppose today. These “just like a tree planted by the waters, I shall not be moved” Christians believe that they love what God loves and hate what God hates; that their interpretations of the sixty-six books of the inspired, inerrant, infallible Christian Bible align closely with God’s mind; that thanks to the Holy Spirit living inside of them as their teacher and guide, they are spiritually mature people who feast on the meat of the Word of God, not the pablum most Christians eat. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and Hebrews 5:11-13)
In most spheres of life, learning new things and discarding old beliefs, practices, and ideas is desired and expected. Not in Evangelicalism. Evangelicals cherish certainty. The Apostle Paul told young Timothy the preacher in 2 Timothy 1:12, I KNOW in whom I have believed. Pastors challenge congregants to have a know-so salvation. Is it any wonder then, that because a premium is placed on certainty it breeds arrogance and leads to people to think that their beliefs have never changed? Bruce, are Evangelicals who think this way glorying in ignorance? Yes, and the Bible gives them cover for their ignorance in Acts 4:13:
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.
For the Bible-believing Evangelicals, being considered unlearned and ignorant by the “world’ is a badge of honor. What Evangelicals doesn’t want it said of them, they had been with Jesus?
Evangelicals are frequently warned by their pastors to beware of the philosophies, traditions, and rudiments of the world. Better to be ignorant and know Jesus than to have a PhD and go to hell. A quick survey of Evangelicalism reveals all sorts of beliefs that lie deeply rooted in certainty-driven ignorance. Creationism, King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism, to name a few, require adherents to deliberately and resolutely tune out any data that contradicts their beliefs. Science tells us that creationism is false. Evangelical solution? Ignore science and by faith believe that what the Bible says in Genesis 1-3 is literally true. The same goes for King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism. When Evangelicals holding these beliefs find themselves intellectually challenged, they run to the safety of faith, ignoring anything that shows their theological and historical beliefs are false. Charismatics and Pentecostals do the same. They KNOW that God works miracles, baptizes people in the Holy Ghost, and gives spirit-filled people the ability to do mighty works in Jesus’ name, including speaking in tongues. Believing that their interpretations of certain passages of the Bible is infallibly correct, these swing-from-the-chandelier Christians reject anything that suggests otherwise.
More than a few Evangelicals will object to what I have written here. While they will admit that there’s a lot of ignorance in Evangelical churches, their churches and pastors value intellectual pursuit, saying that learning is a lifelong process. While this sounds good, when these claims are more closely examined, what is often found is a pseudo-intellectualism. While these intellectual “giants” of the Evangelical faith do indeed read books and spend significant amounts of time studying — I know I did for most of the years I spent in the ministry — it is WHAT they read and study that is problematic. True intellectual inquiry requires following the path wherever it leads, leaving no stone unturned. Such inquiry requires people to meet truth head on, not retreating or attempting to veer around. As a former Evangelical pastor and now an atheist, I challenge Christians to carefully examine what they say they believe. Surely, any belief worth having can withstand scrutiny and investigation, right? Evidently not. When Evangelicals have doubts or find their beliefs challenged, what do they do? Many of them run to their pastors for encouragement and support. Keeping asses in the pews is crucial — no asses, no offerings — so when congregants come to them with questions and doubts, these men of God will often recommend for reading “safe” books written by Christian apologists or approved Christian authors. Some pastors, especially those who pride themselves in having three books in their library — Bible, concordance, and dictionary — will tell doubters to, by faith, cling to Jesus, read the Bible, and pray, reminding them that DOUBT is caused by Satan and his emissaries in the world.
Evangelicals who pride themselves in being “widely” read — commonly found among Evangelical Calvinists — do spend significant time studying and reading. It is what they read that is the problem. While these Evangelicals will, at times, venture beyond the safe confines of the Evangelical bubble, most of their reading and study is of authors considered orthodox. In other words, they only read books that reinforce their presently-held beliefs. While there is some lateral movement in Evangelicalism — Arminians becoming Calvinists, Baptists becoming Charismatics, Premillennialists becoming Amillennialists, Non-cessationists becoming Cessationists, and rigid, far-right wing Fundamentalist Baptists becoming generic Evangelicals — most believers continue to hold on to the peculiar beliefs of their tribe, sect, or church. Their theological pursuits rarely, if ever, take them beyond the safety of their current beliefs and practices. Rare are Evangelicals who are willing to risk losing their faith in their search for truth.
Is it any wonder, then, that a premium is placed on being steadfast in the faith once delivered to the saints? Revered are men and women whose theological roots run deep and who can always give an answer about the hope that lies within them. As an Evangelical pastor, I learned early that congregants wanted certainty. They wanted a pastor who firmly stood on the Word of God and had unmovable, unshakeable faith. If I had questions and doubts about this or that belief, church members didn’t want to hear about it. Tell us the unvarnished truth, Pastor Bruce. The reason, of course, for such desires is that many Evangelical church members have a borrowed belief system; that what their pastor believes is what they believe. Years ago, my theology shifted from the Baptist theology of the IFB church movement to Calvinism. As I began preaching expositionally and teaching congregants what Calvinists call the doctrines of grace, I was shocked by how few church members had a problem with the seismic changes in my theology and preaching. Looking back on this now, I have concluded that what mattered to members was having a sense of community, having a church family to call home. Most of them were never going to read the books I did or spend hours a day studying the Bible. Unlike their pastor, who had a job where he was actually paid to read and study, they had secular jobs that demanded their time and attention. They also had families to care for. What congregants wanted most of all was assurance that they were on the right path; that what they believed squared with the Bible. They were willing to trust that what I said was true. After all, I was the man God had chosen to be their pastor. Surely God and his man had their best interests at heart, right?
I pity and feel sorry for Evangelicals who pride themselves in never changing their beliefs. Many Evangelicals are just like people who never travel far from home. They have never experienced the rich diversity that lies beyond their doorstep. Years ago, during my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) days, a large group new people showed up one Sunday to attend our morning service. I thought, at first, which nearby IFB church had a split? This group was not, however, disgruntled Baptists. They were Methodists. Once a year their church cancelled a Sunday service so attendees could visit a different church. Their pastor believed it was good for church members to be exposed to the heterogeneity found in Christianity. I thought, what an odd and dangerous thing to do — exposing members to potentially heretical teaching. Of course, I was glad they came to Somerset Baptist Church — The Fastest Growing Church in Perry County. God brought them my way so I could teach them the TRUTH. Why, some of these Methodists probably aren’t even saved, I thought at the time. If they were really, really, really saved, they wouldn’t be members of a liberal church. Later in life, I came to see how wise the Methodist pastor was; that attending a wide spectrum of churches is a cure for arrogant, self-assured Fundamentalism. The next-to-last church I pastored (for seven years) — Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio — used an advertising slogan that stated, The Church Where the Only Label That Matters is Christian. As pastor, I was willing to embrace all those who claimed the name Christian — Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Pentecostals, to name a few. The catholicity of Christianity was more important to me than theological orthodoxy.
I slowly came to realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did; that my theological underpinnings were just one of many ways of interpreting the Bible. I finally learned that I wasn’t infallible, and neither was the Bible. I suppose, had my experiences been different, my changed understanding of Christianity and faith might have led to mainline Christianity, liberalism, or Universalism. Instead, questions and doubts pushed me down the slippery slope Evangelical preachers warn about. Better to rest in certainty of belief and practice than end up like Bruce Gerencser, Evangelical pastors warn. Look at what happened to him! He is now, of all things, a God-hating, sin-loving atheist. I may, indeed, be a cautionary tale, but I am here to tell readers that a wild, woolly, wonderful world awaits those who will abandon certainty of belief and allow intellectual inquiry to lead the way. Life becomes about the journey instead of the destination. Will you join me? (Please read Gone but Not Forgotten: 22 Years Later San Antonio Calvinists Still Preaching Against Bruce Gerencser and Ralph Wingate Jr Uses Me as a Sermon Illustration)
Late last night, I received a Facebook notification about approving something Rick, a friend of mine, wanted to post to my wall. Rick is a long-time friend, former parishioner, and frequent reader of this blog. What’s interesting about his request is that he meant his message to be a private one sent to a friend of his by the name of Frank. The reason I got the notification is that he inadvertently tagged me. Here’s the message Rick sent to Frank — also a man I have known for many years.
