Rebuilding

by Bruce Gerencser

Nine years have passed since I preached my last sermon, since my wife was called the “pastor’s wife.” Almost four years have passed since my wife and I determined to stop attending church. We are now among the “unchurched”, casualties of a life spent in Evangelical Christianity. Worse yet, at least according to our critics, we are now enemies of Christ and his church.

You see, we not only left the Church, we left Jesus. Regardless of how some Christians parse our lives through their peculiar theological system, we are indeed two people who once were devoted, committed followers of Jesus, who are now described as an atheist husband and his agnostic wife.

Some people leave Evangelicalism, with its attendant Fundamentalist beliefs and codes of living, and try to remake their life according to a kinder, gentler view of God, the Bible, and their fellow humans. I view this like remodeling a house. The foundation and the basic house framework remain the same. What is changed is the siding and the interior walls.

Many people leave the Evangelical church and join progressive or liberal Christian churches. They gain new labels for themselves, but, again, the foundation of their faith remains the same.

My wife and I decided that we were not willing to slap some new siding on the house and remodel the interior. Instead, we burnt the house down, hauled the debris away, and started over.

Now I say we started over , but I recognize that since we have a mind to think and remember with, that there really is no such thing as starting over with a blank slate. Deep in our minds are memories from 50 years spent in the Christian church and 25 years spent in the pastorate. These things will forever be with us. The good, bad, and indifferent. The wonderful experiences and the painful, hurtful experiences too.

As human beings we are the collective sum of what we have learned and experienced in the past. While we like to think we KNOW where we will be months or years from now, the truth is we really don’t know what the future may bring or how our life will be.

If someone told me ten years ago that I would be an atheist and my wife an agnostic I would have suggested that they seek immediate psychiatric help. As far as Christians go, and as far as Christian pastors and their wives go, Bruce and Polly Gerencser were as devoted and committed as any Christian or ministry couple. Yet, here we are……..numbered among the godless, the most despised people in America.

When we decided to start over we knew that we were going to have to confront many personal and marital issues. Wiping the slate clean forced us look at what we really believed about most everything. At times, the process made us fearful. What if we decided that we didn’t want to married to each other? Once free to think however we wanted and to decide for ourselves what our moral and ethical foundation was, there was a real danger that this process could lead us apart rather than together.

Of great concern was how our children would view the new, and hopefully improved, Mom and Dad. They only knew us as parents who were 100% committed to Jesus and the church. They only knew us as strict, not sparing the rod, homeschooling parents.

I can only imagine how great a struggle it was for them as they watched their parents not only leave all they ever knew, but repudiate it and embrace a godless worldview.

Former friends, parishioners, and fellow pastors reacted with horror and anger over our leaving the Christian faith. We have been accused of all sorts of things and our Christian past has been dissected, discredited, and discarded. We spent a lifetime building relationships with people and it only took saying, I don’t believe, or I am an atheist, for almost all of those relationships to disappear. We paid a huge price for being honest and open about the journey we are on.

Over the course of the past four years we have had to slowly build our new home. Our marriage not only survived but it is the best it has ever been. Nirvana, it is not. We still fuss and fight. We still have personality quirks that drive each other crazy. But, at the same time, we are far more accepting and loving, not only of each other, but of humans in general.

Our lives are very different these days. Polly graduated from College this Spring. My continued physical debility has radically changed how we live, how we earn a living, and what we can and can’t do. Since our “sin” list now fits on a 3×5 card, we are free to do many things and go many places that were verboten in our previous life.

We are free to dance, drink, and party, even though we don’t. Last year, as a purely educational experience, I took Polly to an adult oriented store. Having been raised as a Fundamentalist Baptist pastor’s daughter she was quite sheltered and naïve when we met and she remained this way for many years. Needless to say the trip to the adult store was an eye opener.

