Churches debate appropriate Halloween outreach events

Oct. 27, 2002 | by Julie Roberts

The Rev. Mike Duckworth plans to scare the hell out of teen-agers in his Delhi, Calif., community this Halloween.

Duckworth's New Beginning Christian Center is one of more than 500 churches across the country hosting a haunted house with a twist. In Hell House, visitors take a seven-scene journey depicting hell and the destruction Satan can bestow to those who choose not to serve Jesus Christ.

Hell House scenes include: the funeral of a homosexual teen-ager who died of AIDS; an abortion; a satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice; a drunk driving accident in which a father realizes he has just killed his family; and a teen suicide. Visitors catch a glimpse of hell in Scene 6 before being escorted to the final scene, heaven, where they have the chance to pray for salvation.

It's over the top, Duckworth admits. But so was Jesus, he said.

"We show them there's a way out -- Jesus Christ," Duckworth said. "We're bringing controversial issues to the forefront and then giving the antidote."

Hell House

Hell House got its start in 1995 at the Denver-area Abundant Life Christian Church. More than 5,000 visitors toured Hell House in six nights that year, with many of them making decisions for Christ, said the event's founder, the Rev. Keenan Roberts.

Hell House Outreach Kits were developed in 1996 and sell for $199. More than 500 U.S. churches are using the kits this year. Roberts said churches should expect to spend an additional $3,000 to $4,000 during their first year of production. He recommends churches charge admission fees of $5 to $10 per person to recoup costs and secure funds for future outreach events.

Roberts is planting a church in the Denver area this year, so Abundant Life is taking a break from hosting Hell House. It will return next year, Roberts said.

A similar outreach effort, Judgement House, is also gaining popularity. Rather than creating scenes around social situations such as abortion or suicide, Judgement House presents eight biblical scenes. Hell is portrayed in one scene. Last year, more than 357,000 people attended a Judgement House presentation, with more than 63,000 making decisions for salvation or rededication, according to the ministry's Web site. Host churches pay $325 for annual licensing fees to present Judgement House.

The approach is controversial, even within the Christian community. Since its start at a Colorado church in 1995, Hell House has been plagued with bad publicity. Ironically, says Hell House founder Keenan Roberts, that publicity is what has made Hell House such a success.

"From the beginning we've created a stir in the media. We've received flak from the church world, too," Roberts said. "Our critics typically fall into one of two categories: Either they don't like what we're saying or they don't like how we're saying it.

"We're just a local church that decided to take a strong stand against sin," he said.

While most churches that choose to do a Halloween outreach event stick to a kinder, gentler approach -- including candy, themed tracts and church parties -- Hell House's scare tactics are gaining popularity.

More than 500 churches in 46 states have purchased Hell House outreach kits in order to plan their own events. Churches in 13 foreign countries have ordered the $199 kits, too, Roberts said.

"We simply capitalize on the season," Roberts said. "It's biblically based ... a well-illustrated sermon is what it is."

Getting its start

Roberts was a youth pastor in Roswell, N.M., in 1993 when he first came up with a drama presentation to target teens on Halloween. Two years later, he pulled off a bigger and better production at Abundant Life Christian Church in Arvada, Colo., a Denver suburb.

More than 5,000 visitors toured Hell House in six nights that year, Roberts said. He estimates that nearly 50,000 people -- mostly teens -- in the Denver area have visited Hell House since 1995.

"We knew then that we had something powerful because many were making commitments to Christ during the event," he said. "Media attention helped; it's allowed us to share the saving power of Jesus with people across the United States. They tune in to see what this Hell House is all about, thinking it's something bad. They find out about salvation."

Roberts developed the how-to kit in August 1996 after churches from all denominations had expressed interest in duplicating his efforts. The kit includes instructions on everything from budgeting and ticketing to technical oversight and follow-up activities.

Follow-up is crucial, Roberts said. He's been questioned by other church leaders who doubt that scare tactics really stick.

"Many will say that those who make commitments at Hell House never end up in church, that their decisions should be questioned," Roberts said. "I ask them, ‘Where's all the people from Easter or Christmas?' Few of the visitors they see on those days will come to church regularly. Don't put unfair expectations on (Hell House)."

The how-to kits outline follow-up activities for churches hosting Hell Houses. Those visitors who make decisions for Christ or fill out response cards requesting more information at the end of the tour receive phone calls from area churches seeking to plug them into worship services.

"Our goal is always to have people become committed Christians," Roberts said, "but we realize that we're not going to reach everyone with this event. Our responsibility is simply to present the gospel."

Different tactics

It's how Hell House presents the gospel that Steve Russo has a problem with. Russo said that while he realizes there is some good that can come from such events, the gospel is meant to be shared with love, not scare tactics.

Russo is president of Steve Russo Evangelistic Team in Ontario, Calif., and author of Halloween: What's a Christian To Do?

There are plenty of healthy alternatives to Halloween's pagan rituals and scary scenarios, Russo said.

"Parents can use this opportunity to teach their kids to do something positive," he said. "And churches don't have to sacrifice creativity in their outreach events."

Russo suggests going door-to-door handing out Christian literature or holding a "Reformation Costume Day" to mark the day Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.

The American Tract Society (ATS) promotes its Halloween Rescue Kit each year. The kits, which sell for $9.99 each, include enough tracts, individually wrapped candy, stickers and clear, sealable bags for 31 children.

"When, but Halloween, do we have more folks coming up to our doors," ATS president Dan Southern said in a news release. "All we have to do is answer them with more than they are asking -- a gospel tract and a candy treat."

Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church will use the tracts during its Halloween night festival, which draws 20,000 children and parents each year.

"We use the tracts because they are short and easy to read and share the gospel message effectively," Prestonwood children's leader Diana Pendley said. "They go home with people and speak to them in a voice that reaches beyond our voices in the quiet times when they need to hear the message most."

High expectations

Duckworth, meanwhile, is busy rehearsing Hell House scenes with his team of volunteers at the Delhi, Calif., church.

He expects 5,000 to 10,000 visitors this year.

"Sometimes it takes harsh words to get the truth out," Duckworth said. "For too long, we have tiptoed around the truth. There's no morality in being tolerant. As I see it, there's only right or wrong."

Topics: Outreach , Youth

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