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Tag: Trinity Baptist Church Findlay

My IFB Lineage

ifb

Dear Lord,

I know that I am a sinner.

I know that you died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead three days later.

I am sorry for my sin.

Please forgive me of my sin and come into my heart to save me.

In Jesus’s name,

Amen

And so it began.

In 1962, the Gerencser family started attending Scott Memorial Baptist Church in El Cajon, California. My parents soon made public professions of faith, becoming born again. It was not long after that I also was saved. One Sunday, a junior church leader asked if there was anyone who wanted to ask Jesus into their heart. With my black and white saddle shoes tucked under my seat so no one could see I was wearing “girls” shoes, I timidly raised my hand. A worker came to where I was seated and shared the plan of salvation with me. After the worker was finished, she asked me if I wanted to get saved. I said “yes.” I prayed a prayer similar to the one above, and sixty seconds later, I went from a child of Satan to a child of God. I was five. Forty-five years later, I walked out of the doors of the Ney United Methodist Church for the last time, never to return to a Christian church for anything other than weddings and funerals. After several months of pondering what it was I had become, I publicly admitted I was an atheist.

It is not uncommon for Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) children to make several salvation decisions. At the age of fifteen, during a revival meeting at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, the “Holy Spirit,” also known as Evangelist Al Lacy, brought conviction of sin and need of salvation into my heart, leading me to step out of my pew during the invitation and come forward to get saved. Ray Salisbury, a deacon, knelt with me at the altar, sharing with me the Romans Road. He asked me if I would like to ask Jesus to save me, and I said yes. And just like I did a decade before, I prayed a simple prayer, asking Jesus to forgive me, save me, and come into my life. From that moment forward, I knew I was a born-again Christian. Two weeks later, I went forward again and professed to the church that I believed God was calling me to preach. Four years later, I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan to study for the ministry. While at Midwestern, I married an IFB pastor’s daughter. In 1979, we left Midwestern, moving to Bryan, Ohio, the place of my birth. Two weeks later, I started working for Montpelier Baptist Church, an IFB church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC).

I am a product of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. That said, there came a time when I left the IFB church movement. One of the biggest problems I have as a writer is with people pigeonholing me. They will read a few posts and then make sweeping judgments about my life. Recently, I had a mainline Christian dismiss something I said because of my IFB past. In his mind, once a Fundamentalist, always a Fundamentalist. I reminded him that my comment was Bruce speaking NOW, not Bruce from forty years ago. My thinking and understanding have greatly changed over the years, but some people refuse to see this, instead dismissing me with a wave of their hands, saying, “Once a Fundy, Always a Fundy.” Instead of granting me the space to grow and mature, they pick out a particular moment on my timeline and say, “whatever Bruce believed in _______ (put in a year), he still believes today.” This is patently untrue and reveals that my interlocutor has not invested the requisite time necessary to understand my story and evolving beliefs. There’s not much I can do about this. We live in a day of quick takes and sound bites. This, of course, leads to erroneous conclusions about my life. In this post, I want to talk about my IFB lineage and at what point in my life I stopped being an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist. My IFB beginning is easy to pin down: Scott Memorial Baptist Church and its pastor Tim LaHaye. However, pinning down when I was no longer IFB provides a greater challenge. At what point did I completely abandon IFB beliefs and practices? Or did I ever completely repudiate the IFB? Answering these questions requires more work than just pointing to a pin on my timeline.

As a child, I regularly attended IFB churches with my parents and siblings. Two of the churches we attended were Bible churches — IFB churches without the label. We also attended a Southern Baptist church plant, Eastland Baptist Church, in Bryan. There’s no material difference between an IFB church and an SBC church. In fact, many of the early leaders of the IFB church movement were Southern Baptist and American Baptist pastors who left their respective conventions because of perceived liberalism.

In the summer of 1970, we moved to Findlay, Ohio. I was thirteen. We started attending Calvary Baptist Church (a GARBC congregation), but after a couple of months, we moved toTrinity Baptist Church on Trenton Ave. Trinity was affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF), one of the many IFB fellowship groups. It was at Trinity that I immersed myself in all things IFB, especially after I got saved in the fall of 1972. My parents divorced in April 1972, leaving the church, never to return. I, on the other hand, embraced Trinity as my family. To their credit, they gave me the love and support my parents were unable or unwilling to provide.

In the spring of my tenth-grade year, my dad moved us to Tucson, Arizona. As I had been taught to do by my pastors, I quickly sought out a new church to attend, the Tucson Baptist Temple, pastored by Louis Johnson. Tucson Baptist was affiliated with the BBF.

Over the next three years, I moved back and forth between my dad’s home and my mom’s. Every time I moved, I found a new IFB church to attend. I was attending First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio in the fall of 1976 when I moved to Pontiac to attend Midwestern.

Midwestern was a small, but well-respected IFB college. Dr. Tom Malone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church (one of the largest churches in the country at the time) started Midwestern in 1954. The college advertised itself as a “character-building factory.” Midwestern was IFB through and through, so it should come as no surprise that when I left Midwestern in the spring of 1979, I was a hardcore, King James-only, Fundamentalist Baptist preacher.

As I mentioned above, the first church I worked for was Montpelier Baptist Church. After seven months, we moved to Newark, Ohio, the home of Polly’s parents. For a while, we attended the Newark Baptist Temple, pastored by Polly’s uncle, James Dennis. (The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis. In the early 1980s, Polly’s father, who was an assistant pastor at the Baptist Temple, decided to start a new IFB church in nearby Buckeye Lake. Never feeling at home at the Baptist Temple, Polly and I decided to help Dad with his new church. For the next two years, I was the assistant pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church (also called the “Bean Pot Church” because we met a former restaurant building called the Bean Pot).

In July 1983, I started a new IFB church in Somerset, Ohio. I pastored this church for eleven years. I was still quite IFB when I started Somerset Baptist Church, but by the time I resigned and moved to San Antonio, Texas to co-pastor Community Baptist Church I had stopped identifying as IFB. What happened?

Two things happened that forced me to reconsider my sincerely held IFB beliefs. First, there was the Jack Hyles scandal. (Please see The Legacy of IFB Pastor Jack Hyles.) Hyles was an IFB demigod who pastored the largest church in the United States, First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. In 1989, Hyles was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with his secretary:

Accusations of improper sexual behavior and financial and emotional abuse are elements of Hyles’ legacy. In 1989, the paper The Biblical Evangelist published a story “The Saddest Story We Ever Published,” accusing Hyles of sexual scandals, financial misappropriation and doctrinal errors. These charges were denied by Hyles who deemed them “lies.” He was accused of a decade long affair with his secretary, Jennie Nischik, who happened to be the wife of a church deacon, Victor Nischik.

It was during this time that rumors were circulating about the predatory behavior of David Hyles, Jack Hyles’ son. David Hyles was a youth pastor at First Baptist. During his tenure, he sexually preyed on teen girls. Jack Hyles covered up his son’s crimes and shipped him off to a church in Texas. While there, he had numerous affairs with church women. David Hyles’ immoral behavior has continued over the years, yet there are still IFB preachers who support him.

The Hyles scandals caused an uproar in the IFB community. Some people were Pro-Hyles, others were not. I was not. The blind loyalty and support for both Jack and David Hyles troubled me, causing me to question whether I still wanted to be associated with the IFB church movement.

The second thing that happened was the release of John MacArthur’s seminal book, The Gospel According to Jesus. This book fundamentally changed how I viewed the gospel. I concluded that I had been preaching a truncated, bastardized gospel, one that was little more than one-two-three-repeat-after-me easy believism (also called decisional regeneration). Coming to this conclusion forced me to radically change my beliefs and practices. I embraced Calvinism and started preaching expositionally. Some of my colleagues in the ministry deemed me a liberal and broke fellowship with me. I made new friends with men associated with Sovereign Grace and Reformed Baptists. Was this the moment I left the IFB?