Don’t be put off by Rick’s poor language skills. Several years ago, Rick had a major stroke. This affected his ability to write sentences. Best I can tell, the stroke has not affected his ability to study and read the Bible, nor has it affected his ability to read religious materials.
I met Rick in the late 1990s. At the time, I was pastoring Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. Rick, a Calvinist, was looking for a Calvinistic church to attend and someone recommended that he check out Somerset Baptist. Rick joined the church, happy in knowing that he had found a man who was conversant in the doctrines of grace (the five points of Calvinism). For the next five years, I would drive two times a week — thirty miles round trip — to New Lexington to pick Rick up for church.
Frank and Rick, 1993, Somerset Baptist Church, Sunday Dinner
One Sunday night, while on our way to the church, Rick was waxing eloquently about double predestination and whether children who die in infancy and developmentally disabled people are automatically a part of the elect — those whom God, from before the foundation of the world, has chosen to save. I told Rick, with a slight irritation in my voice, that Calvinistic Baptist great Charles Spurgeon believed such people were numbered among the elect. Rick, not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to social cues, continued to defend God having the absolute right to eternally torture anyone, including infants and developmentally disabled people, in the Lake of Fire. I could feel anger welling. I thought to myself, has Rick forgotten that I have a developmentally disabled two-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome? Doesn’t he care how hurtful his words are? I slammed on the brakes and told Rick to get out of the car. He could walk to church, I told him. I quickly cooled down, telling him, I didn’t want to hear another word from him about whether infants and developmentally disabled people are elect. Rick complied, moving on to other hot button Calvinistic issues.
Let me share another Rick memory, one that I think readers will find funny. Rick worked third shift at a residential home for the developmentally disabled — Mount Aloysius. Unsurprisingly, Rick was quite tired by the time he arrived for Sunday morning church. Try as he might to stay awake, Rick would often fall asleep. Rick snored, so the entire congregation knew when Rick was sleeping. Sunday after Sunday I watched Rick fight sleep, his head bobbing back and forth during my hour-long sermons. One Sunday, Rick bobbed his head back and then forward just as he did Sunday after Sunday. This time, however, Rick’s head traveled forward farther than he intended, smacking the pew in front of him. I stopped preaching and went to Rick to make sure he was okay. Fortunately, the only thing harmed was his pride. After the service, I told Rick that perhaps he should skip the Sunday morning service when he worked the night before. That way he could be rested and mentally fresh for the Sunday evening service. By the way, this was the only time in twenty-five years of pastoring churches that I told someone, please don’t come to church.
I haven’t been Rick’s pastor for over twenty-two years, and the last time I saw him was in 1996 when he and Frank drove to West Unity, Ohio to attend services at a new church I had planted. Since then, I have traded a few emails with Rick, but nothing of substance.
Rick’s message is a reminder to me that people still talk about my deconversion. People who knew me well — as Rick and Frank once did — are still trying to square the pastor they once knew with the atheist named Bruce Gerencser. In Rick’s case, he wonders if am just backslidden, or is it possible that I never was saved. I am sure Rick prefers the backslidden explanation. I am sure trying to wrap his mind around the possibility of me never being saved is too much for him to emotionally and intellectually handle. If I was never saved, this means that Rick was taught for five years by an unsaved pastor, a man he heard expositionally preach hundreds of time, preaching that he believed was empowered by the Holy Spirit. I am sure he remembers the countless hours we spent after church talking theology. I am sure he remembers my love, kindness, and compassion, and my willingness to, week after week, drive to New Lexington and pick him up so he could attend church. I am sure he asks himself, how is it possible that the Bruce I knew was never a true Christian.
The easy out for Rick is for him to embrace Arminianism with its belief that saved people can fall from grace. Doing so would mean that I once was saved, but now I am not. Of course, Rick’s Calvinism keeps him from believing I have lost my salvation, so he is forced to psychologically torture himself with thoughts about whether I am backslidden or was never a Christian to start with.
I wish Rick nothing but the best. I hope he will, in time, come to terms with my current godless state. I chose to be exactly where I am today. Or did I? Perhaps all of this has been decreed by God, and the person ultimately responsible for my lost condition is the divine puppet master, John Calvin’s God.
Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23)
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (i John 2:15)
I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (John 9:4, Romans 13:12, 2 Peter 3:10)
For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:1,2)
These verses and others became the primary motivators of my life for much of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. My belief that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God — a book written by God, not men — caused me to believe that, as I read these verses, God was speaking directly to me. I knew that God had saved me and called me into the ministry, and that if I devoted every moment of every day to following after Jesus, this would be time well spent. I knew that life was short, death was certain, hell was hot, and judgment was sure; that soon Bruce Gerencser was going to die and that he was going to stand before a thrice holy God and give an account for what he did with his life. Using the Disciples as my examples, I set out to leave everything that mattered to me and follow Jesus. This meant that, even though I was married to a beautiful, wonderful woman and would over the years have six precious children with her, everything was secondary to my call to the ministry and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. As anyone who knew me in my Evangelical days will tell you, I was a true blue, on fire disciple of Christ. My goal in every one of the communities I pastored was to preach the gospel to as many people as possible and to motivate Christians to set aside the things of the world, focusing instead on the present and coming Kingdom of God. I knew that congregants would never be more than what was modeled to them, so I did my best to be a shining example of someone who loved God and took seriously the commands and teachings of the Bible. How this worked out in my life is tragic, a somber reminder of what happens when people give themselves over to fanaticism.
As I contemplated writing this post, I thought about all the things I missed out on or didn’t get to see because my mind was totally focused on the ministry and reaching people with the gospel. Not helping matters, was the fact that I was perfectionist, which later developed into full-blown Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Everywhere I looked there were sinners in need of saving. How could I take time off from work or go on a vacation as long as there were people who needed to hear the gospel. While I certainly would’ve loved to have spent more time with my wife and children, how could I justify doing so when there were so many people living in sin, seemingly without having anyone in their lives willing to tell them the truth about their eternal destiny. I quickly developed what I call the Elijah syndrome, that I was the only prophet remaining that was willing to do all that was necessary to preach the gospel to lost and dying sinners. It should come, then, as no surprise that I often worked seven days a week, frequently preaching five to seven sermons during that time. When I wasn’t preaching, I was busy knocking on doors, visiting people in the hospital, handing out tracts, working on the church building, transporting people to services, and talking to people in need of my counsel. As Polly will testify, I worked long hours, rarely taking time off for entertainment or personal relaxation.
Here are a few the things I missed while serving Jesus.
I missed out on watching my older sons play competitive sports. Not because I didn’t have the time to go to their games, but because I wouldn’t let them play sports due to game and practice schedules conflicting with church activities. I fondly remember the days when I played little league and pony league baseball, but my sons never had an opportunity to play baseball because their preacher father thought it more important for them to be sitting in church than playing meaningless, worldly games. I thought, How could I set a good example to the church if on church nights the preacher’s kids were busy playing sports and not in attendance? My children, unfortunately, were never allowed to just be. I expected them to be perfectly behaved, regardless of the fact that other church children were not. I expected my children to set the example, and this meant that they were not going to be able to do some the other things that “normal” children were allowed to do.
We lived in Southeast Ohio for almost twelve years. During this time, I pastored a fast-growing church that for many years operated a large bus ministry and a private Christian school. If there was one church where my workaholic, OCPD mentality was on display, it was here. During my time as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I took all of one vacation, a trip to Boston Massachusetts, paid for by Bruce Turner. Bruce had been the youth pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay Ohio when I was saved and called to the ministry. One year I had Bruce come to our church to preach for our anniversary. The building was packed, a not-so-subtle reminder that young Bruce had learned well the lessons taught to him by older Bruce a decade and a half ago. Older Bruce had, however, aged and matured in his understanding of the ministry. As he spent several days observing his protégé’s ministerial work, he concluded that I was burning the candle at both ends, and that if I didn’t learn to relax and spend time away from the ministry that I was going to cause myself physical harm. And it is for these reasons that Bruce offered to pay for us to take a trip Massachusetts. This would be the first and last vacation I would take until the late 1990s. While I “heard” what Bruce was trying to tell me, his voice was drowned out by what I perceived to be the Holy Spirit telling me to give my all to Jesus; telling me that if I was a true disciple of Christ I must be willing to forsake all attachments to this world; telling me that my wife and children were not as important as following Jesus and preaching the gospel; telling me that Jesus was coming soon that I must be about my father’s business, for the night is coming when no man can work.
