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Tag: Trinity Baptist Church Findlay

Did My Philosophy of Ministry Change Over the Years I Spent in the Ministry?

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

My editor recently asked me a question about how my philosophy of ministry had changed from when I first began preaching in 1976 until I left the ministry in 2005. I thought her question would make for an excellent blog post.

I typically date my entrance into the ministry from when I enrolled for classes at Midwestern Baptist College in the fall of 1976. I actually preached my first sermon at age 15, not long after I went forward during an evening service at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, and publicly declared to my church family that God was calling me into the ministry. My public affirmation of God’s call was the fulfillment of the desire I expressed as a five-year-old boy when someone asked me: what do you want to be when you grow up? My response was, I want to be a preacher. Unlike many people, I never had any doubts about what I wanted to do with my life. While I’m unsure as to why this is so, all I know is this: I always wanted to be a preacher.

Trinity Baptist Church was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church, affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). From my preschool years forward, every church I attended was either an IFB church or a generic Evangelical congregation. When I entered Midwestern in 1976, all that I knew about the Bible, the ministry, and life itself was a result of the preaching, teaching, and experiences I had at the churches I was part of. These churches, along with my training at Midwestern, profoundly affected my life, filling my mind with theological, political, and social beliefs that shaped my worldview. These things, then, became the foundation of my philosophy of ministry.

The fact that I grew up in a dysfunctional home also played a big part in the development of my ministerial philosophy. During my elementary and high school years, I attended numerous schools. The longest spell at one school was the two and a half years I spent at Central Junior High School and Findlay High School in Findlay Ohio. All told, I attended four high schools, two junior high schools, and five elementary schools. Someone asked me years ago if I went to a lot different schools because my dad got transferred a lot. I laughed, and replied, no, dad just never paid the rent. While my father was always gainfully employed, the Gerencser family was never far from the poorhouse, thanks to nefarious financial deals and money mismanagement. I quickly figured out that if I wanted clothing, spending money, and, at times, lunch money, it was up to me to find a way to get the money to pay for these things. There were times that I sneaked into my dad’s bedroom and stole money from his wallet so I could pay for my school lunches. Dad thought that the local Rink’s Bargain City — which I called Bargain Shitty — was the place to buy clothing for his children. I learned that if I wanted to look like my peers that I was going to have to find a way to get enough money to pay for things such as Converse tennis shoes, platform shoes, and Levi jeans. In my early junior high years, I turned to shoplifting for my clothing needs. From ninth grade forward, I had a job, whether it was mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow, or holding down a job at the local Bill Knapp’s restaurant. I also worked at my dad’s hobby shop, for which he paid me twenty-five cents an hour, minus whatever I spent for soda from the pop machine.

My mother, sexually molested by her father as a child and later raped by her brother-in-law, spent most of her adult life battling mental illness. Mom was incarcerated against her will several times at the Toledo State Mental Hospital. She attempted suicide numerous times, using everything from automobiles, pills, and razor blades to bring about her demise. One such attempt when I was in fifth grade left an indelible mark, one that I can still, to this day, vividly remember. I rode the bus to school. One day, after arriving home, I entered the house and found my mom laying in a pool blood on the kitchen floor. She had slit her wrists. Fortunately, she survived, but suicide was never far from her mind. At the age of fifty-four, mom turned a .357 Magnum Ruger revolver towards her heart and pulled the trigger. She bled out on the bathroom floor.

It is fair to say that we humans are the sum of our experiences, and that our beliefs are molded and shaped by the things we experience in life. I know my life certainly was. As I reflect on my philosophy of ministry, I can see how these things affected how I ministered to others. The remainder of this post will detail that philosophy and how it changed over the course of my life.

When I entered the ministry, my philosophy was quite simple: preach the gospel and win souls to Christ. Jesus was the solution to every problem, and if people would just get saved, all would be well. I find it interesting that this Jesus-centric/gospel-centric philosophy was pretty much a denial of what I had, up until that point, experienced in life. While the churches I attended certainly preached this philosophy, my real-life experiences told me that Jesus and salvation, while great, did not change people as much as preachers said they did. But, that’s the philosophy I was taught, so I entered the ministry with a burning desire to win as many souls as possible, believing that if I did so it would have a profound effect on the people I ministered to.