Many of my new friends were former IFB and Southern Baptist pastors. Much like me, these men saw the bankruptcy of the IFB church movement and wanted nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, my new friends and I left the IFB, but its worldview was still very much with us. I knew a number of Sovereign Grace and Reformed Baptist pastors who were every bit as Fundamentalist as the IFB pastors/churches they despised.

It would not be until the early 2000s that I was finally free from the IFB church movement. While I was still Evangelical theologically, I was no longer KJV-only, I no longer stressed social Fundamentalism, and I was quite ecumenical in my approach to other Christians. I pastored Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio from 1995-2002. Started as Grace Baptist Church, I changed the church’s name to better reflect its moderation and ecumenism. My theological and political beliefs continued to move leftward. I voted Democrat in 2000, a sure sign of my increasing liberalism. I also started to question what it meant to be a Christian. I concluded that it was our works that determined whether we were Christians, not mental assent to a list of propositional facts.

In 2005, I pastored my last church, Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan. Victory was affiliated with the SBC. One Sunday a theologically astute young man who was a member of Somerset Baptist Church in the early 1990s visited Victory to hear me preach. He told me that my preaching had changed; that I was preaching a “social gospel.” I am sure this alarmed him. The focus of my preaching had indeed changed. While I still affirmed the central claims of Christianity, my focus had changed. I came to see that the religion of Jesus was all about good works, not right beliefs; that our eternal destiny was determined by how we lived, not what we believed.

While I was still an Evangelical preacher, I had abandoned the beliefs and practices of the IFB church movement. In the eyes of some of my colleagues in the ministry, I was a liberal or an apostate. I will leave it to others to judge my life. All I know is that I loved Jesus to the end. My theology may have changed, but my love for my Savior never changed — until it did.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Baptist Bible College President Mark Milioni Says the Church He and I Grew Up in Wasn’t “Legalistic” or “Authoritarian”

mark milioni
Mark Milioni

I always find it interesting when two people can have similar experiences yet come to wildly different conclusions about those experiences. Take me, Bruce Gerencser, and Mark Milioni, the president of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. Both of us attended Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship. Trinity was pastored by Gene Milioni, Mark’s father. Ron Johnson was the church’s assistant pastor and Bruce Turner was the youth pastor. (Please see Dear Bruce Turner.)

I am five or six years older than Mark. He was a young boy when I was a teenager at Trinity. I attended Trinity from June of 1970 to May of 1974. Both Mark and I were exposed to the same preaching, the same theology, the same social practices. Yet, Mark’s view of his father’s church is very different from mine.

Earlier this year, Mark did an interview with the Recovering Fundamentalist Podcast. Mark stated:

I came from a Baptist church [that was] conservative to the hilt, but it was not legalistic. It was not militaristic. There was not regular preaching on dress code and on worship or on a strong pastoral demanding, authoritative, dictatorship type of leadership.

As I read this, I thought, “did we attend the same church?” To suggest that Trinity and its pastors weren’t legalistic is ludicrous, as any person (except Mark) who grew up in the church will attest. While there wasn’t “regular” preaching on a dress code or church standards, there certainly were, at times, sermons on these subjects. Long hair on men, short skirts on women were frequently mentioned from the pulpit, in Sunday school, and in youth group meetings. Teens were expected to dress a certain way. “Biblical” morality was outwardly enforced, though, as I learned years later, most church teenagers, except me, were fornicating. There was the facade of Baptist morality, and then there was what really went on behind closed doors.

Granted Pastor Milioni wasn’t an authoritarian like Jack Hyles, but he had authoritarian tendencies — a common character trait for IFB preachers. I had several run-ins with Mark’s father. I can tell you from personal experience that Pastor Milioni could be authoritarian. The same could be said for the other pastors. One pastor had a violent temper. I saw him beat his son on two occasions with a belt for failing to have good grades. These authoritarian tendencies were also expressed by some of the deacons and Sunday school teachers.

I have lots of good and bad experiences I could share from my three-plus years at Trinity Baptist. I am sure Mark does too, having spent his formative years as the son of Trinity’s pastor. I don’t think Mark is lying. I am, however, perplexed about how it is we have wildly different experiences. I wonder if Mark is trying to be honest, yet protective, whereas I have no need to protect the testimonies of others. Granted, our family experiences were very different, he the son of the pastor, me the son of a divorced couple. I would love to sit down with Mark and share a meal or a beer (if he is one of those enlightened IFB preachers) and talk about our shared experiences. Maybe we could find some common ground.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Is it a Sin to Kiss Your Boyfriend?

kissing

Every day, without fail, women somewhere in the world search for “is it a sin to kiss my boyfriend?” Thanks to the post, Hey Girlfriend: Is it a Sin to Kiss Your Boyfriend?, this blog is the number one Google search result. I can’t remember the last time I looked at search logs and didn’t see a handful of visitors coming to this site to find out whether it is okay to swap spit with their boyfriends. I say female visitors, because I’ve never seen a male come to my site as a result of a “is it a sin to kiss my girlfriend” web search. It seems that women have a lot more angst about kissing their boyfriends than boyfriends do about kissing them. I’ve often wondered what it is that drives women to seek out anonymous Internet advice about boyfriend-kissing. Are these women being pressured by their boyfriends to be physically intimate? Probably. Kissing is very much a part of the human experience. Sadly, as with most things that are pleasurable, Evangelicals have deemed kissing between unmarried men and women to be a sin. Let me explain how Evangelicals come to this “Biblical” position.

First, Evangelicals believe that, thanks to Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden 6,024 years ago, the human race is, by nature, sinful. Born into sin, every human being is at variance with God. The Bible says that infants come forth from the womb speaking lies. We don’t become sinners, we are sinners. The Bible says human hearts are deceitful and wicked, so much so that none of us can truly know our hearts. Because of our fallen nature, we desire to fulfill the lusts of the flesh. At the top of the Evangelical lust list are a variety of sexual sins: fornication, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, incest, masturbation, petting, spooning, and looking at a woman with lust in your heart. Believing that inappropriate physical contact with the opposite sex (there are no gays in the Evangelical church) is a gateway to serious sexual sins such as fornication and adultery, many Evangelical sects, churches, pastors, and families adopt strict rules governing physical intimacy between unmarrieds. For those not raised in Evangelical churches, they will likely find the remainder of this post beyond belief, but rest assured that what I share next can be found in countless Evangelical churches and homes.

I attended Midwestern Baptist College in the 1970s — the era of free love. While hippies were smoking marijuana, listening to rock music, and exploring their sexuality, the unmarried students at Midwestern were expected to maintain a six-inch distance from each other at all times. If you have not read the post, Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule, I encourage you to do so. It goes into great detail explaining how the puritanical leadership at Midwestern made sure students kept their distance from each other. Most of the students at Midwestern came from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches that also had some sort of prohibition against physical contact. During my teenage years, I was a member of Trinity Baptist Church, Findlay, Ohio, and First Baptist Church, Bryan, Ohio. Both churches frowned on teenagers and young adults touching one another. Violating the no-touch policy resulted in scoldings and separation during church services from your boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes, the pastors would spend time during their sermons rebuking sexually aware unmarrieds for their inappropriate touching. Time was also spent during youth group meetings drilling it into the heads of teenagers that God did not approve of them intimately touching each other. It should come as no surprise then that when unmarrieds were unable to abstain from acting on their normal, healthy sexual desires, they were often filled with guilt and fear. And I’m not talking about having sexual intercourse. More than a few teenagers found themselves ridden with guilt over holding hands with their girlfriend during church services or putting an arm around their boyfriend when no one was looking. Of course, there was certainly plenty of rounding-third and sliding-into-home sexual activity going on. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of becoming reacquainted with several friends from my high school days. The stories they tell about their own sexual experiences during our youth group years are certainly different from mine. I’ve concluded that pretty much everybody in the youth group was sexually active except me. I was a good Baptist boy who played by the rules. While I certainly held hands with girls, put my arms around them, and kissed them, I (barely) maintained my virginity until my wedding day.

There are several verses in the Bible that Evangelical preachers use to justify their hands-off rules. 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 states:

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.