In the mid to late-1980s I made three exceptions to my on-call-for-Jesus 24/7 work schedule. The first exception that I carved out of my schedule was three hours once a week to play basketball with a group of men I had met through one of the teenage boys that attended the church. None of these men was Christian, so I suspect deep down I saw playing basketball with them as an opportunity to evangelize them. Ironically, I made very little effort to do so. Over time I saw these three hours as a refuge away from the pressures of the ministry. In retrospect, this once week full-court workout was likely a medicine of sorts that kept me from physically and mentally destroying myself.
The second exception on my schedule was weekly trips during the summer to local dirt race tracks. My best friend in the church, Harold Miller, asked me if I had ever been to a dirt track race. I told him that I had, but I hadn’t attended a race since the mid-1970s. And so we went — Polly and the boys included, along with 2 toddler girls — regularly on Friday and Saturday nights to racetracks such as Midway Speedway, Muskingum County Speedway, R&R Speedway, and Skyline Speedway. On nights that Polly didn’t want to go, I would pack up the boys and we would go to the races. Again, I saw our weekly visits to these racetracks as a respite of sort from the constant — often self-inflicted — demands of the ministry. There were plenty of sinners at the races we attended, but I made no effort to evangelize anyone. For three to five hours once a week I allowed myself to be immersed in a sea of worldlings, observing but never partaking.
When my evangelist friend Don Hardman heard that I was regularly attending local dirt track races, and – say it isn’t so Bruce! – taking my family with me, he rebuked me for attending such worldly events. Fortunately, I ignored him. I have no doubt that going to the races helped me maintain my sanity and allowed me to physically relax. (One humorous story from these days comes from a warm spring day when I was preaching on a street corner in Zanesville, Ohio. Pulling up to the traffic light was one of the regular late-model drivers at Midway Speedway. Seizing the opportunity to “share” the gospel with this man, I began preaching, mentioning him by name. He turned towards me with a look on his face that suggested I had scared the living daylights out of him. Several months later I ran into him, reminding him of my brief sermon on that spring day. He said to me, you scared the shit out of me!)
The third exception came when I would load Polly and the children into whatever beater we were driving at the time and take day road trips to Southern Ohio and West Virginia. All we needed was enough money for gas and off we would go. Polly would pack us food and snacks, so there was no need to stop at restaurants to eat. We traveled countless back roads, often ending up in places that were small dots on a road map. Polly and I, along with our children, have many fond memories of these trips, including the time we drove to southern West Virginia so we could take a train ride, only to arrive just as the last train of the day was pulling out from the station.
Three hours of basketball once a week, three to five hours on summer weekends watching dirt track races, one vacation, and occasional road trips…. that’s all the time I took off from serving Jesus. According to the Bible, I was Jesus’ bondslave. The song in my heart was the classic Baptist hymn:
All to Jesus I surrender,all to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust Him In His presence daily live.
All to Jesus I surrender, humbly at His feet I bow. Worldly pleasures all forsaken,Take me, Jesus, take me now.
All to Jesus I surrender, make me Savior wholly thine. May Thy Holy Spirit fill me, may I know Thy power divine.
I surrender all I surrender all. All to Thee my blessed Savior I surrender all.
There were also church outings to Kings Island, the bowling alley, the roller rink, canoe livery and a host of other activities, but these events were tools used by me to evangelize unaware sinners. I would encourage congregants to invite their friends and neighbors to these events, telling them to emphasize how much fun these activities were. Once there, I would round everyone up and spend some time sharing the gospel with them. Doing this told congregants without saying a word that having fun for fun’s sake took a backseat to evangelizing the lost.
People who have traveled to Southeast Ohio will tell you about its beauty and rolling hills. It’s too bad that I had no time for enjoying the wonders of God’s creation. All around me was beautiful scenery, but all I could see was sin-stained hearts in need of salvation. Polly and I are planning on taking a trip back to Southeast Ohio this summer to spend a day or two visiting all the places that we never got to see because Jesus had other things for us to do. Several days ago, as we were browsing travel literature for Southeast Ohio, we were amazed at how many wonderful things there were to see. Too bad we didn’t take the time to see them when we were young, when our children were home, and when our bodies were better fitted for hiking and visiting such wonders as Old Man’s Cave.
The same can be said for the seven months I spent as co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf Texas — a small community just south of San Antonio. While at Community, I spent eight days a week doing the work of the ministry. During my time there I established a Christian school, started two churches, established a nursing home ministry, set up a street-preaching ministry, along with preaching twice a week. As you can see, I was busy, busy, busy for Jesus, with no time for family or relaxation. I suspect I am one of the few people to ever live in San Antonio and not go on the Riverwalk, visit the Alamo, view San Antonio from the towering height of the Tower of the Americas, or see any of the other sites people typically visit when vacationing in San Antonio. I did, however, preach in front of the Alamo, as I did above the walkways the led down to the Riverwalk. All around me was beauty, from the natural landscape to ancient buildings, but I was blind to these things because my eyes were fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith; the Jesus who took my sins upon himself and died for me on the cross; the Jesus who commanded me to be perfect even as his father in heaven is perfect; the Jesus who commanded me:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26,27,33)
I am sure that some of the Evangelicals who read this post will suggest that what I needed in my life was balance; that I was too focused on the eternal; that I needed to give myself time to rest and relax. The problem with this type of thinking is that it is modeled nowhere in the lives of Jesus, the apostles, or any of the disciples. I can’t think of one Bible verse that suggests Christians should take it easy until Jesus comes again, or that the followers of Christ should pace themselves as they serve the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Paul spoke of running a race, and I thought, at the time, better to burn out than rust out. Better to live forty years of life as a brightly shining star than eighty years as a dim star that could only be seen with a telescope.
It was in the late 1990s before I finally realized what a fool I had been. By that time, health ruined, diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, I could no longer keep up the pace of previous years. During this time, thanks to the atheist husband of one of the ladies who attended Our Father’s House, the church I was pastoring at the time, I developed a love for photography. I am convinced that this one thing save my life. I began taking time off so we could take day trips and vacations to places that provided opportunities for me to work on my photography skills. Countless hours were spent slowly driving the back roads of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, looking for photographic opportunities. These trips gave me a psychological break from the demands of the ministry. Thanks to my Calvinistic beliefs, I no longer felt driven to spend every waking hour evangelizing the lost. I was content to preach two sermons a week, take care of the needs of a small congregation, and spend the rest of time enjoying life. We began taking vacations, attending races at the local dirt track, and visiting nearby attractions. Our oldest three boys were old enough to babysit their younger siblings, so this afforded Polly and me the opportunity to get away from the church and home without our children. By then, our economic position had greatly improved thanks to Polly working full time at Sauder Woodworking and our two older sons paying room and board. Having more discretionary money allowed us to do a lot of things that we never could have done before. I can honestly say that the seven years I spent as pastor of Our father’s House in West Unity, Ohio were the best years of my ministerial career. The church never grew above fifty or sixty people, but I found this particular group of people, with a couple of exceptions, a delight to pastor. I suspect that if I had been able to ignore the nagging voice of the “Holy Spirit”, I could have continued pastoring the church for years.
You might wonder what I mean by the nagging voice of the “Holy Spirit.” As I settled into the life typically led by Evangelical pastors, I found myself increasingly feeling guilty over time spent relaxing. I’m sure Polly could tell stories of her own about the long discussions we had about whether we were doing enough for Jesus. I quite enjoyed our new life with its pleasures and relaxing opportunities, but I never could get out of my head all the things I mentioned above. Never far from my thoughts were my Master and his call to follow after him. I don’t want to give the impression that I was some sort of worldly Christian, I wasn’t. I still spent an inordinate amount of time reading and studying the Bible, praying, preaching sermons, and doing the work of the ministry, but I did give myself space for pleasure and relaxation. This was a step in the right direction, but I would find out a few short years later that if I really wanted to have a life worth living I was going to have to divorce myself from the ministry and God.
Now that I have liberated myself from the constraints of the Bible, I am free to live life as I see fit. Realizing that life is short and death is certain (sooner than later), I try to spend as much time as possible doing the things I want to do and with the people I love most — my family. I no longer hear nagging voices in my head telling me to forsake my family, houses, and lands and follow Jesus. I no longer worry about WWJD — what would Jesus do (or what would church members think). Both Polly and I love where we are in life, though we do wish that we had come to an understanding about what really matters twenty-five years sooner. Sadly, we can’t undo the past, but we can choose to live differently, and that is exactly what we are doing.