I also believed that poor people (and blacks) were lazy, and if they would just get jobs and work really, really hard, they would have successful lives. I would quickly learn as a young married man that life was more complex than I first thought, and that countless Americans went to work every day, worked hard, did all they could to become part of the American middle class, yet they never experienced the American dream. I also learned that two people can be given the same opportunities in life and end up with vastly different lives. In other words, I learned that we humans are complex beings, and there’s nothing simple about life on planet earth. I also learned that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I would much later in life conclude that life is pretty much a crapshoot.

In 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio. Somerset Baptist was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. I pastored this church for almost twelve years. During this time, the church grew from a first service attendance of sixteen to an average attendance over two hundred. The church also experienced a decline in membership over time, with fifty or so people attending the last service of the church. Somerset Baptist was located in Perry County, the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. Coal mines and stripper oil wells dotted the landscape. Unemployment was high. In the 1980s, unemployment exceeded twenty percent. It should come as no surprise then, that most of the members of Somerset Baptist were poor. Thanks in part to my preaching of the Calvinistic work ethic (also known as the shaming of people who don’t have jobs), all the men of the church were gainfully employed, albeit most families were receiving food stamps and other government assistance. During the years I spent at this church, I received a world-class education concerning systemic poverty. I learned that people can work hard and still not get ahead. I also learned that family dysfunction, which included everything from drug/alcohol addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, and even incest, often was generational; that people were the way they were, with or without Jesus, because that’s all they knew. I pastored families that had never been more than fifty miles from their homes. At one point, some members of our church took a church auto trip to Virginia, and I recall how emotional some members were when they crossed the bridge from Ohio into West Virginia. It was the years I spent in Somerset Ohio that dramatically changed how I viewed the world. This, of course, led to an evolving philosophy of ministry.

bruce gerencser 1990's
Bruce Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church, Early 1990’s

While I never lost my zeal to win souls for Christ, my preaching, over time, took on a more comprehensive, holistic approach. Instead of preaching, get right with God and all would be well, I began to teach congregants how to apply the Bible to every aspect of their lives. I stop preaching textual and topical sermons, choosing instead to preach expositionally through various books of the Bible. I also realized that one way I could help the children of the church was to provide a quality education for them. Sure, religious indoctrination was a part of the plan, but I realized that if the children of the church were ever going to rise above their parents, they were going to have to be better educated. For my last five years at Somerset Baptist, I was the administrator and a teacher at Somerset Baptist Academy — a private, tuition-free school for church children. My wife and I, along with several other adults in the church, were the primary teachers. Our focus was on the basics: reading, English, writing, and arithmetic. Some of the students were years behind in their education. We used a one-room schoolhouse approach, and there were several instances of high school students doing math with third-grade students. We educated children where they were, regardless of their grade. Polly taught the younger students, and was instrumental in many of them learning to read. Most of the students, who are now in their thirties and forties, have fond memories of Polly teaching them reading and English. Their memories are not as fond of Preacher, the stern taskmaster.

During the five years we operated the school, I spent hours every day with the church’s children. I learned much about their home lives and how poverty and dysfunction affected them. Their experiences seem so similar to my own, and over time I began to realize that part of my ministerial responsibility was to minister to the temporal social needs of the people I came in contact with. This change of ministry philosophy would, over time, be shaped and strengthened by changing political and theological beliefs.

In 1995, I started a new church in West Unity, Ohio called Grace Baptist Church. The church would later change its name to Our Father’s House — reflecting my increasing ecumenicalism. During the seven years I spent in West Unity, my preaching moved leftward, so much so that a man who had known me in my younger years told me I was preaching another gospel — the social gospel. My theology moved from fundamentalist Calvinism to theological beliefs focused on good works. I came to believe that true Christian faith rested not on right beliefs. but good works; that faith without works was dead; that someday Jesus would judge us, not according to our beliefs, but by our works. While at Our Father’s House, I started a number of ministries which were no-strings-attached social outreaches to the poor. The church never grew to more than fifty or sixty people, but if I had to pick one church that was my favorite it would be this one. Outside of one kerfuffle where a handful of families left the church, my time at Our Father’s House was peaceful. For the most part, I pastored a great bunch of people who sincerely loved others and wanted to help them in any way they could.

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush. He would be the last Republican I voted for. As my theology became more liberal, so did my politics, and by the time I left the ministry in 2005, I was politically far from the right-wing Republicanism of my early years in the ministry. Today, I am as liberal as they come. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the last presidential primary election. Politically, I am a Democratic Socialist. To some people, depending on where they met me in life, my liberal beliefs are shocking. One man was so bothered by not only my politics, but my loss of faith, that he told me he could no longer be friends with me; that he found my changing beliefs and practices too psychologically unsettling.