It is good for an unmarried man to NOT touch a woman, God says. Didn’t Jesus himself warn that just an inappropriate look at a woman can cause men to commit adultery in their hearts? From these verses, Evangelical preachers justified their no-touch rules; rules, by the way, that most of them didn’t keep when they were young unmarrieds.

Preachers also used what I call the kitchen-sink verses to prop up their preaching against sexual sin:

Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15,16)

Neither give place to the devil. (Ephesians 4:27)

Those raised in Evangelical churches know that these verses (and others) were often used by preachers to label virtually anything and everything “sin.” (Please read The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook and An Independent Baptist Hate List.)

Young women in particular were psychologically abused by Evangelical preachers who felt it was their duty to make sure that the women were virgins on their wedding day. Preachers shared horror stories about women who engaged in premarital sex. Virtually all the preaching was directed towards women. After all, they were the gatekeepers. It was up to them to keep their legs closed when horn-dog young men came sniffing around. Men are weak, the thinking goes, so it is up to Susie to make sure that both Johnny and Susie are virgins on their wedding day. And the best way to do this is to not have physical contact with each other before marriage. Just remember, the preacher says. No girl has ever gotten pregnant without holding hands or kissing a boy first! I kid you not, handholding was viewed as some sort of gateway, a gate which, once unmarrieds walked through, would lead directly to them being given over to fornication. I know this sounds crazy, but this line of thinking is still quite prominent today. This is why so many unmarried women do Google searches for “is it a sin to kiss my boyfriend?” They likely attend churches that prohibit physical contact between unmarrieds. Yet, when they are away from the prying eyes of their pastors and parents, these sexually aware young adults engage in various forms of sexual intimacy. Fear and guilt follow, so they seek out “help” for dealing with their “lustful” desires.

Here’s my advice to those who are psychologically and spiritually troubled over holding hands with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Your feelings and desires are normal. Sexually aware people naturally desire physical intimacy. The key is to embrace your sexuality and act responsibly. This means you will have to ignore what your windbag preacher is telling you. It’s highly unlikely that any of the adults who are telling you that physical contact is a sin practiced what they preach. These hypocrites should spend their time teaching unmarrieds sexual responsibility. Most young adults will have sexual intercourse before they are married. While your church may consider this a sin, those outside of the Evangelical church view sexual intimacy as a normal part of the human experience. Educate yourself about sex and make sure you always use birth control. I realize your preacher likely has said that using birth control is you preparing to sin, but I think we would all agree that unwanted pregnancies are a bad idea, and the only way to avoid them is to use birth control. Don’t allow the puritanical sexual standards of others to dictate what you will do. It’s your body, your life. And as far as kissing your boyfriend is concerned? Kiss away. A kiss is just a kiss. It can lead to more intimate behavior, but it also can be just that — a kiss. Remember, you — not your church, parents, or preacher — are in control of what you do sexually. Those who demand that you maintain your distance from the opposite sex are stunting your development.

Part of growing up is the exploration of our sexuality. This includes masturbation. Anyone who tells you that masturbation is a sin is someone you need to stop listening to. Much like the desire for physical interaction with the opposite sex, masturbation is normal, healthy behavior. I guarantee you that most of the married adults in your church masturbated before they were married. And I think I would be safe in saying that many of them still do. Masturbation is a great way to release sexual tension, especially when one is not ready to have sexual intercourse. What I’m saying here is that it is all good. Sexual want, need, and desire are very much a part of the human experience. I encourage you to embrace your sexuality and enjoy all the pleasure that comes from doing so.

Please see Hey Girlfriend: Is it a Sin to Kiss Your Boyfriend?

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Short Stories: Camp Chautauqua, Miamisburg, Ohio

youth camp

Back in my younger days, youth Camp was one big event most Independent Fundamentalist Baptist(IFB) teens looked forward to every year. Campwas a week-long event dedicated to daily devotions, praying, and listening to preaching two or more times a day. Every summer countless teenagers would go to camp, returning home a week later with their spiritual batteries recharged and their notebook filled with sermon notes mailing addresses of cute boys or girls.

I went to camp in the 1970s for three years — eighth through tenth grades.

As an eighth-grader, I attended Camp Patmos, a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) youth camp. Camp Patmos is located on Kelley’s Island in Lake Erie. I don’t remember much about my week at Camp Patmos. One thing that stands out is that one of the older boys in my cabin took the camera of another boy while he was away from the cabin and took pictures of his genitals. I can only imagine the horror of the boy’s parents when they saw the developed pictures.

I attended Camp Chautauqua in Miamisburg, Ohio the summers of 1972 and 1973. The camp is owned and operated by the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). The church I attended at the time, Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay Ohio, is a BBF affiliated church. Numerous BBF churches from Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, brought their teenagers to Camp Chautauqua for a week of spiritual challenge, with a little bit of fun thrown in to keep campers happy.

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

Camp brought upwards of a thousand youth together for one week. Camp Chautauqua had a lot of real estate for meandering teens to get lost in.  Follow me for a moment . . . It’s the 70s. A thousand teenagers, ninth through twelfth grade. Lots of real estate in which hormone-raging teens could get lost. Well, use your imagination. The highlight of youth camp for me was the girls. Forget the home church girls for a week. I traded addresses with several girls. Sadly, as of today. I am still waiting for that cute, dark-haired girl from Elyria to write back. 🙂

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

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

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

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

Camp Chautauqua went into foreclosure in 2013. It was purchased by Jason Harmeyer, and based on the pictures I have seen, the Camp is no longer a Fundamentalist Baptist institution (though it still is quite Evangelical).

Here’s an excerpt from a Dayton Daily News article about the camp:

Miamisburg’s Camp Chautauqua, “The Camp by the River,” which sprawls throughout Montgomery and Warren counties, was on the verge of foreclosure when Jason Harmeyer, son of the longtime caretaker, stepped up to save the camp where he grew up. Purchased less than a year ago, the grounds and community center are again being put to use.

“I was 4 when we moved here,” says Harmeyer, an expert on the camp’s 100-plus year history.

The American Chautauqua Movement saw camps sprout up throughout the country to bring entertainment and culture to rural areas from the late 1800s to the 1920s. After the movement died out, campgrounds served other purposes, and many disappeared.

In its heyday, the Miamisburg Chautauqua hosted such notables as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Eleanor Roosevelt and baseball player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday.

“It’s seen a little bit of everything, from famous orators and thinkers to entertainers such as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn; then it was a religious entity, and back and forth,” said Harmeyer.

“My dad took the caretaker’s job in 1977, and called me two years ago to say it was going into foreclosure. I moved back, set up the Chautauqua Foundation Inc., a 501C3 with a board of advisors, and we purchased the camp last August.

“Now, we hope to re-introduce Chautauqua back to the regional community.”

Although Harmeyer has long-term plans for the camp, which includes 59 buildings on 45 acres, activities in the community center have already begun.

How about you? Did you attend camp as a teenager? Do you have a camp story to share?

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Midwestern Baptist College: A Character-Building Factory — Part One

bruce and polly gerencser 1976
Freshman class, Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac, Michigan 1976. Polly is in the first row, the first person on the left. Bruce is in the third row, the eighth person from the left

Series Navigation

Part One
Part Two

In the early 1960s, my dad packed up our family and meager belongings and moved us from Bryan, Ohio to San Diego, California. Looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Dad hoped to find prosperity. What he found instead was Jesus. The Gerencser family was always religious, attending the Lutheran Church and Episcopalian Church in Bryan. However, upon arriving in California, we started attending a large Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation, Scott Memorial Baptist Church in El Cajon (now Shadow Mountain Community Church). Pastored by Tim LaHaye, who would later author the Left Behind series with Jerry Jenkins and the Act of Marriage, Scott Memorial was the genesis for what would happen in my life for the next forty-five years. Both of my parents made public professions of faith and were baptized, as was I at the age of five. From this time forward until my parents divorced in 1972, the Gerencser family was in church every time the doors were open.