You have contacted me several times in recent years via Facebook, hoping to reconnect with the man you once called Pastor. Shockingly, you found out that I am no longer a Christian; that I no longer believe the Bible is the Word of God; that I proudly self-identify as an atheist and a humanist. I can only imagine how difficult and heartbreaking it was for you reading my blog for the first time. You are not the first former church member to feel this way. I am sure you hoped that you would find me faithfully serving Jesus, preaching the gospel, and winning souls to Christ. Instead, you found out that I have repudiated all that I once believed and preached.
We were Facebook friends for a short while, then you unfriended me. I told you that I understood your decision to unfriend me. I know my story can be troubling and disconcerting to those who were once close to me. Several weeks ago, you sent me another friend request, yet before I could accept it, you thought better of friending me and deleted the request. Again, I understand. You are having a hard time reconciling the Bruce who was your pastor in the 1980s and the Bruce of today. Because your worldview requires you to frame and measure everything according to your interpretation of the Bible, you find it impossible to square my life today with that of thirty years ago. From a theological perspective, the current Bruce Gerencser is a lost man headed for hell, yet you remember a Bruce Gerencser who loved God and devoted his life to following after Jesus.
Set the religious stuff aside for a moment. Instead of attempting to see me through religious eyes, how about seeing me though human eyes? The kind, loving, compassionate, temperamental, flawed man who pastored Somerset Baptist Church decades ago still exists. The man you have such fond memories of is still alive and well. From a human perspective, I haven’t changed much. The character strengths and flaws I had as your pastor still exist today. In a few months I will turn sixty, and if there is one thing I have learned it is this: humans rarely change. We are, character-wise, who we are. While my beliefs, politics, and worldview have dramatically changed over the years, my nature has not. Sure, age, sickness, and time have affected me, as they do all of us, but, for the most part I am not much different today from who I was during the exciting days when Somerset Baptist was a thriving, growing church.
If you can ever look beyond your theological beliefs and see Bruce, the man, you will find out that the man you once loved and respected is right in front of you. Sadly, many Evangelicals cannot see people for who and what they are because their theological beliefs force them to define people according to what the Bible says instead of what they can see with their eyes. I am routinely savaged by your fellow Christians. I have been repeatedly told that I am evil and a follower of Satan. Evidently, what I believe, and not my behavior, determines what kind of man I am. The moment I said, I no longer believe in the Christian God, I went from a loving husband, father, and grandfather to a man who is worthy of scorn and derision; a man, some say, who is hiding a life of debauchery and licentiousness.
You have two choices set before you, Wendy. Either you can embrace and befriend the Bruce of 2017 or you can hang on to the memory of the 1987 Bruce. I would love to be friends with you in the here and now, but life is too short for me to worry about people who cannot see beyond my beliefs and are thus unable or unwilling to befriend me. Virtually all of my former Evangelical friends, parishioners, and ministerial colleagues, have been unable to remain friends with me post-Jesus. I understand why this is so. Fidelity to Jesus and the Bible was the glue that held our relationships together. Once I deconverted, that which bound us was gone. Rare are friendships that survive for a lifetime. Today, almost nine years after I attended church for the last time, I have two friends who are Evangelical. Everyone else has written me off or turned me into a sermon illustration, a warning of what happens when someone no longer believes the Bible is true.
Since you can’t seem to bring yourself to befriend me as I now am, you are left with your memories of the time we spent together in the rolling hills of Southeast Ohio. And that’s okay. I, too, have many fond memories of the eleven years I pastored Somerset Baptist Church. Nothing in the present can change the experiences of the past. If it helps you think better of me, then by all means cling to our shared memories, pushing from your mind thoughts of Atheist Bruce. If you ever want to be friends again, you know where to find me.
Bruce, I would be curious to hear how your old church handled this issue. It really seems to be a bedrock sticky wicket that says more about the pastor of the church than anything else. I am going to a Methodist church now where they will pay your electric bill or give you a grocery store gift card but will not hand over cash. Seems sort of mean even if it’s likely a better idea.
I grew up in a home where money was hard to come by. Dad always had a job, but never seemed to have enough money to pay the bills. This is why, as a youth, Dad moved us from town to town and school to school. When people learn about my well-traveled upbringing, they often ask, did you move a lot because of your father’s work?No, we moved a lot because Dad didn’t pay the rent (my parents never owned a home). Clothing, lunch money, and spending money were hard to come by, and when Dad did buy me clothes, they were often cheap Rink’s Bargain City (Bargain Shitty) knock-offs. My first pair of Levi’s came not from my Dad, but courtesy of a five-fingered discount at a local clothing store. This would not be the last time I shoplifted.
Medical and dental care were almost nonexistent. I can count on one hand the times I went to the doctor growing up. It was only after my parents divorced and Mom signed up for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Medicaid that I received regular medical and dental care. To this day, I remember going to the dentist as a sixteen-year-old boy, only to be told, yes, your teeth need work. And once your Dad pays his bill, I will be glad to fix them. Talk about embarrassing.
Early on, I realized that if I wanted money of my own that I was going to have to work for it. My first jobs were raking leaves, shoveling snow, and mowing yards. My first “official” job — at age fourteen — was daily emptying the trash at a local nursing home. As a teenager, I worked all sorts of minimum wage jobs. Once I had my own money, I was then able to buy my own clothes, pay for school lunches, and fund my social activities.
I have said all this to emphasize that growing up poor deeply affected how I dealt with people as a pastor. Having suffered the embarrassment of using food stamps and the indignity of being forced to wear welfare glasses (see photograph above), I knew firsthand the struggles of the poor. These experiences made me compassionate to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.”
In what follows, I will detail how I interacted with the poor in the churches I pastored; what ministries I started that specifically ministered to the disadvantaged and marginalized. During the twenty-five years I spent in the pastorate, I had the privilege of ministering to countless people who were down on their luck. Yes, I met more than a few con-artists, grifters, and lazier-than-a-coon-dog-on-a-cold-winter’s-night users and abusers. I am sure that my kindness was taken advantage of. I took the approach that my job was to help; it was God’s job to sort out motives. Now, this doesn’t mean that I was an easy mark. I wasn’t. I rarely gave money to people, knowing that doing so often fed drug or alcohol addictions. If someone needed gas I took them to the gas station and paid for the gas. When homeless people asked for money, I offered them a meal at a nearby diner. When people needed help with their utilities, I directly contacted the utility and paid the bill. Of course, I couldn’t have done any of these things without the gracious financial support of church members.
Over the years, the churches I pastored had food pantries and clothing rooms that were open to the public. Having suffered the indignity of being singled out for being poor, I made sure that we never embarrassed the poor. If someone said they needed help, we helped them (within the limits of our finances). While I certainly wanted to see people saved, I never made helping poor people contingent on them attending church. I took the approach, freely received, freely given. Unlike many holier-than-thou, self-righteous Baptist preachers, I never had a problem encouraging people to avail themselves of services and benefits offered by the state welfare department and federal food banks.
For eleven years, I pastored a Baptist church in Perry County, Ohio — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was there I saw abject and generational poverty. Good jobs were hard to come by, and once the coal mines closed, those who had well-paying mining jobs were forced to work jobs that often paid minimum wage. The unemployment rate was double-digit, ranging from ten to nineteen percent. As is now the case, the number of unemployed was much higher than the official numbers suggested. Once unemployed workers stopped receiving unemployment benefits, they were no longer counted. These unemployed workers turned to the welfare department for help, trying to eke out an existence on meager government checks and food stamps. Some worked jobs that paid cash or turned to growing marijuana.
The majority of church members were on some sort of government assistance — usually food stamps and Medicaid. Most church families had at least one member gainfully employed. The highest paid man in the church made $21,000 a year (except for a year or so when a nearby church had a split and a number of their middle-class members attended the church — they later left, taking their money with them). Annual church offerings peaked at $40,000 a year, when attendance averages neared 200. Most years, the total offerings were in the $20,000 range. My largest annual salary during this time was $12,000. Five of our six children’s births were paid for by Medicaid, and for several years we received food stamps. Now, this doesn’t mean we didn’t try to improve our lot — we did. I pumped gas and worked as a mechanic at a local gas station, sold insurance, worked in restaurants, and delivered newspapers. I believed then, and still do, that there is no shame in being poor. Work hard, do what you can, and live on the results. (In retrospect, I certainly would have done many things differently, but I, to this day, believe all work is honorable and has value, regardless of its pay.)
