Editor’s Note: I bet a lot of people have this question when they meet a former minister- turned-atheist. Original Clergy Project member Bruce Gerenscer answers it here, providing ample background and explanation. This essay is reposted with permission from his blog. It is also condensed and lightly edited.
By Bruce Gerencser
I often get this question when someone is trying to square my current atheistic life with the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. I believed 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 spoke to my heart as a fifteen-year-old boy, telling me that I was to be 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. Kids were encouraged to pray and ask God if he wanted them to devote their lives to the ministry as a pastor, evangelist or missionary. Parents were challenged to give their children over to God, as Hannah did with Samuel, in hopes 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 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” the church treats him as some sort of extraordinary human being. I heard countless preachers say that 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 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 thousands of messages, often preaching three or more sermons a week.
All of this 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 do not think God exists, the only way I can possibly answer this question is from and 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 5-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.
My religious feelings and beliefs were reinforced by verses in the Bible that 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. They are used as reminders of what God can and will do for those willing to dedicate their lives to serving him. Children are encouraged to read the biographies of people mightily used of God. I heard more than a few preachers say,
“Look at what God did for 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 someday be used by God like these men?
I spent 33 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, I had a burning desire to the 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. 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 it was my duty 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 my school in the 70’s, Midwestern Baptist College:
“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!”
The deconversion process afforded me the opportunity to step back from my life and view it from a distance. As I looked at my pastors’ and parents’ religious, theological, social, and political leanings, 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 (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. When people talked about the angst of trying to determine what they wanted to do when they grew up, I had no frame of reference. I never wrestled with career choice. I always wanted to be a preacher, and by God’s wonderful, matchless grace, that is exactly what I became. All my life’s experiences led me to the monumental day at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, when, with tears and trembling, I told the church that God was calling me into the ministry. Scores of fellow church members shouted “Amen!” and 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. What’s next? Swearing off girls? Anyone who knew me as a preacher boy knows I resolutely obeyed 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. But 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?
Nothing in my story requires the actual existence of a supernatural deity. All that is required is that I, along with the other players in my life, believe that 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 realize 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.
Bio: Bruce Gerencser lives in rural NW Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and 10 grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for 25 years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. He left the ministry in 2005 and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. He is also one of the original members of The Clergy Project, which began in 2011. He blogs at The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser, where the above post originally appears.
>>>Photo Credits: By Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=480122 ; Bruce Gerencser