Dad never found the pot of gold he was looking for, and after three years in California, we returned to Bryan. For a while, we attended Eastland Baptist Church, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1965, we started attending First Baptist Church, an IFB congregation pastored by Jack Bennett. Over the next few years, we moved to Farmer, Deshler, and Harrod, and then in 1970, we moved to Findlay. At each of these stops, my parents joined what they described as “Bible-believing” churches.

After a short stint at Calvary Baptist Church in Findlay, our family began attending Trinity Baptist Church, an IFB congregation affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). Trinity was pastored by Gene Millioni. Ron John was the assistant pastor and Bruce Turner was the youth pastor. All of these men, especially Bruce Turner, would make a deep, lasting imprint on my life. (Please see Dear Bruce Turner.)

In 1972, my parents divorced. This ended my parents’ and siblings’ church attendance. I, on the other hand, continued to attend church every time the doors were open, including revivals, conferences, Bible school, and other sundry services. Throw in youth meetings, youth outings, church basketball, bus ministry, and visitation, and it is clear that my life revolved around church. As my home life disintegrated, the church became a place of safety and security for me. I rarely spent any time at home. Dad had married a nineteen-year-old girl — four years older than I. We did not get along, to say the least.

In the fall of 1972, Evangelist Al Lacy came to Trinity to hold a revival service. One night, as I sat in the meeting with my friends, I felt deep conviction over my sins while the evangelist preached. I tried to push aside the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart, but when the evangelist gave the invitation, I knew that I needed to go forward. I knew that I was a wretched sinner in need of salvation. (Romans 3) I knew that I was headed for Hell and that Jesus, the resurrected son of God, was the only person who could save me from my sin. I knelt at the altar and asked Jesus to forgive me of my sin and save me. I put my faith and trust in Jesus, that he alone was my Lord and Savior. (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. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamedRomans 10:9-11)

I got up from the altar a changed person. I had no doubt that I was a new creation, old things had passed away, and all things had become new. (Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The next Sunday, I was baptized, and several weeks later I stood before the church and declared that I believed God was calling me to preach.

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Bruce, age eighteen

In March 1973, Dad informed us that we were moving to Tucson, Arizona. After arriving in Tucson, I sought out an IFB church to attend, the Tucson Baptist Temple, pastored by Lewis Johnson. I quickly immersed myself in the life of the church, working on a bus route, going on teen visitation, and winning souls to Christ. Four months later, I hopped a Greyhound bus and returned to my mom’s home in Bryan. After spending June and July in Bryan, I talked to Bruce Turner about moving to Findlay so I could attend Trinity again. Bruce found me a family to live with, Bob and Bonnie Bolander. That lasted for three months before Bob informed me that I would have to move. I would later learn that he thought I was getting too friendly with his wife. In retrospect, I may have been, but as a young, naïve, virgin boy I was clueless about such things. Bruce found me a new home with Gladys Canterberry, a matronly divorcée in the church. I became a ward of the court so I could get Medicaid insurance and Gladys could receive a monthly check for keeping me. I lived with Gladys until the end of May 1974. Two weeks before school was out, I moved back to my mom’s home.

After returning home to Bryan, I learned that Findlay High School was refusing me credit for eleventh grade. Why? I failed to take my final exams. Never mind the fact that I never missed a day of school. Never mind the fact that I had good, albeit not spectacular, grades. Never mind the fact that I got out of school every day at noon so I could work the lunch shift at Bill Knapp’s as a busboy (and I often worked the dinner shift too, 25-30 hours a week). I was so livid over this, that I dropped out of school and started working at a Marathon gas station pump gas and fixing cars. During this time, I called First Baptist Church in Bryan my church home.

In October 1974, Mom was admitted for her second stint at the Toledo State Mental Hospital. After two months of living on my own with my sixteen-year-old brother and fourteen-year-old sister, Dad came from Arizona and moved us to Sierra Vista where he now lived. While in Sierra Vista, I attended Sierra Vista Baptist Church — a Conservative Baptist congregation. I immersed myself in the life of the church, working in the bus ministry, teaching Sunday school, and attending church three times a week. While attending Sierra Vista Baptist, I met a young woman named Anita Farr. I was quickly smitten with Anita and we had a torrid love affair until she returned to college in Phoenix in the fall of 1975. (Please see 1975: Anita, My First Love.) In a fit of jealousy, I broke up with Anita, and a week later I was sitting in Bryan, Ohio.

car I took to college
The car I took to college in August 1976

I spent the next year living with my mom and working as the dairy manager for Foodland. First Baptist was once again my church home, and in the spring of 1976, I decided that it was time for me to act on my calling to the ministry. I planned to attend Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada. Unable to raise the necessary funds to enroll at Prairie Bible, I looked for a Fundamentalist college closer to home to attend. My IFB grandparents, John and Ann Tieken (please see Dear Ann and John), suggested that I check out Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan — not far from where they lived and John owned and operated an aircraft engine repair shop. In the summer of 1976, I drove two and a half hours north to Pontiac to visit Midwestern. I quickly determined that Midwestern was the place for me. Cheap tuition, not too far from home. The only negative was the proximity of my hateful, judgmental, abusive Jesus-loving grandparents.

In August 1976, I packed up my meager belongings in my car and moved to Midwestern. I moved into the dormitory, thus beginning my journey towards becoming an IFB pastor. What happened during my three years at Midwestern will hopefully make for interesting reading, providing a careful inside look at Midwestern Baptist College, its founder Dr. Tom Malone, Emmanuel Baptist Church, meeting my wife, Polly, the daughter of a Midwestern graduate and an IFB preacher, and how my time at Midwestern deeply shaped the first half of my ministerial career.

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

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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Bruce, the Teenage Bible Thumper

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Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade, 1971

I attended Central Junior High and Findlay High School, both in Findlay, Ohio from 1970-1974, with brief excursions away from FHS in the spring of my sophomore year (Rincon High School, Tucson, Arizona) and the fall of my junior year (Riverdale High School, Mt. Blanchard, Ohio). All told, I attended Findlay city schools for three and one-half years — my longest enrollment in any school district.

After attending Calvary Baptist Church for several months, our family decided to attend Trinity Baptist Church, then located on Trenton Ave. Trinity was a fast-growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastored by Gene Milioni, a graduate of the inaugural class (1953) of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. Ron Johnson served as the church’s assistant pastor, and Bruce Turner — who came on board several months after we started attending Trinity — was its youth pastor. (Please see Dear Bruce Turner.)

As I reflect on the years I spent at FHS and Trinity Baptist, I see two Bruce Gerencsers, with a born-again experience separating the two. Before I became a Christian, I was an ornery, temperamental teen. While I attended church every time the doors were opened, my behavior, language, and dress reflected a young man who didn’t know the IFB Jesus. It was not uncommon for me to wear a white tee-shirt, frayed Levis, and combat boots to midweek prayer meeting — definitely not IFB approved dress. I wasn’t afraid of using expletives when with my church friends. One time, while attending a youth hayride at the home of Bob and Bonnie Bolander, Bob hollered at me for horsing around. I replied, fuck off. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well. I loved having fun and playing practical jokes, irritating those who expected better behavior from church teens. One Saturday, I was helping paint the walls in the church annex. Pastor Milioni stopped by to “admire” my work, I mean criticize my painting. I stood up, threw my roller in the paint pan, and told Milioni that he could do it himself if he didn’t like my painting. From these incidences and others, my pastors and other church adults concluded that I was an angry, temperamental teenager. It was evident, to them, that I needed Jesus.

In the spring of 1972, after fourteen years of marriage, my parents divorced. Several months later, my mother married her first cousin, a recent parolee from the Texas prison system, and my father married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby. My parent’s divorce and remarriages upended my life. Making matters worse, Pastor Milioni performed the wedding ceremony for my father and his teenage bride. Both of my parents, along with my two siblings, stopped attending church. I, however, continued to attend church every time the doors were open. Trinity provided me a stable family of sorts. Most of my friends attended the church.