I’m now sixty years old, and come July, I will be married to my beautiful bride for forty years. Much has changed in my life, particularly in the last decade, but one constant remains: I genuinely love people and want to help them. This is why some people think I am still a pastor, albeit an atheist one. I suspect had I been born into a liberal Christian home I might have become a professor or a social worker, and if I had to do it all over again I probably would have pursued these types of careers, choosing to be a bi-vocational pastor instead of a full-time one. But, I didn’t, and my life story is what it is. Perhaps when I am reincarnated, I will get an opportunity to walk a different path. But, then again, who knows where that path might take me. As I stated previously, we humans are complex beings, and our lives are the sum of our experiences. Change the experiences, change the man.

I hope that I’ve adequately answered my editor’s question. This post turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be, much like my sermons years ago.

bruce and polly gerencser 2017
Bruce and Polly Gerencser 2017

About Bruce Gerencser

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

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

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Just Remember Girls, No One Ever Got Pregnant Who Didn’t Hold Hands With a Boy First

angry preacher

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. (I Corinthians 7:1-2)

The Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth that unmarried men should not touch women. Touch not, want not, right? If men couldn’t contain their sexual desires, then to avoid fornication they were to marry. In other words, marriage was a considered a cure for horniness. Countless Evangelicals have been taught that if they cannot contain their sexual desires — remember masturbation is a sin — then they should seek out someone of the opposite sex to marry. Hey Betty, I am horny. Will you marry me? 

Many Evangelical preachers use I Corinthians 7:1-2 as justification for the Puritanical rules they use to regulate physical contact between unmarried teenagers and young adults. I came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was a member of Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). Public displays of affection were forbidden. This prohibition forced church teens to turn to secretive means to show their “love” to their boyfriend or girlfriend. We learned how to hold hands in church or on the church bus so no one could see us. There was something exciting about flaunting the rules, even more so when we spent time necking in out-of-the way church hallways or in the shadows of the parking lot. My favorite necking time was Wednesday evenings when the adults were having choir practice. Church teens were left to their own devices, and many of us used the time to fornication-lite. One girl I dated for a short time told me recently that I was the first boy who kissed her — in the back of the church while the adult choir was practicing Bill Gaither’s song, He Touched Me.

I had many such dalliances, but that is as far as they went. I was a true believer, so I limited my physical intimacy with the opposite sex to hand-holding and kissing. I was one of the few flower children who didn’t get laid before marriage. Conversations in recent years with people who were in the youth group with me have revealed that there was a lot of fucking and sucking going on, but none involving preacher boy Bruce Gerencser. I assumed, at the time, that everyone was on the straight and narrow as I was. I now know that their spirits were willing, but their flesh was weak.

In the fall of 1976, I entered Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan to study for the ministry. A dark-haired beauty by the name of Polly also enrolled for classes. Polly’s goal was to find herself a preacher to marry. I thought of college as being a place of plentiful dating opportunities, and I planned to play the field. I dated a girl by the name of Peggy for several weeks and then turned my romantic interest towards Polly. We quickly hit it off, even though we had little in common. She was a quiet, shy preacher’s daughter. I was a motormouth with a bit of a rebellious streak. Polly would tell me later that she thought of me as her “bad boy.” Polly’s parents saw me as a bad boy too; bad as in not good for their innocent daughter. They spent the next eighteen months trying to discourage our relationship, even going so far as to tell Polly that she couldn’t marry me. A short time after this papal edict, Polly informed her parents that we were going to get married with or without their blessing. This was the first time Polly stood up to her parents.  If my mother-in-law had to sum up her son-in-law in one sentence, I suspect she would say, Bruce is “different” and he ruined our daughter.

Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist institution. Established by Dr. Tom Malone in the 1950s, Midwestern had a strict code of student conduct. Single students were required to live in the dormitory, and every aspect of dorm life was strictly regulated. Students could only date on the weekends and had to double-date. Dating couples were not permitted to touch each other — no hand-holding, kissing, snuggling, or other displays of affection. Keep in mind, most of the dorm students were ages 18-30 — the raging hormones years. And it was the 1970s, the freaking 1970s!

i would rather be fornicating

Single students were expected to keep at least six inches distance from the opposite sex — six inches being the width of a church hymnbook. (Please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule) Breaking the six-inch rule brought severe punishment. Repeated infractions resulted in expulsion. While there were a handful of couples who self-righteously obeyed the letter of the law, most students quickly learned who they could double-date with without getting in trouble for holding hands with or kissing their date. More than a few students rounded third and slid into home, with several girls becoming pregnant — or so it was rumored anyway. Students caught fornicating were immediately expelled from school.