Some readers of this post are likely you suggest that we left Christianity because we wanted the freedom to live however we wanted. And they would, to some degree, be correct. However, we ultimately left Christianity for intellectual reasons. We came to the conclusion that the claims of Christianity were not true and the Bible was not in any way a divine, God inspired book. We came to see that our lives had been built upon a foundation that was not true.

Once the Bible was removed from the discussion we were now free to chart our own course. Free to determine for ourselves what is moral and ethical. We are now free to experience things and go places that were considered sins for most of our lives.

Some readers, thinking we threw out the baby with the bath water, will say, But Bruce, you were a Fundamentalist Baptist.. Everyone knows how legalistic, how narrow minded Fundamentalist Baptists are. This claim might have some merit IF we had remained Fundamentalist Baptists over the course of 25 years in the ministry. But, we didn’t. By the time I pastored my last last church in 2003, I was a social gospel progressive, Sojourner loving, emergent church friendly, Democratic pastor. My pastor friends routinely labeled me a l-i-b-e-r-a-l.

So the process that led us to where we now are began in the 1990’s. People who are “born-again” oriented tend to view things in a black and white manner. Saved/Lost. In/out. So when these types of people see we are now numbered among the godless they, judging us through their own experience, think we had some instantaneous experience where we went from saved back to lost.

That is not how it worked for us. It was, and remains a process. We fully expect that the process will continue until we die. We fully expect our journey will have many bumps, crooks, turns, and reversals. We have no doubt there will be times where we part ways and walk different paths from each other. That’s OK. We are free to be who we want to be. We are free to follow the path where it leads. No more thundering sermons telling us NO. No more Christian books telling us the evil of this or that human experience. No more living a life where the Bible is the compass and guide.

This does not mean that life is now easier for us. If anything it is harder. When the Bible was the standard by which all things were judged we didn’t have to think much. Just Obey. As the old song goes, Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to Trust and Obey. Now we are forced to recognize that life is filled with gray and ambiguity and that sometimes there is no right or wrong answer. We have learned to be indifferent towards many things.

This is how we have chosen to live our lives. We are happy and our love for one another endures. Our children have embraced the new Mom and Dad and in many ways our relationship with our children is the best it has ever been. Of course, some of this may be due to the fact that they are getting older and more mature. Each of our six children have charted their own course through life. None of them remain Evangelical. Several are Catholic, several are *&^* if I know, and several are agnostic. To many people, our children are a huge disappointment, and Polly and I will answer to God for what we have done to our family. We, however, are proud of our children, proud of the lives they have chosen for themselves.

Polly and I are grateful that we have been given the opportunity to stat again. We are very aware that our story could have had a bad ending. But, it didn’t and we hope this new lease on life will be one we do not squander. We hope that our best days lie ahead.

Open comments below

Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 32 years. They have 6 children, and five grandchildren.

Read all by Bruce Gerencser

 

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

About Suzanne Calulu
  • http://mimitabby.com/blog mimiT

    I hope you expound a little on your process. It’s hard for me to imagine how an extreme pastor could turn into an atheist. Thank you for being willing to talk to people about this, there is a great opportunity for learning and understanding here.

    • http://brucegerencser.net Bruce Gerencser

      Hey mimiT,
      The best way to get a feel for process would be to read some of my posts on my blog under THE PAST category. http://brucegerencser.net/category/the-past/

      This is my third post for this site. The previous posts do provide some background. Perhaps one of the moderators can add a link to these posts?

  • shadowspring

    ” We came to the conclusion that the claims of Christianity were not true and the Bible was not in any way a divine, God inspired book. We came to see that our lives had been built upon a foundation that was not true.”

    My only problem with you, Bruce, is insistence that anyone who retains faith in God, especially Jesus, is “building on a foundation that was not true”. In other words, where once people who didn’t agree with your thoughts were going to hell, now they’re just stupid. My guess is that you STILL only hang out with “like-minded” people, it’s just that your mind has changed opinions. When I read your thoughts they all seem to be black and white, all or nothing. I find it really grating.