In June of 1972, I celebrated my fifteenth birthday. In September of ’72, I had a life-changing experience. Evangelist Al Lacy held a meeting that fall at Trinity. I attended every night of the week-long revival. One night, as I sat in one of the left side pews with my friends, I came under conviction. At that moment, I knew I was a sinner, and I knew I needed to be saved. So when the time came for the invitation, I stepped out of my pew and went forward. I was met at the church altar by Ray Salisbury, one of the church’s deacons. I told Ray why I had come forward. He led me through what is commonly called in IFB churches the Romans Road, and then I prayed the sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus to forgive me of my sins and come into my heart to save me. At that very moment, I was a changed man. The next Sunday, I was baptized, and several weeks later, I stood before the church and declared that I believed God was calling me to preach. It was not long after that I preached my first sermon.

The changes in my life BC (Before Christ) and AC (After Christ) were instantaneous and dramatic. I started reading my Bible and praying every day. I started dressing up for church, and I no longer used swear words. Every aspect of my life was transformed. I was an on-fire, born-again Christian.

I want to illustrate this transformation with several stories. As you shall see, “Jesus” had transformed my life.

I started carrying my Bible to school every day. I also tried to evangelize my classmates, inviting them to attend church with me. Overnight, I became an insufferable Fundamentalist. I remember writing a paper for one of my classes about Baptists being the true church. I got an A on the paper. My teacher wrote the word “interesting” at the top of my paper and underlined it. I suspect she defined “interesting” differently from the way I did. I would give the correct answers on tests in my biology class and then write the “Biblical” answers below. I do not doubt that I irritated the hell out of my teacher.

I took seriously the interpretations of the Bible preached by my pastors. I was all in. Wanting to be morally pure, I made a list of dating rules for myself. My goal was to remain a virgin until my wedding day. My dad found my dating rules on top of the refrigerator, read them, and then laughed at me. Sure, my rules were funny (and delusional) but him laughing at me only caused me to hate him more.

I loved listening to preaching. In the fall of 1972 or 1973, Trinity hosted the monthly meeting of the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship. I skipped school that day so I could hear the big-name IFB preachers preach. I was enamored by these men of God, thinking I would one day be just like them.

I also learned at this meeting that preachers could be hypocrites. After one of the preaching sessions, I was standing outside with Pastor Turner and several other preachers. I hung on every word these pastors said. I looked up to them. One of these preachers told a joke about lust. He told us that lust was looking at a woman, turning away, and turning back to look again. And then he said, “just make sure your first look is a long one!” Everyone laughed, but as a devout, committed IFB Christian, I was troubled by his “joke.” For the first time, I learned that what preachers said from the pulpit they didn’t necessarily believe. I knew that I didn’t want to be like that pastor.

Bruce, the teenage Bible thumper went on to become Bruce, the IFB college student, and Bruce, the pastor. I preached my first sermon at Trinity in the fall of 1972. Thirty-three years and 4,000+ sermons later, I preached my last sermon (at Hedgesville Baptist Church in Hedgesville, West Virginia).

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Dear Jesus

jesus
Painting by Jessie Kohn

Updated and corrected, July 24, 2022

Dear Jesus,

I’m sixty-five years old, and there has never been a moment when you were not in my life.

Mom and Dad talked about you before I was born, deciding to have me baptized by an Episcopal priest. They wanted me to grow up with good morals and love you, so they decided putting water on my forehead and having a priest recite religious words over me was the way to ensure my moral Christian future.

A few weeks after my birth, Mom and Dad gathered with family members to have me baptized. I was later told it was quite an affair, but I don’t remember anything about the day. Years later, I found my baptismal certificate. Signed by the priest, it declared I was a Christian.

Jesus, how could I have been a Christian at age four weeks? How did putting water on my head make me a follower of you? I don’t understand, but according to the certificate, I was now part of my tribe’s religion: Protestant Christianity.

I turned five in 1962. Mom and Dad decided to move 2,300 miles to San Diego, California, believing that success and prosperity awaited them.

After getting settled, Mom and Dad said we need to find a new church to attend. Their shopping took them to a growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation, Scott Memorial Baptist Church, pastored by Tim LaHaye. It was here that I learned that my tribe had a new religion: Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity.

I quickly learned that our previous religion worshiped a false God, and my baptism didn’t make me a Christian at all. If I wanted to be a True Christian®, I had to come forward to the front of the church, kneel at the altar, and pray a certain prayer. If I did these things, I would then be a Christian — forever. And so I did. This sure pleased Mom and Dad.

Later, I was baptized again, but the preacher didn’t sprinkle water on my forehead. That would not do, I was told. True Baptism® required me to be submerged in a tank of water. And so, one Sunday, I joined a line of people waiting to be baptized. I was excited, yet scared. Soon, it came time for me to be dunked. The preacher put his left hand behind my head and raised his right hand towards Heaven. He asked, “Bruce, do you confess before God and man that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?” With a halting child’s voice, I replied, “Yes.” And with that, the preacher, with a hanky in his right hand, put his hand over my nose, dunked me in the water, and quickly lifted me up. I heard both the preacher and the congregation say, “Amen!”

Jesus, the Bible says that the angels in Heaven rejoice when a sinner gets saved. Do you remember the day I got saved? Do you remember hearing the angels in Heaven say, “Praise to the Lamb that was slain! Bruce Gerencser is now a child of God. Glory be, another soul snatched from the hands of Satan?”

After a few years in California, Mom and Dad discovered that there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and our family was just as poor in the Golden State as they were in dreary, flat rural northwest Ohio. And so we moved, a process that happened over and over to me throughout the next decade — eight different schools.

As I became more aware and observant of my environment, I noticed that Mom and Dad had changed. Mom, in particular, was quite animated and agitated over American social unrest and the war in Vietnam. Mom and Dad took us to a new church, First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio — an IFB church pastored by Jack Bennett. We attended church twice on Sunday and Wednesday evening.

I attended Bryan schools for two years. Not long after I started fourth grade, Mom and Dad decided it was time to move yet again. This time, we moved to a brand-new tri-level home on Route 30 outside of Lima, Ohio. It was there that I started playing basketball and baseball — sports I would continue to play competitively for the next twenty years. It was also there that I began to see that something was very wrong with Mom. At the time, I didn’t understand what was going on with her. All I knew is that she could be “Mom” one day and a raging lunatic the next.

I was told by my pastors, Jesus, that you know and see everything. Just in case you were busy one day and missed what went on or were on vacation, let me share a few stories about what happened while we lived in Lima.

One night, Mom was upstairs, and I heard her screaming. She was having one of her “fits.” I decided to see if there was anything I could do to help her — that’s what the oldest child does. As I walked towards Mom’s bedroom, I saw her grabbing shoes and other things and violently throwing them down the hallway. This was the first time I remember being afraid . . .

One day, I got off the school bus and quickly ran to our home. I always had to be the first one in the door. As I walked into the kitchen, I noticed that Mom was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. She had slit her wrists. I quickly ran to the next-door neighbor’s house and asked her to help. She summoned an ambulance, and Mom’s life was saved.

Mom would try again, and again to kill herself: slitting her wrists, overdosing on medication, driving in front of a truck. At the age of fifty-four, she succeeded. One Sunday morning, Mom went into the bathroom, pointed a Ruger .357 at her heart, and pulled the trigger. She quickly slumped to the floor and was dead in minutes. Yet, she never stopped believing in you, Jesus. No matter what happened, Mom held on to her tribe’s God.

Halfway through my fifth-grade year, Mom and Dad moved to Farmer, Ohio. I attended Farmer Elementary School for the fifth and sixth grades. One day, I was home from school sick, and Mom’s brother-in-law stopped by. He didn’t know I was in my bedroom. After he left, Mom came to my room crying, saying, “I have been raped. I need you to call the police.” I was twelve. Do you remember this day, Jesus? Where were you? I thought you were all-powerful? Why didn’t you do anything?

From Farmer, we moved to  Deshler, Ohio for my seventh-grade year of school. Then Mom and Dad moved us to Findlay, Ohio. By then, my parent’s marriage was in shambles. Dad never seemed to be home, and Mom continued to have wild, manic mood swings. Shortly before the end of ninth grade, Dad matter-of-factly informed me that they were getting a divorce. “We don’t love each other anymore,” Dad said. And with that, he turned and walked away, leaving me to wallow in my pain. That’s how Dad always treated me. I can’t remember a time when he embraced me or said, “I love you.” I would learn years later that “Dad” was not my biological father. I wonder, Jesus, was this why he kept me at arm’s length emotionally?