Polly and I married after our sophomore year. A year later, we left Midwestern and moved to Bryan, Ohio — the place of my birth. A few weeks after our move, I became the assistant pastor at Montpelier Baptist Church — a young, growing IFB church. After spending seven months at Montpelier Baptist, I resigned and we moved to the Central Ohio community of Newark. Polly’s dad was the assistant pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Her uncle, James Dennis was the pastor.  We joined the Baptist Temple, and when Polly’s father decided to start a new church in nearby Buckeye Lake in 1981, we joined him. I became his pastoral assistant (primarily working with the youth of the church), a position I held until June of 1983.

In July of 1983, I started a new IFB church in Somerset, Ohio — thirty miles south of Newark. I would pastor Somerset Baptist Church until March of 1994. At every stop along my young ministerial career, I was exposed to and worked with men who believed it was a grave sin for unmarried teens and young adults of the opposite sex to touch each other. I carried this belief into my first full-time pastorate. Church teens likely remember Pastor Bruce preaching against all forms of physical/sexual intimacy between unmarried people. I am sure they remember me famously saying — oh how I wish I could forget — “no girl ever got pregnant who didn’t hold hands with a boy first!” (Yes, I really did say this, and I did so many times!)

I viewed hand-holding as a sexual gateway drug. I thought, if I could shame teens and young adults into not touching one another (or touching themselves), then there would be no fornicating going on and no teen pregnancies. I pastored Somerset Baptist for eleven years. During that time, no unmarried church female became pregnant. Does this mean that none of the church unmarrieds was having sex? Of course not. Having talked with a handful of church teens who are now in their 30s and early 40s, I now know that they were lustily ignoring my preaching. I am grateful that there were no unwanted pregnancies that I knew of, though I suspect several girls might have gotten pregnant and secretly had abortions.

Is it any wonder that so many IFB married couples have sexual dysfunction? What in my preaching taught these couples a healthy, scientific, rational view of sex? Nothing that I can think of. Instead, I used guilt and shame in my attempts to get them to conform to an anti-human, irrational view of human sexuality. Thousands of Evangelical preachers continue to preach the Thou Shalt Not Touch gospel to church teenagers. Ironically, these preachers didn’t heed this gospel when they were teens, and they surely have to know that neither will their church teenagers. Hormones, need, and desire win every time. Wouldn’t it be far better to teach church unmarrieds how to own their sexuality, preparing them for the day when they engage in sex for the first time? I know, the Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says, but Christians have been trying to live by Puritanical beliefs about sex for centuries. How is that working out? Perhaps it is time to shelve the Bible with its archaic sexual prohibitions and embrace a healthy, natural view of sex. Sorry preachers, but everyone IS doing it. You can live in denial all you want, but the fact remains that by age nineteen, seven out of ten teenagers have had sex. And now that people are waiting until their mid-twenties to marry, I can safely say that most of the singles listening to your antiquated sermons have likely engaged in some form of sexual activity.

Were you raised in an Evangelical/IFB church? How did your pastor handle I Corinthians 7:1-2? What do you remember your pastor saying about necking and premarital sex? Did you feel shame and guilt when your pastor preached about sex? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

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

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

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Bruce, Were You Spiritual or Religious?

i have a question

Linda LaScola recently sent me several questions that she asked me to answer about my past use of the words spiritual and religious. My answers will appear at a later date on the Rational Doubt blog.

Question One: When you were religious, did you also think of yourself as spiritual, or not? How did you talk about spirituality to the people in your congregation?