    I am in love with Jesus not because of anything the Bible tells me, but because of plain old personal experience. If you care to know, and I doubt you do, I explained it all recently on Joe’s blog:
    http://incongruouscircumspection.blogspot.com/2012/06/is-doubting-thomas-really-all-that-bad.html

    Other than that, we could be good friends. My daughter would be considered a huge disappointment to most of our evangelical relatives, as are your children, but I think she’s amazing. She’s happy, and successful, and I got no complaints. Ditto my son, who is self-controlled, compassionate and kind without going to church or reading his Bible. We are all still believers in Jesus, but not in any wise of institutionalized religion. For that matter, we glean what we find spiritually life-giving from all kinds of sources, from Katy Perry to Voltaire. It’s awesome not getting lectured about sin a couple of times a week. I think we’re all better people for it, actually.

    Enjoy your new found freedom and your lovely family. I wish you all the best, even though I do not share all of your opinions. =D

    • http://brucegerencser.net Bruce Gerencser

      The problem for me is that Christianity not being true is an intellectual conclusion I have come to after looking at the evidence and claims for Christianity. There is no other way for me to say it. I don’t believe there are multiple “truths” about Christianity. If Christianity is “provable” then we should be able to look at the evidence and come to a conclusion. After a lifetime as a Christian and thousands of hours devoted to studying the Bible and reading countless books about the Bible, I have come to the conclusions I mentioned in this post.

      Now, it is a whole other issue for me when I consider whether or not Christianity provides meaning, purpose, direction, and value for people. Of course it does, and I have no desire to rob people of that which they find meaning. I view Christianity from an economic point of view. People are Christians because of the value they gain from it. The benefits far outweigh the costs (for many people) so they willingly follow after Jesus, attend church, etc. I do question how many people would still be Christians if fear and threats of hell and judgment were removed from Christian teaching.

      So, when a person says I am a Christian……I am indifferent to their personal beliefs. As long as they don’t try to force me to live by their moral code or try to turn the country I live in into a “Christian” nation, I have no argument with them. However, as long as there is a significant, vocal Christianity that demands the Bible be the law of the land in a “Christian” nation, I am going to do all I can to defeat them.

      I would also add, that while I am indifferent to the personal faith that people have, when they attempt to “prove” their Christianity through science, history, etc, I expect them to be held to the same standards as everyone else. If a Christian wants to believe the world is 10, 000 yrs old, fine. However, when they want their religious dogma taught as science in the public classroom? Not a chance. (since creationism is not supported by scientific evidence. It is a faith claim)

      i would heartily agree with you that institutionalized religion is THE problem. I do believe a man named Jesus existed and that he taught some great things. While I do not think Jesus was divine, I do think he was a great teacher, and like many of our deist forefathers, I think his teachings have value. Sadly, THIS Jesus was cast aside for the Apostle Paul’s Christianity that is now the prominent form of Christianity in the world.

      Thanks for the comment. And yes, I do think we would get along quite well if we ever met face to face. :)

      Bruce

  • James Willard

    I wonder if you learned more about nonduelistic Christianity and Mysticism if you might rethink your posotion. Fundimentalism has certainly handcuffed the body and needs to be unshackled.

    • http://brucegerencser.net Bruce Gerencser

      Sorry, but no. I think I have done a pretty good job studying the lay of the land when it comes to Christianity. Certainly, the flavor of Christianity you mention has some appeal, at the end of the day, I find it unnecessary. I can revel in the mysteries of the universe and have a great sense of wonder without the trappings of a religion.

  • http://exfundy.wordpress.com Lorena

    “I am in love with Jesus not because of anything the Bible tells me, but because of plain old personal experience.”

    I also have fond memories of Jesus. I had created a very sweet Jesus for myself. It was like the Roman Catholic saints. People ascribe all kinds of miracles and qualities to them. Who cares if it was true? What matters is that praying to them makes you feel good.