During my eleven-year stint as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I spent a significant amount of time helping the poor, both in the community at large and in the church. When a man said he would come to church if only he had shoes, I gave him a pair of mine. When members needed money, I loaned it to them or paid their bills. I sold cars to several church members, no money down, pay me when you can. One church member took advantage of my generosity, buying a car from me and never paying for it. This person sat on the front row on Sundays. I often found it hard to look at him without thinking, hey deadbeat, pay me for the car. But then I would think of Jesus and the Sermon of the Mount or remember my own poverty-filled upbringing. I knew this person’s family history — how he grew up in abject poverty, dropping out of high school and becoming a drug addict. I knew he had spent time in jail and hadn’t had a driver’s license in years. (I helped him get his license reinstated.) As Jesus did for the poor of his day, I had compassion for him, even if he, at times, irritated the heaven out of me. (He was, despite these failings, one of the kindest, most helpful men I have ever known. If I needed help with something, I knew I could call on him.)
For several years, Polly and I took in foster children, mostly court-referred teenagers. The county paid us a stipend for giving these teens a home. I have plenty of stories I could share about our foster children, but I will just share one for now. We had two teen boys living with us who decided that they wanted a bit of freedom. They stole our car (a dealer loaner, as our car was in the shop having a new motor installed), checkbook, and credit card, and took a joy ride to New Jersey. They ran a red light in Jersey and were pulled over by the police. After finding out there was a warrant out for their arrest, they were arrested and returned to Ohio for prosecution. Prior to their court appearance for felony theft, the judge called me and asked me to come to his office for a visit. He asked me what punishment I thought he should mete out to these boys. I told him that I felt that they should be punished, but that I didn’t want to see them go to prison. He (we) decided that he would give them the maximum sentence at a youth detention center, but release them after thirty days. Needless to say, they learned their lesson. One of the boys lived with us again. We forgave him, believing that this is what Jesus would have us do. More than a few people thought we were crazy (and maybe we were).
From giving homeless people a place to stay at the church to feeding the homeless men who frequented the streets of Zanesville, Polly and I, along with the church, tried our best to minister to those in need. As a pastor, I had many shortcomings and faults. I deeply regret my Fundamentalist Baptist preaching and its emphasis on sin instead of grace. I wish I could have seen the disconnect between my hellfire and brimstone preaching on Sundays and my compassionate, patient help of the poor the rest of the week. If I had been the bleeding-heart liberal that I am today back in my Perry County days, I suspect the church would have been known above all else as a place of love and safety for the disenfranchised. I could easily have been a Steven Anderson (please see Christians Say the Darnedest Things: Lazy Bums Want Us to Act Like Compassionate Christians by Steven Anderson), propping up hate of the poor with Bible verses, but fortunately my life experiences softened my heart, and as Jesus did, when he looked at the poor I had compassion on them.
Several years ago, after finding out that I had helped someone with a particular need, my mother-in-law told me, Bruce, why you’d give the last shirt off your back if someone needed it. (Polly grew up in a middle-class home — new cars, vacations, home ownership.) She then said — perhaps thinking of what the Bible said about helping others — well, I guess that is not a bad problem to have. In retrospect, I can see how some of my liberal giving caused her to be concerned. Here we were barely keeping our heads above water and I was giving money, food, clothing, and other things to the poor. If I had to do it all over again, I would have certainly provided a better life for Polly and our children, but I would never have wanted to lose my compassion for others, especially those at the bottom of the economic scale. While my children did without while Dad was sacrificially helping others (and if they hated me for doing so I would understand), all of them — especially the oldest three — have told me that these experiences helped to make them into the hardworking people they are today (Our family has what we call the Gerencser Work Ethic®: work hard, do your job, don’t miss work; be the best employee you can be.)
As I re-read this post, I am uncomfortable with its personal focus. I am not the type of person who, after helping someone, publicizes my largess. Works of charity ought to be done in secret — without fanfare or applause. No need to let everyone on social media know that I did this or that for someone. The good feeling I receive from helping others is enough. Paying it forward is a good way to live, and even if there is no karmic justice, I want to be known as a man who loved and cared for others.
Here is a September 7,1990 front page newspaper photograph of me street preaching on the downtown streets of Zanesville, Ohio. A Zanesville Times-Recorder photographer by the name of Jeff Cope shot this photo of me putting in a good word for Jesus on one of the hottest days of the year (in the 90s, I believe). For several years, I preached every Thursday— spring, summer, winter, and fall — on the streets of Zanesville. I also preached on the downtown streets of other local communities such as Newark, Crooksville, New Lexington, Lancaster, and New Straitsville.
Those were the days: ironed long-sleeve pinpoint cotton, button-down oxford shirt, pressed black dress slacks, black suspenders, snazzy tie, black wing-tip shoes, leather Oxford King James Bible, and red hair on top of my head. I was quite the celebrity. Evangelicals loved me for my boldness and zeal; non-Evangelicals hated my abrasiveness and pushy message. I often brought my family, Christian school students, and church members along with me. They would hold Bible verse signs and hand out tracts while I preached.
Christmas tree at another New Lexington house, 1984
In July 1983, I planted a new church in Somerset Ohio. I would, for the next 11 years, pastor Somerset Baptist Church, starting in a storefront and later holding services in a 150-year-old brick church building purchased from the Methodist Conference. I would learn a lot about myself during the time I spent pastoring this church For a few years, the church experienced rapid numerical growth, leading to scores of professions of faith. And then, just as quickly, the church numerically receded, returning to a typical country church of 50 or so people. I could spend months writing about my experiences as pastor of this church, but for now I want to focus on a house we lived in on Water Street in New Lexington, Ohio.
When I started the church, we lived in Buckeye Lake, 25 miles north and west of Somerset. Wanting to live in the area where I would be ministering, we sought out housing in Somerset. Unable to find housing, we rented a house in New Lexington — a community built on a hill nine miles south of Somerset. After moving into the home, we noticed the carpets had a smell. The longer we lived there the worse the smells became. I mentioned this to the owner. He said the previous tenants had animals and that’s why the carpet smelled. Determining that we were likely going to move if he didn’t do something about the smell, the owner had the carpets replaced in the living room and main bedroom. Despite the fact that the owner replaced the carpet, the house still had a faint smell of animal urine. I suspect the urine and had soaked into the wood floors underneath the carpet, and as anyone who has ever had to deal with such a problem knows, once this happens either the floors must be sanded and refinished or shellacked to seal in the odor. Six weeks later, we would move to a ramshackle farmhouse northeast of Somerset, near Glenford, Ohio.
There are several stories I would like to share from the few months we spent living on Water Street. I have always been a pop (soda) drinker. My drink of choice was/is Pepsi, but I would, from time to time, drink other brands such as Coke and Sprite. These were the days when pop came packaged as eight returnable 16 ounce glass bottles. Many of my fellow baby boomers have memories, I’m sure, of collecting pop bottles or using pop bottles for ashtrays or emergency urinals The returnable bottles were sent by grocery stores to bottlers who would sanitize the bottles and refill them with the proper soft drink. One day, I decided to drink a bottle of Sprite. I grabbed the bottle opener, popped the cap off the bottle, put it to my lips, and tipped the bottle so the sugary drink would flow. Suddenly, I felt something hit my teeth. I quickly stop drinking, and upon investigating I found a barrette with hair still attached in the bottle. Gagging, I quickly put the bottle down. To this day, I find it hard to drink Sprite. Irrational as it might be, all I can think of when I think about drinking a Sprite is that barrette with hair attached hitting me in the teeth.