I spent most of my life solidly entrenched in Evangelicalism, so my answer to this question will reflect that tradition, and not views I held towards the end of my ministerial career. I never would have used the words spiritual or religious to describe my personal beliefs. Religion was what unsaved church members had and those who called themselves spiritual were new age practitioners who worshiped false Gods. I was a born-again, bought-by-the-blood, filled-with-the-Holy-Spirit Christian. Religion is what Christians-in-name-only did on Sunday. I was a seven-day, 168-hour-a-week, slave of the most high God. I devoted virtually every waking hour of my life to serving God, and when I dared to take a bit of me-time, I often battled thoughts of what better use could have been made of the wasted time spent relaxing. This is why during the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry, I only took a handful of vacations, and when I did, they were often connected to preaching engagements. I wouldn’t call my way of living the norm among Evangelical preachers, but I knew plenty of like-minded pastors who burned the candle at both ends, living by the mantras, only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last and better to burn out than rust out.

Most American Christians, even in the Evangelical church, are nominal practitioners. They go to Sunday services when it is convenient, attend wedding and funerals, throw a few bucks in the offering plates, and when asked they say they worship God, love Jesus, and believe the Bible is the Word of God. However, their day-to-day lives say something far different: that they are Christian in name only. I considered these types of “Christians” as religious-but-lost. In my thinking, they were every bit as lost as Satanists, perhaps even more so because they had been deceived by false religion.

My view of “true Christianity” moderated over the years, but during my time as an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor and later as a Calvinistic Baptist pastor, I had a very narrow and defined view of what made someone a Christian and how a Christian should live. Some Christian sects, such as the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists, I considered cults. Other sects, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, I viewed as promoters of a works-based false gospel. Mainline churches were, for the most part, filled with religious church members who knew little about what it meant to be a REAL Christian.

As you can see, I put most Christians in the religious-but-lost category. And even within the Evangelical church, there were plenty of unsaved members. I spend countless hours preaching sermons that were meant to show saved church members that they were actually lost; that they had “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5); that they had a head salvation, not a heart salvation.

The spiritual category was reserved for new agers and others who dabbled in various esoteric, metaphysical beliefs and practices. I rarely came into contact with such people. I lived most of my adult life in the rural Midwest, and this insulated me from spiritual beliefs and practices found on the east and west coasts. Thus, I spent my ministerial years among true Christians and non-Christians who were religious-but-lost. I can’t think of an instance where I came into contact with someone who would have fit my definition of spiritual. This, however, didn’t keep me from warning parishioners about the dangers of the new age movement and its “spiritual” beliefs and practices.

Question Two:  Did you go through a “spiritual but not religious stage” on the way to being non-religious? If so, please describe it (e.g., how long did it last, how/why did it change?) If not, how did you go from religious to non-religious? (e.g., through reading, thinking, talking with others, something else, some combination of the above). Please describe that.

As I detailed above, I never used the words “religious” or “spiritual” to describe myself. I was a Christian; a follower of the lamb withersover he goeth (Revelation 14:4); a slave of the most high God. My deconversion from Christianity was predicated on my disaffection towards organized Christianity. I pastored my last church in 2003, but didn’t leave Christianity until 2008. During this five-year span, my wife and I visited over one hundred churches, hoping to find a congregation that took the teachings of Christ seriously (or our interpretations of those teachings, anyway). You can check out the list of churches we attended here. We concluded that, regardless of the name over the door and the differences in liturgy and music, Christian churches were all the same. It was during this time, that I began to seriously question my beliefs. I decided to re-study the Bible — a book that I had spent thousands of hours studying, preaching thousands of sermons from its pages. I turned to authors who were in times past considered false teachers or apostates. Intellectually straying outside of the boundaries of Evangelicalism proved to be a real eye opener.

I have always been a voracious reader. My colleagues in the ministry considered me a bookworm of sorts. When I wanted to study a matter, the first thing I did was buy several books on the subject. My reading often led to me buy yet more books, until I reached a place where I thought I had adequately studied the matter. This practice resulted in several seismic theological changes such as embracing Calvinism and rejecting pretribulational, premillennial eschatology. While these changes caused a bit of a stir, they were considered to be within the boundaries of orthodoxy. The authors I read were also orthodox, so I was never exposed to non-Evangelical beliefs. No need, I thought at the time. I have THE truth, no need to look elsewhere.

It was when I began to read non-Evangelical authors that I realized that I had lived quite a theologically sheltered life. I also came to see that my pastors and college professors had lied to me about other theological systems of belief, the history of the Christian church, and the nature of the Bible — it being an inspired, inerrant, infallible text. Were these men deliberately lying to me? Perhaps, but I doubt it. When you are deeply immersed in a particular way of thinking, it is hard to see any other beliefs as true or even possibly true. In dealing with countless Evangelicals after my deconversion, I have learned that until believers can dare consider that they might be wrong, there is no hope of reaching them. Certainty of belief breeds arrogance, and this arrogance shuts the mind off from any belief that does not fit within the Evangelical box. (Please see The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You are in it and What I Found When I Left the Box.)