After moving to Findlay, Mom and Dad joined Trinity Baptist Church — a fast-growing IFB congregation pastored by Gene Millioni. After Mom and Dad divorced, they stopped attending church. Both of them quickly remarried. Dad married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby, and Mom married her first cousin — a recent prison parolee. So much upheaval and turmoil, Jesus. Where were you when all of this was going on? I know, I know, you were there in spirit.

Mom and Dad may have stopped going to church, but I didn’t. By then, I had a lot of friends and started dating, so there was no way I would miss church. Besides, attending church got me away from home, a place where Dad’s new and improved wife made it clear I wasn’t welcome.

One fall weeknight, I sat in church with my friends listening to Evangelist Al Lacy. I was fifteen. As is the custom in IFB churches, Lacy prayed at the end of his sermon, asking, “with every head bowed, and every eye closed, is there anyone here who is not saved and would like me to pray for them?” I had been feeling under “conviction” during the sermon. I thought, “maybe I’m not saved?” So, I raised my hand. Lacy prayed for those of us who had raised our hands and then had everyone stand. As the congregation sang Just as I am, Lacy said, “if you raised your hand, I want you to step out of your seat and come to the altar. Someone will meet you there and show you how you can know Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” Much to the surprise of my friends, I haltingly stepped out from my seat and walked to the front. I was met by Ray Salisbury — a church deacon. Ray had me kneel as he took me through a set of Bible verses called the Roman’s Road. After quizzing me on what I had read, Ray asked me if I wanted to be saved. I said, “yes,” and then Ray said, “pray this prayer after me: Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I know you died on the cross for my sins. Right now, I ask you to forgive me of my sins and come into my heart and save me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” After I prayed the prayer, Ray said, “AMEN!” “Did you really believe what you prayed?” I replied, “yes.” “Then you are now a child of God, a born-again Christian.”

The next Sunday, I was baptized, and the Sunday after that, I went forward again, letting the church know that you, Jesus, were calling me to preach. I was all in after that. For the next thirty-five years, Jesus, I lived and breathed you. You were my life, the sum of my existence.

At the age of nineteen, I enrolled in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. It was here I received training to become a proper IFB pastor, and it was here I met the love of my life, a beautiful dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. We married during the summer between our sophomore and junior years. We were so excited about our new life, thrilled to be preparing to work in God’s vineyard. We planned to graduate, go to a small community to start a new IFB church, buy a white two-story house with a white picket fence, and have two children: Jason and Bethany, and live happily ever after. However, Jesus, you had different plans for us. Do you remember what happened to us? Surely you do, right? Friends and teachers told us that you were testing us! Polly was six months pregnant by early spring, and I was laid off from my machine shop job. We were destitute, yet, the college dean told us, “Jesus wants you to trust him and stay in college.” No offer of financial help was forthcoming, and we finally had to move out of our apartment. With my tail between my legs, I packed up our meager belongings and returned to Bryan, Ohio. I had failed your test, Jesus. I still remember what one of my friends told me, “If you leave now, God will NEVER use you!”

What did he know, right? After moving, I quickly secured secular employment and began working at a local IFB church. For the next twenty-five years, I pastored Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Jesus, you were my constant companion, my lover, friend, and confidante. I sure loved you, and I believed you loved me too. We were BFFs, right?  Sometimes, I wondered if you really loved me as much as I loved you. Our love affair was virtual in nature. We never met face-to-face, but I believed in my heart of hearts you were the very reason for my existence. When I doubted this, I attributed my doubts to Satan or me not praying hard enough or reading the Bible enough. I never thought for one moment, Jesus, that you might be a figment of my imagination, a lie taught to me by my parents and pastors. I was a true believer. That is, until I wasn’t.

At age fifty, I finally realized, Jesus, that you were a myth, the main character of a 2,000-year-old fictional story. I finally concluded that all those times when I wondered where you were, were in fact, true. I couldn’t find you because you were dead. You had died almost 2,000 years before. The Bible told me about your death, but I really believed that you were resurrected from the dead. I feel so silly now. Dead people don’t come back to life. Your resurrection from the dead was just a campfire story, and I had foolishly believed it. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Everyone I knew believed the same story. All of us believed that the miracles attributed to you, Jesus, really happened; that you were a virgin-born God-man; that you ascended to Heaven to prepare a mansion for us to live in after we die.

It all seems so silly now, Jesus, but I really did believe in you. Fifty years, Jesus. The prime of my life, I gave to you, only to find out that you were a lie. Yet, here I am today, and you are still “with” me. My parents, pastors, and professors did a good job of indoctrinating me. You are very much “real” to me, even though you lie buried somewhere on a Judean hillside. Try as I might, I can’t get you out of my mind. I have come to accept that you will never leave me.

You should know, Jesus — well, you can’t know, you are dead — that I spend my days helping people get away from you. What did you say, Jesus? I can’t hear you. I can hear the voices of Christians condemning me as a heretic, blasphemer, and hater of God. I can hear them praying for my death or threatening me with eternal damnation in the Lake of Fire. Their voices are loud and clear, but your voice, Jesus? Silence.

Always silent, Jesus. Why is that?

If you ever want to talk to me, you know where I live. Show up at my door, Jesus, and that will be a miracle I can believe in. Better yet, if you can help the Cincinnati Bengals win the Super Bowl, that would be awesome!

If you can’t help my football team win a few games, Jesus, what good are you? It’s not like I am asking you to feed the hungry, heal the sick, or put an end to violence and war. That would require you to give a shit, Jesus, and if there’s one thing I have learned over the past sixty-five years, it is this: you don’t give a shit about what happens on earth. We, humans, are on our own, and that’s fine with me.

A Sinner Saved by Reason,

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

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bruce, If You Don’t Believe in Jesus Anymore, Who Do You Think Called You Into the Ministry?

emmanuel baptist church 1983
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Buckeye Lake, Ohio, Bruce Gerencser’s ordination April 1983, age 25

Several years ago, I received the following email:

I read your blog. Thanks for sharing. I have been an Evangelical Christian since I was 5. I accepted Jesus of the Bible at that time. When I read your “Why I Hate Jesus”, it made me sad. I couldn’t help but think that you have had a lot of pain from people who profess Jesus Christ and that Jesus Himself has let you down. I did have a question. On your ABOUT page, the question was “when were you called into the ministry. ” If you don’t believe in Jesus anymore, who do you think called you into the ministry?

In this post, I want to focus on the question, “If you don’t believe in Jesus anymore, who do you think called you into the ministry?”

This is a fairly common question I am asked when someone is trying to square my current atheistic life with that of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. I believed that it was GOD who called me into the ministry, but now I believe that this same God is a fiction. If God doesn’t exist, who is it then that spoke to my “heart” as a fifteen-year-old boy, telling me that I was to be a pastor, a preacher of the good news of the gospel?

The Evangelical culture I grew up in emphasized the importance of boys and girls growing up to be full-time servants of Jesus Christ. Children and teenagers were encouraged to pray and ask God if he wanted them to devote their lives to the ministry, be it as a pastor, evangelist, or missionary. As Hannah did with Samuel, parents were challenged to give their children over to God, hoping that he might see fit to use them in a mighty way to advance his Kingdom. Pastors considered it a sign of God’s favor if teen boys were called to preach under their ministry. Like the gunslingers of yesteryear, pastors put a notch on their gospel gun every time a boy surrendered to the ministry.

