(updated and reposted from October 30, 2009)

Next Monday is Halloween.  All across the country, costumed children will be trick-or-treating their way through neighborhoods, house by house, filling their bags and plastic jack-o’-lanterns with sugar-laden treats.  Some older kids and young adults will be out pulling pranks, ranging from relatively harmless “gotchas” to outright vandalism and criminal destruction of property. 

Like it or loathe it, Halloween is an American cultural tradition.  Many churches have sought to counter the darker side of the holiday with activities of their own.   Fall festivals, harvest celebrations, Good Guy Carnivals, hayrides, and Trunk or Treat have provided more festive, family-friendly alternatives to the demonic and macabre associations of Halloween.  However, some churches have taken a radically different approach by co-opting the horror motif of secular haunted houses.  Welcome to Hell House.

Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, has been credited with popularizing the Hell House phenomenon.  A 2001 documentary, aptly titled Hell House, focused on this church’s innovative and controversial evangelistic outreach geared toward teens.  Some churches use the name Judgment House.  Here in Tulsa, the most popular version is Nightmare, now in its 19th year of production at Guts Church, a local megachurch with a wide range of trendy ministries. 

Regardless of the nomenclature, the concept is much the same.  Groups of visitors are led by a guide through a series of dramatic scenes that are heavy on screams and theatrical blood.  There are graphic portrayals of automobile accidents, school shootings, abortions, teen suicides, drug use and overdose, domestic violence, and homosexuals suffering with HIV/AIDS.  Hell Houses may also include a Passion of the Christ-like dramatization of the crucifixion of Jesus and a depiction of heaven.  The intent is simple: show sin and its consequences, portray the destiny of the damned, and offer a call for salvation through Jesus Christ.  Kids flock to Hell Houses by the thousands.  Most scream.  Many cry.  Some vomit. 

At the end of the tour, visitors (mostly teens) are taken into a Decision Room while their heart rates and adrenaline levels are still elevated.  They are asked a simple question, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?”  A church leader in the Hell House documentary tells rattled teens at Trinity Church, “You have six seconds to decide….five seconds…”  Those who want to make a decision to follow Jesus or rededicate their lives as Christians are asked to go into a room to pray with counselors. 

I understand and appreciate that faith in Christ is not only rational and reasoned; it is also strongly connected to our emotions.  But, when does the appeal to emotion cross the line into manipulation?  It is my opinion that Hell Houses cross that line.  I have deep concerns about impressionable hearts and minds that are asked to either accept or reject Jesus under that level of emotional duress.  Yes, I know that Jesus talked more about hell than anyone before or after Him in the Bible.  Still, it was not His typical means of saying, “Come, follow Me.”  And the apostles?  Just think what they could have accomplished on Pentecost with a Hell House instead of just preaching Christ and Him crucified! 

If souls are led to a sincere, lasting faith and full obedience to the Gospel of Christ, then I won’t quibble too much about methodology.  But, I worry about teens’ faith being sustained after their hearts have stopped beating in their throats and the nightmares have ended.  I would far rather inspire heaven in their hearts than merely scare the hell out of them.