As a young adult, I did a good bit of walking and talking in my sleep. My brother and sister have all sorts of stories about my sleepwalking escapades, including walking through the living room brushing my teeth. A short time after Polly and I were married, she awoke to find me standing in the corner of the bedroom urinating. Sound asleep, I thought I was in the bathroom. The sleepwalking continued into my later life. One night, while living in New Lexington, we had gone to bed, and as had been the custom for the past 38 years, Polly quickly fell asleep and I fitfully tossed and turned before finally drifting off into that night’s dream world. Several hours into the night, Polly awoke to find me crouched over her — eyes wide open. I was sound asleep, but Polly thought I was a psychopath fixing to kill her. After a few moments, I rolled over, while Polly was left shaking, fearing for her life. Both of us wondered if I would someday do something hurtful and not know that I did it. Fortunately, Polly and our six children survived. These days, the only sleepwalking I do is the wide-awake kind as I make one of my nightly trips to the bathroom or the kitchen. I still talk in my sleep from time to time. Polly no longer fears becoming the next day’s headline, though she does enjoy retelling what I said to her in one of my sleep talking moments. I can, in her words, still be quite entertaining.
A few days after Thanksgiving,we decided to move from Water Street to our newly-rented house in Glenford. We had very few possessions, so we were able to do all the moving with a pickup truck. Having just put up our Christmas tree several days before, we decided to leave all the decorations on the tree as we moved it to its new location. I still remember how hilarious it was to see that Christmas tree sitting in the back of the pickup truck, fully decorated. As you might imagine, by the time we got to our new house, all the tinsel had blown off the tree , as had some of the glass bulbs. I know– the stupid stuff kids do, right? We put the tree back together, in preparation for what we still call to this day the Christmas from Hell. But that’s a story for another day.
Somerset Baptist Church, 3 of our buses, circa early 1987
I was privileged to pastor the fine people of Somerset Baptist Church, Mount Perry, Ohio for eleven years. During my tenure — thanks to our bus ministry — scores of people heard me preach. Using the methodology I was taught at Midwestern Baptist College, I became a modern-day Apostle Paul — becoming all things to all men that I might by all means save some. Desiring to use any legal means possible to attract bus riders, I turned the church into a carnival sideshow. One such gimmick was giving away a live turkey to the person who brought the most visitors to church during the contest period.
A local farmer donated the turkey. On Saturdays, I would take the turkey with me on bus visitation. I kid you not! I wish I had taken a picture of me and Mr. Turkey in my blue Plymouth Horizon. At the time, it seemed hilarious. In retrospect, I can only imagine what some locals thought of the crazy Baptist preacher. The Sunday before the end of the attendance contest, Mr. Turkey came to church. After letting everyone see him, we took him to the dug-out earthen church basement for safekeeping (the church building was erected in 1835). I still remember to this day hearing the turkey gobble while I was preaching. Everyone got a big laugh out of his gobbling.
As was often the case with such live animal promotions, the kid who won the contest was not allowed to bring the turkey home. He was heartbroken. We bought him a frozen turkey instead. One of the church deacons — an avid hunter — took the turkey home with the hope of butchering it. The turkey escaped, and for a few days was nowhere to be found. But early one morning the deacon heard a turkey gobble, and sure enough Mr. Turkey had returned “home.” He should have kept running. The deacon recaptured the turkey, putting a permanent end to his wanderings.
Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches are known for being the Baptist version of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. IFB soulwinners fan out across their communities knocking on doors, hoping the people resting from a long, hard day at work will answer their knock and want to spend 10 minutes hearing their sales presentation. While the sales pitches vary from church to church, the goal is always the same — to induce sinners to accept Jesus as their Savior.
Church members are given specific instructions about how best to evangelize those who answer their doors. Members are told to never deviate from the script. Keep on message, says Pastor Gerencser. Don’t let the prospect for heaven ask questions. All they need to know is gospel. Here is the soulwinning method I taught countless church members:
Soulwinner: Hello. My name is Pastor Bruce Gerencser and this is (pointing to soulwinning partner) John Baptist. We are from Somerset Baptist Church and we are out today inviting people to church. Do you attend church anywhere?
Prospect: Well, yes I do. I attend the Methodist church in Somerset.
(Sometimes, at this point, the soulwinner might ask where the church is located or who the pastor is. If the prospect can’t answer these questions, it is evident that they don’t attend church regularly.)
Soulwinner: Why that’s great. We don’t want to take anyone away from their church home. (This, by the way, is a boldfaced lie. The goal is to take as many people as possible away from what is perceived as liberal, apostate churches.)
Soulwinner: Before we go, I would like to ask you a question. If you died today, would you go to heaven?
Prospect: I am a good person. I think I will go to heaven when I die. (The answer is meaningless. The soulwinner plans to share the gospel with the prospect regardless of how the question is answered.)
Soulwinner: Let me quickly show you how you can know for sure that you will go to heaven when you die. I promise this will only take a few minutes. (The soulwinner, before the prospect can answer, opens his King James Bible to Romans 3, preparing to read.)
(At this point, the soulwinner should ask if they can come into the home. If the prospect says no, then the soulwinner should continue sharing the gospel on the porch.)
Soulwinner: The Word of God says in Romans 3:23, For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. This means that all of us, you, me, everyone is a sinner. Do you understand what it means to be a sinner?
Prospect: Sin is doing bad things.
Soulwinner: That’s right. (The soulwinner might list a few small and big sins to emphasize the fact that we are all sinners)
Soulwinner: The Bible also says in Romans 6:23, For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. The just payment for our sins is death.
Soulwinner: The last part of Romans 6:23 says, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. The bad news is that the wages (payment) of sin is death. We all will someday physically die. And if we don’t know Jesus as our Savior, we will also spiritually die. This spiritual death means that those who haven’t accepted Jesus as their personal savior will spend eternity in hell. The good news is…you don’t have to go to hell when you die. God gives us eternal life in heaven if we put our faith and trust in Jesus. Wouldn’t you like escape hell and go to heaven when you die?
Prospect: Uh, sure.
Soulwinner: That’s great. The Bible says in Romans 10:9: That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. This verse says that if we will confess with our mouths and believe that Jesus died for our sins on the cross and rose from the dead three days later, God will save us.
Soulwinner: What is your first name, sir.
Soulwinner: Horace, the Bible says that if Horace shalt confess with his mouth the Lord Jesus, and if Horace will believe in his heart that God hath raised Jesus from the dead, Horace will be saved.
Soulwinner: Horace, would you like to be saved? Would you like to know for certain that your sins are forgiven and that you will go to heaven when you die?
Prospect: Yes. (If the prospect is the least bit hesitant, the soulwinner should stress the fact that none of us knows when we die. It could be today!)
Soulwinner: The Bible says in Romans 10:13: For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. That whosoever includes you, me, and everyone. All you have to do, Horace, is pray and ask Jesus to save you. Are you willing to ask Jesus to save you?
Prospect: Yes, but I am not very good at praying.
Soulwinner: Don’t worry, Horace. I am going to say a prayer, What I want you to do is repeat this prayer.
Soulwinner: Dear Lord Jesus.
Prospect: Dear Lord Jesus.
Soulwinner: I know that I have sinned and I deserve to go to hell when I die.
Prospect: I know that I am a sinner and I deserve to go to hell when I die.
Soulwinner: But I also know Jesus died on the cross for my sins so I don’t have to go to hell when I die.
Prospect: But I also know Jesus died on the cross for my sins so I don’t have to go to hell when I die.
Soulwinner: Right now, I put my faith and trust in Jesus and ask him to forgive me and save me from my sins.
Prospect: Right now, I put my faith and trust in Jesus and ask him to forgive me and save me from my sins.
Soulwinner: Thank you, Jesus for saving me and giving me eternal life.
Prospect: Thank you, Jesus for saving me and giving me eternal life.
Soulwinner: In Jesus’ wonderful name, Amen.
Prospect: In Jesus’ wonderful name, Amen.
(Once the now-saved prospect says Amen, both soulwinners, with raised voices, say AMEN!)
Soulwinner: Horace, based on the authority of the Word of God, you are now a Christian. The Bible says in Romans 8:38,39: For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. God says, Horace, that no one can take away your salvation. Isn’t that wonderful?
(At this point, the new Christian is given literature that tells him he needs to find a good church to attend — that good church being Somerset Baptist Church, read the Bible every day, pray every day, and tell others about what Jesus has done for them.)
Scores of Americans have, at one time or the other, been accosted by Jesus-peddling IFB soulwinners hoping to sell them the truncated, bankrupt Fundamentalist Baptist gospel. There are numerous versions of this approach. I used what is called the Romans Road. Some churches use John’s Road — from the gospel of John — or church surveys. Southern Baptists popularized the use of surveys. The goal is to identify people who can easily be persuaded to buy siding/windows/driveway sealing/vacuum cleaners/magazines/steak knives/insurance/Jesus.