Once I intellectually wandered outside of the safe, orthodox confines of Evangelicalism, I was exposed to thinking that turned virtually everything I believed on its head, beginning with what I believed about the inerrancy, inspiration, and infallibility of the Bible. If I had to point to one author who did the most to wreck my faith, it would be Bart Ehrman. Ehrman thoroughly demolished my beliefs about the nature of the Bible — that it was a supernatural text written by God through supernatural human instrumentality. Once the Bible lost its power over me, the house I had built on its foundation quickly came tumbling to the ground. More than a few former colleagues and parishioners suggested that I stop reading books and only read the Bible. They thought if I would just read the Bible that all my questions and doubts would go away, when in fact it was my reading of the Bible with enlightened eyes that finally brought an end to my belief in the Christian God.

If I were to give some sort of testimony about my loss of faith, I would say that my doubts about Christianity began with my general disaffection towards organized Christianity. This emotional upheaval then led me to reconsider my beliefs. For many years, I was unwilling to admit that my deconversion had an emotional component. I knew that if people thought I left Christianity for emotional reasons that they would dismiss my story. So I focused on the intellectual reasons for my leaving Christianity. I now see that my leaving the ministry and subsequently leaving Christianity was an admixture of emotional, psychological, and intellectual factors. That said, the ultimate reason that I am not a Christian is that I no longer believe the Bible and its teachings to be true. I reject the central tenets of Christianity. While I am of the opinion that the Jesus of the Bible was likely a real person, he was not a miracle-working God-man who died on a Roman cross to atone for the sins of the world and rose again from the dead three days later. He lived and he died. End of story.

Question Three: If you know people who are spiritual but not religious, what are they like? (e.g., were they ever a member of an organized religion? If so, what made them leave?) Are their current beliefs tied to a specific religion (e.g., Christianity, Judaism) or are their beliefs more individual or amorphous? How to they express their spirituality? (e.g., do they pray, do they think things happen for a purpose, or do they feel a sense of being watched over or not being alone? Do they believe in an afterlife?)

I know a handful of people who consider themselves spiritual. These people generally believe that there might be some sort of inner light/higher power/divine essence/energy force, but they have little use for organized Christianity, and no use for Evangelicalism. Some of them have embraced Buddhism, paganism, or earth-based religions. All of them, at one time, were mainline or Evangelical Christians. In the 1970s, I attended a large IFB church in Findlay, Ohio. Trinity Baptist Church had a sizeable high school youth group. In recent years, I have become reacquainted with a handful of friends from my Trinity youth group days. None of them is still practicing the “faith once delivered to the saints.” While I am the most outspoken heathen of the group, the rest of them are far from the Baptist teachings of their youth. None of us would be considered Christians by the men who were once our pastors.

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 female 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 someone 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 boyfriend than boyfriends do 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 6,017 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 heart. 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 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 their 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 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 Evangelicals 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 it, 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 sex 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. Like the desire for physical interaction with the opposite sex, masturbation is a 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 some 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.

Camp Chautauqua, Miamisburg, Ohio

youth camp

Youth Camp. The one big event most Independent Baptist teens looked forward to every year. Camp is a week-long event dedicated to daily devotions, praying, and listening to preaching two or more times a day. Every summer countless teenagers go to camp, returning home a week later with their spiritual batteries recharged and their notebook filled with sermon notes and the mailing addresses, email addresses, and text numbers of cute boys or girls.

I went to camp for three years — eighth through tenth grades.

As an eighth grader I attended 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 the teens 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 told an illustration about cleaning shit out of the barn when he was young. He actually said the word SHIT!! Needless to say, I was stunned. Later in life, I learned that some Christians didn’t think shit was a curse word, especially when used to describe animal manure.

Camp brought upwards of a thousand youth together for one week. Camp Chautauqua had a lot of real estate for meandering teens to get lost in.  Follow me for a moment…It’s the 70s. A thousand teenagers, ninth through twelfth 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 music talent level was superb. Wonderful music. To this day, I think some of the best singing I have ever heard was at Camp Chautauqua.

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

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

Note

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.

….

Bruce Gerencser