Being called to full-time service means you are special, uniquely chosen by God to do his work. From the moment a boy says, preacher, I think God is calling me to preach, he is treated by the church as some sort of extraordinary human being. I heard countless preachers say that being called into the ministry was the greatest calling in the world; that becoming President of the United States would be a step down from the ministry. Preacher boys — as young men called into the ministry are often nicknamed — are quickly given preacher things to do. No time is better than NOW, I was told, to start serving God and preaching his Word. I preached my first sermon to the Junior High Sunday school class two weeks after I stood before the church and said, God is calling me to be a preacher. I spent the next few years honing my preaching skills at youth meetings, nursing homes, and any other place that didn’t mind hearing the ramblings of an inexperienced, uneducated boy preacher. By the time I delivered my last sermon in April 2005, I had preached 4,000+ messages, often preaching three or more sermons a week.

What I have written above is key to answering the question, “If you don’t believe in Jesus anymore, who do you think called you into the ministry?” Since I don’t think God exists, the only way I can possibly answer this question is from an environmental, psychological, cultural, and sociological perspective. It is important to remember that it is not necessary for God to exist for people to believe that he does. Billions of people believe in a supernatural deity/force that does not exist. Every day, billions of people will pray to, worship, and swear allegiance to deities that cannot be seen, heard, or touched. These deities can, however, be felt, and it is these feelings that lead people to believe that their invisible God is indeed real. Thus, I KNOW that God called me into the ministry because I “felt” him speak to me. This is no different from the five-year-old Bruce Gerencser believing that Santa Claus somehow came down the chimney every Christmas Eve and put presents under the tree just for him. Of course, time, experience, and knowledge caused me to see that my beliefs about Santa were false, as they did when it came to my beliefs about God.

These religious feelings and beliefs of mine were reinforced by the Bible. Various verses in the Word of God speak of men who are called to be pastors/elders/bishops/missionaries/evangelists. Variously interpreted by Christian sects, all agree on one point: God calls boys/men (and in some cases, girls/women) into the ministry. This calling is essentially God laying his hand on someone and saying, I have set you apart for my use. Church youngsters are regaled with stories about men and women called by God who did great works. From the Bible, stories of the faith-driven exploits of Noah, Moses, David, Gideon, Elijah, Elisha, Joshua, the apostles, and Paul are used as reminders of what God can and will do for those willing to dedicate their lives to serving him. Church children are encouraged to read the biographies of men (and a few women) mightily used by God. I heard more than a few preachers say, look at what God did through Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, Dwight Moody, Bob Jones, John R. Rice, Billy Sunday, Adoniram Judson, Andrew Fuller, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Jack Hyles, B.R. Lakin, and countless other servants of God. Who knows what God might do through you if you will dare to surrender your life to him? What young preacher boy wouldn’t want to be someday used by God like these men?

I spent thirty-three years believing that God had called me to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ; that this calling was irrevocable; that misery and judgment (and perhaps death) awaited if I failed to obey God. The Apostle Paul said in First Corinthians 9:16:

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!

As with Paul, Bruce the Evangelical preacher had a burning desire to preach the gospel; to tell as many people as possible that Jesus alone can save them from their sin; that there is a Hell to shun and a Heaven to gain; that what is a man profited if he gain the world and lose his soul. I shed countless tears over the lost — both in and out of the church. I spent untold hours praying for revival to break out in America, spreading to the ends of the earth. Believing Jesus was coming back to earth soon, I devoted myself to making sure as many people as possible heard the gospel. I thought, at the time, my duty is to tell them. It is up to God to save them. For many years, my evangelistic zeal burned so hot that I preached a minimum of four sermons a week, along with preaching on the streets and holding services at the local nursing home and county jail. To quote the motto of Midwestern Baptist College — the institution I attended in the 1970s — Souls for Jesus is Our Battle Cry, Souls for Jesus is Our Battle Cry. We Never Will Give in While Souls are Lost in Sin, Souls for Jesus is Our Battle Cry!

My burning the candle at both ends wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t believe that God had called me into the ministry and was speaking to and through me. I believed that this God existed. I may never have seen God or audibly heard him, but I felt his presence in my life. I “heard” the Holy Spirit speaking to me, leading me, and teaching me truth. These experiences of mine were verified by what I read in the Bible and Christian biographies and what I observed in the lives of my pastors, teachers, and mentors. Most of all, they were verified by the work God accomplished through my preaching and leadership. How then, knowing these things, can I now believe that God is a work a fiction; that my ministerial experiences were the work, not of God/Jesus/Holy Spirit, but the works of a quite-human Bruce Gerencser?

The deconversion process afforded me the opportunity to step back from my life and view it from a distance. As I looked at my parents’ religious, theological, social, and political leanings and that of the pastors of the churches we attended, it would have been shocking if I hadn’t, as a teenager, professed that God was calling me into the ministry. At age five, while we were living in San Diego and attending Scott Memorial Baptist Church (Scott Memorial was pastored by Tim LaHaye), I told my mother that I was going to be a preacher someday. Not a baseball player, policeman, or garbage truck driver — a preacher! This, of course, pleased my Mom. (Ironically, neither my mother or father ever heard me preach.) When people talked about the angst they had over trying to determine what they wanted to do with their lives when they grew up, I had no frame of reference. I never wrestled with what I wanted to be as an adult. I always wanted to be a preacher, and by God’s wonderful, matchless grace, that is exactly what I became. Everything I experienced in my life led me to the monumental day at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, when, with tears and trembling, I told the church God was calling me into the ministry. Scores of fellow church members shouted Amen! and later hugged me, telling me that they would pray for me. I am sure that more than a few people had mixed feelings about my calling. Really Lord? Are you sure you can use this temperamental, ornery redheaded boy? I have often wondered what my peers thought as I went from the boy who told the youth director to fuck off! to a young man who loved Jesus, carried his Bible to school, handed out tracts to his unsaved friends, went soulwinning, worked on a bus route, and occasionally preached at Sunday evening youth meetings. The old Bruce, who wore frayed jeans, boots, and tee-shirts to church, gave way to the New Bruce, who wore preacher clothes, including ties. What’s next? Swearing off girls? Anyone who knew me as a preacher boy knows I resolutely obeyed the Baptist Rulebook®. (Please read The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook) I didn’t smoke, drink, cuss, listen to rock music, or engage in premarital sex. I had plenty of girlfriends, but I drew the line at kissing, holding hands, and putting our arms around each other. My commitment to virginity was part of my devotion to God. As much as I wanted to have sex, I willingly took many a cold shower, keeping myself pure until my wedding day.

Most Baptist preachers will likely say that they just KNEW God was calling them to preach. If they are still Christians, I am sure they attribute their feelings to supernatural intervention. It’s all because of J-E-S-U-S, not me, I’m sure they’ll say, yet the signs in front of their churches say Rev. So-and-So, Pastor. You see, the whole notion of being called by God is rooted not in the supernatural, but in earthly human experiences. My Baptist faith taught me to call my interest in the ministry a calling from God, but in truth, it was the natural outcome of my upbringing and experiences. My entrance into the preaching fraternity was never in doubt. How could I not have become a preacher?

There is nothing in my story that requires the actual existence of a supernatural deity. All that is required is that I, along with the other players in my life, believe God exists. For my first fifty years of life, I believed that the Evangelical God was every bit a real as the sun, moon, stars, and earth. And now I don’t. Does this invalidate my years in the ministry? Of course not. All that has changed is my perspective and how I see my trajectory from a sinner to a Holy Spirit-led follower of Jesus Christ. Instead of God being the first cause, I now know that environmental, psychological, cultural, and sociological influences molded me into the man who would one day preach thousands of sermons in churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Congregants called me Pastor Bruce, Rev. Gerencser, or Preacher — the man of God who spoke the Word of God to the people of God. I now know who I really was . . . his name is Bruce.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

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Bruce, Why Did it Take You So Long to Leave Christianity?

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, May 1978

On occasion, I will have an atheist ask me why it took me so long to leave Christianity. Typically, such atheists are lifelong unbelievers, having little to no experience with organized religion. Others became atheists at a young age and have no lasting scars from their brief involvement with Christianity. What is left unsaid here is this: how stupid do you have to be to be a Christian for fifty years?

Last night, I listened to Matt Dillahunty’s podcast, The Hang Up. This week’s episode featured Dr. Darrel Ray of Recovering From Religion and the Secular Therapy Project — two awesome services I heartily endorse.