The goal is to win as many souls as possible. It doesn’t matter that most of the souls won to Jesus will NEVER darken the doors of an IFB church, never be baptized, or do any of the things “good” Christians are supposed to do. All that matters is that sinners prayed the prayer and asked Jesus to save them. This approach is focused on quantity not quality. IFB soulwinners only concern themselves with preaching their version of the gospel to as many people as possible. It is up to God to make the new Christians into the people he wants them to be.
Over the course of 50 years in the Christian church, I prayed many prayers — tens of thousands of prayers, to be exact. I publicly testified before fellow Christians that God had answered my prayers. I had experiences that, at the time, defied explanation. Everywhere I looked, I saw God. When I deconverted, one of the first things I did was give a careful accounting of the prayers I uttered and what God’s response to them. (Please see A Few Thoughts on a Lifetime of Praying to the Christian God) I concluded:
The overwhelming majority of my prayers went unanswered.
Those few prayers that I considered answered by God were, in fact, answered, not by God, but by and through human instrumentation.
I was left with a few experiences that I couldn’t rationally explain. One story comes to mind and I will share it here. One night, Harold Miller, a member of the church I was pastoring at the time, and I were driving down Route 22 east of Sego, Ohio on our way to touch base with a family who recently visited the church. As we neared Fultonham, a small community which sat on a ridge above Route 22, I noticed a car barreling down the hill towards the highway. Having no time to stop or change direction, I screamed at Harold, warning him of the impending crash, and prepared to be broadsided. Yet, at the moment the crash should have occurred nothing happened. Both of us thought God had lifted the car above ours, safely protecting us from serious injury or death.
Did God actually pick the car up so it would avoid hitting us? Of course not. Is this really a beyond rational explanation event? Not really. Perhaps my perception was wrong. Perhaps the car wasn’t traveling as fast as I thought it was. While this story is difficult to explain, like some of the contradictions in the Bible, there are reasonable explanations for what happened.
As a Christian, I was taught that God answering prayer was a simple matter of me praying and God hearing and answering my petition. I believed that God answered every prayer one of three ways. God said:
Yes, and what I was praying for came to pass
No, and what I was praying for did not come to pass
Not now, and what I was praying for was added to my long-term begging God list
But Bruce, the Evangelical says, I have prayed prayers that I KNOW God answered! How do you KNOW God answered your prayers? Just because Christians utter petitions that subsequently come to pass doesn’t mean that it is God answering prayers. If Christians could ever divorce themselves from faith and look at things from a skeptical and rational perspective, I think they would find out that most God-answered prayers are anything but.
Virtually every answered prayer can be attributed to human instrumentality or luck (right place, right time). Year ago, I often prayed for God to bless me financially. As a young father with two children, money was always tight. One night, my father-in-law and I were traveling on a rural Licking County road on our way to visit a church member. While driving down the road we came upon a box. I immediately stopped and got out of the car to investigate. In the box were numerous recently skinned fur pelts. I quickly scooped up the box and we took the pelts to a nearby taxidermist. While I do not remember the exact amount of money we received, it was substantial. See? God answered my prayer!
Polly is a shift coördinator for a local manufacturing concern. She has worked there for 17 years. During her tenure, she has never missed a day of work. Not one. Polly is a diligent worker, a great example of the Puritan work ethic. Her work reviews are always at the top of the scale, reflecting Polly’s value to the company. In the years that the company has given raises, Polly has always received the maximum allowable raise.
When we were Christians, we both would pray that she would receive a good raise, and sure enough “God” answered our prayers. But, was it really God who answered our prayers and orchestrated Polly’s raises? Or are her raises attributable to Polly’s perfect attendance and work ethic? Shouldn’t credit be given to whom credit is due? It is Polly, not God, who did the work necessary to warrant a raise. How about now? Neither of us prays, and even if we did it is likely that God’s prayer hot line to our house has been disconnected. Since Polly’s deconversion in 2008, the monetary amount of her raises have increased significantly. Couldn’t it just as easily be argued that becoming a nonbeliever and not praying resulted in these raises?
Christians will often point to the testimonies of those who were saved as proof for God answering prayer. You know the drill. Sister Lena is a member of First Baptist Church in Godland, Ohio. She’s been a member of the church for 50 years. Lena’s husband Bob is not a Christian. Every week, Lena and the church pray for Bob’s salvation. Week in, week out, the church prays that the bloodhound of heaven, the Holy Spirit, will track down Bob and save his soul. And sure enough, one day, after 40 years of praying, Bob is saved. God answered Lena’s prayer, right? (Lost in the discussion will be the question of WHY God waited so long to save Bob.)
Years ago (everything is years ago now), when I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in Mt Perry, Ohio, the church took to praying for the father of one of the church members. This man was a violent, oft-cursing heathen. We prayed, prayed, and prayed for this man, to no avail. Several times I went to his home and shared the gospel with him. Every time, he said, no thanks preacher, I have no need of God.
The man eventually came down with throat cancer. Surgeons removed parts of his esophagus, mouth glands, and vocal cords. He was unable to speak. A short time later he had a small stroke. The church continued to pray for this man, and one night I decided to share the gospel with him one more time. And this time, the man started crying, and when I asked him if he would like to be saved, he gutterally said YES! I led him to Jesus, and from the time forward he would occasionally attend church with his wife and grown children. I vividly remember him crying every time he heard me preach (no jokes about my preaching bringing people to tears). I attributed his tears to his thankfulness for God saving him. Was his glorious conversion the answer to our prayers?
Not likely. I am more inclined to think that his conversion was the result of him facing, for the first time, his mortality. Having been raised in a culture where God is frequently called on in times of trouble, this man, having had radical cancer surgery and a stroke, likely wanted to make sure his house was in order before he died. But, what about the tears? Perhaps they were tears of regret. There’s nothing like a brush with death to focus our attention on how we have lived our lives. Perhaps he regretted his meanness. Perhaps he regretted treating his wife and children like slaves. Who hasn’t shed tears over past regrets, right?
After his “glorious” new birth, this man began displaying bizarre behavior. He began spending exorbitant amounts of money at auctions and yard sales, often bringing home junk of little value. When I couple this behavior with his getting saved, I am more inclined to think that his stroke altered his mind. Anyone who has been around stroke patients knows that behavioral changes are not uncommon.
A changed life is not proof for the existence of God or God answering prayer. A careful examination of salvation testimonies always reveal some sort of human influence. Transformed lives can always be traced back, to some degree or the other, to the work of the individual or others. While these transformations make for great stories of the supernatural power of God, they are, in every way, quite earthy.
I readily admit that there are mysteries which are, at this present moment, beyond explanation. However, is God the answer for every unexplained mystery? Or is it better for us to admit that we don’t know and to continue probing, prodding, and asking questions until we do? Regardless, these mysteries are so few that suggesting that they are evidence for the Christian God is laughable. From my perspective, there is no evidence for the existence of personal, hands-on God of the Christian Bible.
Many evangelical preachers have what I call the Elijah syndrome. In First Kings chapter 18, we find the story of the prophet Elijah doing battle with the 450 false prophets of Baal. According to the Bible, Elijah decided to prove to Israel that Jehovah was the true and living God. Elijah did this by building an altar, placing a slaughtered bullock on the stone edifice, and calling fire down from heaven to consume the bullock. This all-consuming fire was so hot that it melted the altar’s rocks. According to modern science, melting rock into molten lava requires a heat of 1,000 to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Certainly, if Elijah did nothing else, he put on a good show.
After God demonstrated his power, Elijah told the people of Israel to gather up the false prophets and slaughter them. Nothing says I’m a loving God like some old-fashioned bloodshed and slaughter. When Queen Jezebel heard that Elijah and the Israelites had slaughtered Baal’s prophets, she sent a message to Elijah that said, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time. Elijah, fearing for his life, ran away into the wilderness.
In First Kings chapter 19 we find Elijah camped out underneath a juniper tree. An angel appeared to Elijah and told him that he needed to eat because God had a long journey ahead for him. After eating, Elijah journeyed 40 days to Mount Horeb, the very place God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The Lord came to Elijah and asked him what he was doing at Mount Horeb (which is strange, because an angel, one of God’s celestial beings, told him to go to there). Here is what Elijah had to say:
I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
Elijah saw himself as the one remaining true prophet in the land. God reminded him in First Kings 19:18 that there were actually 7,000 prophets who had not yet bowed a knee to Baal.
