More than 200 church leaders across the country now say they no longer believe in God, including a Houston-area pastor who was one of the first to publicly announce his decision.
Mike Aus, who was pastor at Theophilus church in Katy, made that announcement during an appearance on a Sunday morning show on MSNBC.
"Hardly anyone reads the Bible," said Aus on the "Up with Chris Hayes" program. "If they did, the whole thing would be in trouble."
Theophilus church members told Local 2 Investigates they were blind-sided by the announcement. They said they had no idea Aus had completely changed his beliefs until they saw him on the program.
"Are you going to preach next Sunday?" host Chris Hayes asked Aus.
"I'm going to go back next week and meet with my leadership and talk about where we go from here," said Aus. "We'll see."
Aus was a long-time Lutheran pastor at churches in the Houston area, but now he said he no longer believes in the message he had been preaching for almost 20 years. Aus declined Local 2's request for an interview. He said his statements on MSNBC explained his loss of faith.
"As I started to jettison the beliefs, I came to realize fairly recently there wasn't a whole lot left," Aus said.
The effect was immediate on his church with about 80 members. Weeks after his announcement, the church dissolved. Members did not want to talk with Local 2 on camera, but they said their pastor's complete change in faith was devastating.
"When a pastor comes forward and says, 'I don't believe anymore,' it rocks their world," said Dr. Keith Jenkins, a Methodist pastor and former president of the Houston Graduate School of Theology. "Members see pastors as spiritual super heroes."
Jenkins said many church leaders question and then lose their faith, but never before has it been a public phenomenon.
"It's almost gone viral," said Jenkins.
The website www.clergyproject.com has become a confidential gathering group for pastors, ministers and other church leaders who no longer believe in God. The group said it has more than 240 members. Some like Aus have gone public. Most other church leaders in that group have kept their new lack of belief hidden from others, including their congregations. They are secret atheists still serving churches and ministering to members even though they don't believe in what they preach anymore.
"I'm sure there are many pastors actively serving in churches who are going through a faith crisis and have lost their faith, but they haven't left because it's their livelihood," said Jenkins. "But they need to move on. They don't need to stay with a church and use their position as a pastor with sacred trust to try and take others with them."