    Personally, I have nothing against that. If it works for you, amen brother.

    I think Marcus Borg has a similar point of view. When I read one of this books, I was left with the impression that Jesus to him was more like a meditation mantra. He was something who helped Borg reach his subconscious mind in meditation. I don’t see it as a bad thing. I say good for him.

    However, that’s not something everyone can do. Some of us who were literalists have a hard time imagining good things when part of the story has proven detrimental. More than anything, the Bible and the church were traumatic to us. The church abused us. So it is very difficult for us to sift through the rubble and find anything worth rescuing.

    • vyckiegarrison

      Great comments, Lorena. I feel the same way. Shadowspring has also experienced spiritual abuse – and somehow has found a way to hang onto her faith. I cannot fathom that sort of faith/belief – but sometimes I do envy it.

      … but most of the time, I agree with Bruce; holding onto Jesus is unnecessary – and I agree with you; why would we want to when it was our faith which “trapped” us in unhealthy and abusive situations?

      The awesomeness of the No Longer Quivering community is that even when we do not share similar ways of thinking – we do share a common experience which enables us to understand and support one another.

      I checked out your blog and I love it! Thanks for sharing here :)

  • LG61820

    It’s funny, I was just thinking about my own personal journey to unbeliever last night. I realize that I was a Christian because I was born in the USA to believers. Had I been born in another country I likely would have a quite different religion. Had my parents not been Christian I would likely be whatever they were.

    I was very churched for a long time. I overlooked many teachings that I found faulty or unreasonable, but when pushed to profess a belief in an everlasting place of torment I just could not do it. The whole house of cards came tumbling down.

    I miss the ceremonies of the church, I miss the music. When driving alone I like to sing the oldies, Power in the Blood or Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Missing the music isn’t enough to get me back inside the door.

    I believe in what I call the universal truth: What goes around, comes around. . . or Karma . . . or Cast your bread upon the waters,. . . or do unto others. . . but that’s about all I can say I believe in these days and I’m good with that. It’s even ok with me for others to believe what they will – as long as they leave me out of it.

    I enjoyed this post a great deal. Thanks

    • Rand Valentine

      Your post is really touching, too, and I thank you for your honesty. Many of us struggle in the aftermath of losing faith in institutional Christianity. What was Bach thinking?! I excuse my participation in some aspects of church life by seeing Christianity as a particular set of redemptive symbols. We are human, after all, and it is the particular fate of humans to seek meaning in the universe.

  • africaturtle

    Bruce, talking about navigating the waters of “morality” without having it all spelled out in black and white reminded me of an anecdote from this past week that you might be able to appreciate. I went to a carnival where there was a ride called the “heartbreaker” the backdrop included various airbrushed panitings of poledancer/strip-tease girls. I can tell you that previously i would have chosen not to walk up that street even (esp. with my kids or husband along). However, it looked like the best ride around and i went on it (had a blast). Talking about it later with my husband he commented about not “liking” the theme. I actually had to agree, not because of fundamental opposition but because of the target audience/exploitative nature, etc…but it feels SO GOOD to be free from the BONDAGE of having to worry about all that nonsense…just shrug my shoulders, ignore what i don’t like and enjoy the ride! ( and not feel some sort of lingering guilt for the fact that i really should be bold enough to strike up a morality campaign with the courthouse and then rally some sort of boycot for next year should they refuse to concede…)

    • http://brucegerencser.net Bruce Gerencser

      For years we believed we could only listen to certain types of music. I remember when we bought our first contemporary Christian CD. We were shocked to find out the ground didn’t open and swallow us up. :)
      In many ways, Polly and I are living our youth years for the first time. (with the benefit of 55 yr old minds) We have done a lot of fun stuff over the past few years. We have tried a lot of things for the first time, things that were formerly on our “sin” list. I think we have tried every alcoholic beverage made…..didn’t turn us into to alcoholics and we both decided we really don’t like alcohol much.
      We are enjoying life……and it is good.