Every time I think of this story I am reminded of the fact that a lot of Evangelical preachers see themselves as some sort of modern-day Elijah. And like Elijah, each thinks he is the one remaining prophet in the community standing up for God, the Bible, and Evangelical morality. Such preachers delude themselves into thinking that they alone are standing true, that they alone are preaching the right message. Some of these preachers, men such as Robert Lyte and AW Pink, think that the Christian church is so morally compromised that they can no longer in good conscience be a part of it (Susan-Anne White would another example of this, even though she doesn’t claim to be a preacher).
As readers of this blog know, the longer people steep their mind in waters of Fundamentalist belief, the more extreme they become. Over time, sin lists grow, beliefs harden, and certainty and arrogance convinces preachers that they alone are standing for God. While every community has numerous Christian churches, there are always a handful of churches that think they are above the murky waters of generic Evangelicalism. Like Elijah, they believe that they have been chosen by God to speak on his behalf to the world.
I remember thinking this of myself back when I pastored Somerset Baptist Church in Mount Perry, Ohio. Everywhere I looked I saw churches and pastors who were not winning souls and waging war against Satan, sin, and godlessness. As the church began to grow, I convinced myself that people were attending the church because they wanted to hear a true man of God. What I understood later is that these people found me likable and enjoyed my sermons. So much for being a rugged, stand-alone prophet of God.
The next time you see a street preacher just remember he likely thinks that he is like Elijah, the lone prophet of God. After all, he is the only one standing on the street corner, right? If all the other neighboring churches and pastors really cared about America they too would be on nearby street corners preaching against sin, gun control, abortion, secularism, atheism, Barack Obama, evolution, liberalism, and any other issue deemed a moral affront to the thrice-holy God of Evangelical Christianity.
This I alone remain true to God way of thinking is what turns preachers into insufferable, arrogant, hypocritical pricks. Thinking that they have some sort of inside knowledge about God and the Bible, they are determined to share what they think they know with everyone, even if people don’t want to hear it.
Preachers like Jack Hyles and Fred Phelps did not start out as pontificating bloviators. Over time, they convinced themselves that they had been chosen uniquely by God to speak on his behalf. Once convinced of this, their pronouncements became more severe. These Elijah-like prophets of God, thinking that most churches and pastors are Biblically and morally compromised, withdrew from the larger Christian body.
Inherent to the nature of Fundamentalism is the need to separate and divide. The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement is a good example of this. The IFB church movement was born out of rebellion against perceived liberalism in the American, Northern, and Southern Baptist conventions. Originally this separation was due to German rationalism and higher textual criticism. These days, IFB churches and pastors separate due to silly things like music, Bible translations, long hair on men, and whether women should wear pants. Recently, Bob Gray, Sr., the retired pontiff of the Longview Baptist Temple in Longview, Texas wrote a blog post about the importance of being a prophet like Elijah. Here is some of the issues Gray thinks are important:(link no longer active)
In our fundamental churches, schools, and colleges we have some rules, regulations, and standards. We have rules about dating, dress, haircuts on the males, makeup on the females, hairstyles, clothing, smoking, dancing, bad music, Hollywood movies, speech, respect for authority, proper conduct, etc.
Immediately the accusations begin to come when such a stand is taken. The cry is always the same, and the charge is always the same. “Why, that is nothing but legalism with all those rules, standards, and regulations for they are nothing but promoting legalism!”
The truth of the matter is, when you associate legalism with rules, regulations and standards, people with neo-evangelical hearts who masquerade make such statements in fundamental Baptist clothing. Sometimes they are made by people who were real fundamental Baptist at one time, and yet have become weary of the battle and long to return to the onions, watermelons, leaks, cucumbers, and garlic of acceptance. Also, this cry of legalism often comes from the desks of colleges and seminaries built on fundamental foundations with walls of compromise and a leaking roof of pseudo liberty.
We have grown to desire that our truth be accredited by worldly educated error. We want a license from wrong to do right! My (sic) I remind all of us of that fundamental world we believed in and practiced before we had teenagers, home-schoolers, liberal fundamental colleges, Bill Gothard, Oral Roberts University, Benny Hinn, his girlfriend Evangelist Paula White, amusement parks, and before Jerry Falwell slid down a charismatic water slide!
…. This generation must not listen to the prophets of compromise who are silently bridging fundamentalism to a liberal Southern Baptist Convention in order to garner the crowds. No one is legalistic who insists on standards. When someone adds anything to salvation, other than the shed and applied blood of Jesus Christ, is by definition a legalist.
When you conveniently compromise you are not only betraying Billy Sunday, Sam Jones, Bob Jones Sr., Mordecai Ham, John Wesley, John R. Rice, Curtis Hutson, Lester Roloff, Lee Roberson, Tom Malone, and Jack Hyles, but you are betraying your own standards of just a few years back.
If we cannot have our padded pews with hell-fire and brimstone preaching, then let us go back to the sawdust trail and the store front buildings while sitting on wooden benches.
If we cannot have organs with trained choirs without the seven-fold Amens and the crusty anthems, then let us go back to the “pie-anar” and tuning fork.
If we cannot have a marriage of proper grammar and the mourner’s bench with preaching on Hell, Heaven, the rapture, the second coming, and separation, then let us go back to split infinitives, dangling participles, and hung gerunds.
If tiled restrooms and chandeliers are not conducive to the old-time religion, then let us mark off a path and build an outhouse. Let us screw a 60-watt light bulb in it and order a Sears & Roebuck catalogue for the outhouse and get right with God.
If we have to include Kierkegaard, Brunner, and Niebuhr in our required reading in order to be intellectual theologically, then let us go back to the Blue-black Speller, the ABC’s, the alphabet, and the simple preaching of thus saith the Lord God! We have listened too much to psychologists in the pulpit and not enough to leather lunged Baptist preachers. We have listened too much to philosophers and not enough to old-fashioned prophets of God. We have listened too much to so-called Christian TV and radio and not enough to men of God.
…. Legalism is not a godly mother who insists that her daughter dress modestly. Legalism is not parents enrolling their children in a Christian school that believes as they do about separation from the world. Legalism is not a dedicated aged godly dad who takes his son to the barbershop instead of a beauty shop every two weeks.
Legalism is not a faithful youth director who insists his teenagers dress appropriately. Legalism is not a hard working pastor who insists that his Sunday school teachers not smoke, not drink alcohol, no tobacco use, no movies, they visit absentees, and go soul winning.
Legalism is not the careful godly educator who forbids his students to dance or listen to bad music. Legalism is not the man of God who cries aloud against mixed swimming, in essence mixed nudity, against vampire lipstick promoting drugs, and young males with their Billy Idol bleached porky pine spiked chili bowl hair do! Right has not changed and wrong has not changed just because you enter into a different century. Black is still black and white is still white. Good is still good and bad is still bad. Legalism is not the faithful man of God who cries aloud against sin.
…. Most of the Scriptures are about rules on how Christians ought to live! I challenge you to take Genesis and try to show unsaved people how to be saved or redeemed from going to Hell. Now you will find types of salvation, but you will have a tough time finding the plan of salvation in Genesis.
…. Liquor, dope, elicit (sic) sex, Hollywood, cigarettes, bad music, etc., enslaves and is addictive. God’s do’s and don’ts builds walls of protection for his people!
The good news is this: the IFB church movement is dying on the vine. Their churches and institutions are but a shell of what they once were. Instead of taking a hard look at why IFB churches are dying and young adults are fleeing to the friendlier confines of “worldly” Evangelical churches, preachers like Gray, Sr. double down on legalistic standards and rules. Instead of considering whether their controlling, abusive behavior is to blame, these Elijah-like preachers blame those who rejected their moralizing and checklist Christianity. Gray, Sr. will go to the grave believing that if people would just follow the rules about “dating, dress, haircuts on the males, makeup on the females, hairstyles, clothing, smoking, dancing, bad music, Hollywood movies, speech, respect for authority, and proper conduct,” the shekinah glory (glory of God) would fall from heaven and all would be well.
Do you have an Elijah-like preacher where you live? Is there a preacher in your town who thinks he uniquely speaks for God? Perhaps you once attended a church that was pastored by a man who thought he was special or unique. If so, please share your observations in the comment section.