Hope for Halloween!
- Mike Langford is an ordained Presbyterian pastor and Assistant Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry at Seattle Pacific University.
- 2012 16 Oct
Halloween is coming soon. What does this popular holiday mean to your youth ministry and the church?
Usually, Halloween is a benign holiday that offers a chance for kids to dress up and hang out with friends and get candy. I remember lots of fun times as I was growing up, traipsing around the neighborhood dressed as a zombie, baseball player or ghost. I remember getting lots of Smartees, mini-Snickers and SweeTarts, and throwing out the apples and homemade bags of mysterious conglomerations of goop.
Now, as I take my own kids door to door, it remains a harmless and fun night. Because of that, we often ignore Halloween in our churches and youth ministries. Maybe we use it as a theme for a youth group night or parent email, but that's probably about it.
What if it is more than that? What if it was an opportunity? What if Halloween were a chance for our churches and youth groups to live out our identity as Christians?
Some churches create Hell Houses or other seasonal events designed to scare kids into faith, but fear is hardly the best strategy for evangelism. Or we worry our students will turn into demons on Halloween, so we make sure kids know Oct. 31 is not a date to start acting improperly or suspending their discipleship. Aren't there better things than worry on which to spend our energy as youth ministers?
So, how can we use Halloween in our churches and youth groups? Just as with most things we encounter in our day-to-day lives, Halloween is a cultural artifact. It is part of the world in which we live.
The church is meant to engage the culture that surrounds us. Let me suggest three ways we can do this with Halloween:
1) understand it and how it relates to our faith;
2) learn from it;
3) use it as a springboard for God's redemptive purposes.
First, we can use Halloween as an opportunity to teach our students about the richness of our Christian heritage and how that heritage has intersected human history. Do you know the origins of Halloween? It actually is based on the day that comes directly afterward. In the church calendar, the first day of November traditionally has been known as All Saints' Day, which is a day to celebrate all the saints—the heroes and heroines of the faith—throughout the history of Christianity.
In the eighth century, the church likely placed All Saints' Day on Nov. 1 to coincide with pre-Christian festivals that celebrated the end of the harvest, a time when the worlds of the living and the dead intermingled. In these pagan festivals, as expressions either of suspicion or symbolism, people used to dress up to disguise themselves from evil spirits and left gifts of food outside their doors to appease them. When these festivals were subsumed into the celebrations surrounding All Saints' Day, many of the customs survived. Folks mused that evil spirits would be out and about trying to stir up trouble on the night before All Saints' Day, a night that became known as All Hallows' Eve (to "hallow" is to "make holy") or Hallowe'en. So then on Oct. 31, at the feasts and festivals that celebrated the coming All Saints' Day, people would dress up as ghouls and goblins, some out of custom and some out of suspicion and some in jest, in order to scare away these evil spirits that supposedly surrounded them.
By understanding this history, we better are able to understand our culture and the history of Christianity. This history can show us how our culture and faith influence each other in their development, as well as help us use Halloween as a chance not only to reflect on our history, but also on our ancestors in the faith who have gone before us. Perhaps Halloween can be a reminder to use the next day, All Saints' Day, as a chance to thank God with our families and church communities for these heroes and heroines of faithfulness.
Second, we can use Halloween as a way to better understand our culture. What kinds of cultural messages does Halloween communicate? Well, it can communicate a lot of different things, including what we find fun and fulfilling.
One thing Halloween communicates to us is the pervasive power of consumerism in our culture. Consumerism is a posture in which we draw meaning and identity from those things we consume, usually through our purchasing habits. We feel we must buy or otherwise consume things in order to be happy or to define who we are. We see this reality all around us, and it is often how we celebrate holidays, including Halloween.
Am I saying it is evil to get candy? Certainly not! I love (and I mean love) Reese's Peanut Butter cups, and cannot imagine the kingdom of God without them; but I am saying Halloween can contribute to a powerful cultural message that says our existence should be all about getting as much as we can for the sole purpose of our own fulfillment. Sometimes Halloween devolves into getting, getting, getting, following after our culture.
Maybe Halloween is a chance for us to bring up for discussion and evaluation this important cultural message of consumerism. Maybe this is a chance for us to talk with our youth about where we find meaning and how we define ourselves. Maybe Halloween is a chance for us to share! In or family, we let our kids choose their favorite 10 or so candies from the night, then we do something else with the rest—give it away, hand out to strangers, make an anonymous candy bowl at work or school. It's a chance for us to be creative and excited about giving rather than receiving.
Third, we can use Halloween as a springboard for God's redemptive purposes. How on earth could Halloween be an opportunity to be God's people in the world? Let me answer that question with another question.
How many times during the year do you engage with your neighbors, particularly those you do not yet know? In many people's experience, Halloween is one of the few instances they meet new people in their neighborhood. What if we were intentional about that? We could use Halloween as a chance to get to know our neighbors, to begin relationships in which we can be neighbors. Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:37-40 the second greatest law, after loving God with all that we are, is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In Luke 10:29-37, Jesus tells the expert in the law he is not only to know he is supposed to love his neighbor as himself, but, after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, he is to "go and do likewise."
We are called to love our neighbor and not just wait for them to love us; we are called to shower kindness on the outsider even when we may think they have not earned it; and we are called to initiate relationship with the stranger just as the Samaritan did.
Halloween is a unique opportunity to do that. As they go door to door, our students could be sure not only to say, "Trick or treat!" and "Thank you," but also to find out something about those who live around us. Halloween could go from being a fun night when we get candy to being a platform for the movement of God's Spirit, when we have the chance to offer a smile, a kind word, a connection, a chance to extend God's love to those around us who (as do we) so need it. How exciting for our students to understand they are mediators of God's redemptive work!
So maybe Halloween is not as benign as we might think. Maybe it is a chance to learn about the culture around us and how that culture interacts with what we believe. Maybe it is a chance to reflect on the often hidden messages of our culture so we can evaluate them against the backdrop of our faith. Maybe it is a chance for us to love our neighbor and be a mediator of God's Spirit as we go into the world to be disciples on Halloween as much as any other night.