One of the commenters on the podcast stated:

When you left religion. When exactly was that Matt [Dillahunty]? You joined the military when you were 30 for 8 years? Joined Dell and studied the bible a couple of years after that? So you finally figured out you had been a gullible idiot at 40s.

In other words, how stupid did Matt have to be that it took him years to conclude that the Evangelical religion (Southern Baptist) he grew up in was false?

It’s always lifelong atheists who make such comments. They cannot wrap their minds around how it is that demonstrably intelligent people can stay tethered to Christianity for decades. This post will hopefully explain this issue to atheists.

Much like Matt, I was a wandering Baptist before I finally deconverted. I left the ministry in 2003. Two years later, in the spring of 2005, I briefly tried to reenter full-time ministry, but after candidating for Southern Baptist churches in Weston and Hedgesville, West Virginia, I told Polly that I was done; that I no longer wanted to pastor. At that point, I was still an Evangelical Christian, albeit with an increasingly liberal bent. (Please see It’s Been Fifteen Years Since I Preached My Last Sermon.)

From July 2002 to November 2008, my wife and I, along with our three younger children, wandered from church to church looking for a congregation that took seriously the teachings of Jesus. From Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Evangelical to mainline Protestant, we visited a broad spectrum of Christian churches. All told, we visited over 125 churches. Please read the post But Our Church is DIFFERENT! to see the list of churches we visited.

During this time span, we spent seven months living in Yuma, Arizona and moved to Stryker, Bryan, Alvordton, Newark, and Ney — all in Ohio. In April 2007, we purchased our home in Ney. We spent time visiting numerous local churches, but eventually decided to plop our weary asses in the pews of the Ney United Methodist Church. This would be the last church we would attend, walking out of the church’s doors for the final time on the last Sunday in November 2008.

During this six-year period, we became increasingly disenchanted with organized Christianity. While I was no longer a pastor, we sincerely wanted to find a church where we could use our talents for God’s glory. Atheism was never discussed. We quickly learned that more than a few pastors viewed us as a threat. All we wanted to do is serve Jesus, but the mere fact that we had spent 25 years in the ministry caused territorial preachers to feel threatened. One pastor told Polly that she could best help his church by working in the nursery. A mother of six who spent decades working in the nursery, I am surprised Polly didn’t gut this preacher on the spot. One Evangelical church about two miles from our home made it clear that we weren’t welcome at their church. We visited this congregation twice, and both times the pastor’s wife repeatedly glared at us. I suspect she viewed me as a threat to her husband’s ministry. Sure, I was a far better speaker than many of the pastors of the churches we visited (we heard some atrocious sermons during this time). That wasn’t my fault. All I wanted to do is use the gifts God gave me. I wasn’t there is take over the church, but I knew I could be a help if asked.

By the time we hit 2008, both Polly and I were worn out from all the bullshit, indifference, and petty territorialism we experienced at many of these churches. It was in this fertile soil that our doubts about Christianity began to grow. The previous year, I had started blogging. I connected with people who were emergent/emerging Christians — a postmodern liberal movement within Christianity. I met an ex-Charismatic preacher, Jim Schoch, during this time. We hit it off, spending countless hours talking about the ministry and churches in general. Well, that and eating chicken wings and drinking booze. We were what I called the rebel preachers; still believers — barely — but not church friendly. I will forever be grateful for the countless hours Jim spent with me shooting the breeze. Our discussions really helped clarify some of the problems I was having with Christianity.

You cannot understand my path to agnosticism and atheism without understanding this two-year period of my life — two years of questions and doubts that culminated with me concluding that I no longer believed in God; that the central claims of Christianity were not true.

Now that I have sketched for readers the path I was on before I deconverted, let me answer the question: why did it take you so long to leave Christianity?

In the early 1960s, my parents moved from Bryan, Ohio to San Diego, California. Dad was looking for the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. Unfortunately, California proved to be just as disappointing as Ohio for my parents. Dad ended up working sales jobs and driving truck, just as he did in Ohio. Mom’s mental health problems made their presence known, making our new life in California challenging, to say the least. Please see Barbara.)

Not long after arriving in San Diego, the Gerencser family visited Scott Memorial Baptist Church (now Shadow Mountain Community Church), then pastored by Bob Jones University graduate Tim LaHaye, of The Act of Marriage and Left Behind fame. Mom and Dad both made public professions of faith and were baptized, as was I at the age of five. From that moment forward, the Gerencsers were born-again Fundamentalist Christians.

I was seven when Mom and Dad packed up our belongings and we returned to Bryan, Ohio. By then, we were attend-church-every-time-the-doors-are-open Baptists. I attended church three times a week, along with revivals, conferences, and special meetings. Once I became a teenager, I started attending youth group and special events for the church’s teens. I was totally immersed in the life of the church. It was the hub around which everything turned. For atheists reading this post, think how deeply and thoroughly I was indoctrinated in Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity’s beliefs and practices.

At the age of fifteen, I made another public profession of faith at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. This is not an uncommon experience for people who were “saved” at a young age. A week later, I stood before the church congregation and told them God was calling me to preach. Several weeks later, I preached my first sermon. Thirty-three years later, I would preach my last sermon. All told, I preached over 4,000 sermons.

At the age of 19, I left my mom’s home to move into the dorm at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution known for training preachers. While I was at Midwestern, I started dating an IFB preacher’s daughter, Polly Shope. We married the summer between our sophomore and junior years. Six weeks later, Polly became pregnant, and a few months later, I was laid off from my job. In the spring of 1979, we left Midwestern and moved to Bryan. A few weeks later, I was offered a position as the assistant pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church. Over the course of the next twenty-five years, I would pastor seven churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.

I was a true-blue believer. I believed every word of the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. I believed that the doctrines taught to me by my pastors, youth directors, and professors were the “faith once delivered to the saints.” While I was a voracious reader, having a library of over 1,000 books at one time, every book I owned served to reinforce the idea that what I had been taught and what I was teaching others was true. It wasn’t until the six-year period mentioned above that I began to read authors that caused me to doubt my beliefs. Authors such as John Shelby Spong and Bart Ehrman forced me to question whether what I believed about the Bible and Christianity was true.

As a pastor, I lived in a bubble, as did the churches I pastored. This bubble protected me from the “world.” When you surround yourself with people who all think as you do, it is easy to think that you are right. Further, doubts and questions were discouraged, tools of Satan used to cast aspersions on God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity. While certain things in the Bible didn’t make sense to me, I believed God would reveal the truth of the matter in time or in Heaven. I had no reason to doubt the veracity of the Bible.

I lived this way well into my forties. Does this mean I was stupid for hanging on to my faith for so long? Of course not. Looking at the way I grew up, the college I attended, the woman I married, and the years I spent pastoring Evangelical churches, how could it have been different for me?

When lifelong atheists disparage me, I tend to tell them to fuck off. These pillars of truth seem clueless about how religious indoctrination affects every aspect of one’s life — especially the Fundamentalist brand of Christianity. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) Instead of treating me as a dolt, how about giving me a little credit for breaking free from the chains of cultic Christianity? How about giving me credit for punching a hole in the bubble and escaping? How about acknowledging the work I now do to help people who have doubts about Christianity or have left Christianity? Or, you can fuck off. 🙂

Lifelong atheists are a small minority in America. Most Americans come from Christian families. Millions and millions of Americans religiously attend Evangelical churches, pray, read the Bible, and believe Christianity’s central claims are true. Before simplistically and ignorantly calling such people ignoramuses, I suggest that you walk in their shoes a bit instead of projecting your lives onto them.

I wish I had been raised in a home free of religion. I wish I had taken a different path in life — that is, if Polly still became my wife. I wish I had attended a secular college and had non-church employment. I wish, I wish, I wish . . . but wishing is for fools. Life is what it is, and all I know to do is embrace my past, live in the present, and do all I can to help people avoid Evangelical Christianity. For those who walked a similar path as I did, all I can do is listen and say to them, I understand.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bruce Gerencser