Hell Houses

Recently I got a letter from a neighboring church, inviting me to send people their way for a special “Outreach” they’re doing. When things get sent to only me, I can ignore them pretty easily. However, this invitation letter was also forwarded to our Children’s Director and our church’s Outreach & Fellowship Committee. Since I have some objections to the program the letter describes, I decided it would be wise to go on record with the committee about my thoughts.

The committee moderators replied promptly after, echoing agreement with my basic reasons. Well, that was fun, but it was also too easy. So I’m offering my thoughts here at the blog to generate more discussion. Without further ado, the letter:

Good Afternoon, [names of Committee Moderators]-

In the past couple days a letter should have been forwarded to your Outreach & Fellowship committee, from Pastor X, Outreach Pastor at he Church Y. I have attached to this email a digital copy of the letter, just in case. [Update: Google Docs is hosting the letter for you blog readers.] The letter is an invitation to send FPCD members & friends to Church Y for a Halloween “outreach.” Sounds good so far, right?

However, I’d like to go on record opposing FPCD’s participation in this “outreach,” and encourage the O&F committee to take no action in favor of the event.

Why? It’s an event called “Hell House” that –in my opinion– attempts to literally scare the Hell out of people, and in turn scare them into simply praying “the prayer of salvation.” Pastor X’s letter boasts of 1 in 4 participants praying a such a prayer after experiencing the Hell House. It’s simply a soul-winning campaign, and what I know of the program design of Hell House shows no plan or concern for how to nourish new believers after such an emotion-sparked conversion experience. What happens when the emotions fade? What is a new believer left with? Just like love, the foundation for lasting faith cannot be emotion. Because what happens when the emotions subside?

As the letter says, Hell House’s theme is simply Romans 6:23 – The wages of sin is death. What sins will Church Y’s Hell House focus on? Let me quote the letter: “we will expose the occult, we will portray the devastation of alcohol and drunk driving, and we will show the emotional effects of teens that enter into sex before marriage.” St. Paul’s words to the believers in Rome are still true today, and each of these sins no doubt grieves our Lord. But Hell House’s method for confronting these sins is sensationalism at its best (or, worst?).

Hell House’s delivery method is essential to “reach the sight and sound generation,” as Pastor X puts it. Well, whaddya know… I’ve got experience reaching the very same generation as well. In the original draft of this letter, I originally typed way too much about a series of videos I show to this sight and sound generation: short monologues delivered in the middle of symbolic backdrops, by a gifted and down-to-earth Michigan pastor named Rob Bell. Bell asks the tough questions, like “What if there’s more to church than Sunday?” or “Does revenge ever truly satisfy?” or “Where is God when it truly hurts? or “Believing in God is important, but what about God believing in us?” The conversations spurred among my students by these questions never fail to ultimately lead to a confrontation with my and their sinful natures, and I’ve seen positive results in steps (taken by me as well as the students) toward a more whole relationship with God (& all via sight and sound, imagine!). All this is to say that I strongly believe Hell House may have noble ends in sight, but the means it employs are way off track for reaching today’s culture, particularly the sight and sound generation that is very quick to sense when someone or something is playing to their emotions to make a sale.

Hell House happens nationwide in over 3,000 churches across the country. Apparently it originated in an Assemblies of God church in Arvada, CO; but I have no information about where Church Y obtained its Hell House kit. In 2000, a documentary filmmaker named George Ratliff made a film about a Cedar Hill, TX, church running a Hell House. I have watched his documentary, and there is almost zero narration or commentary by Ratliff; it simply shows the whole process, from scripting to auditioning to practice to props to performance. And if Church Y’s Hell House is going to be anything like the one unbiasedly depicted by Ratliff, I want us to have nothing to do with it.

I easily affirm the following:
Personal sin is real.
Eternity apart from God (in Hell) is real.
Satan’s conniving and deceiving presence among us is real.

But beating the “unsaved” over the head with only these particular theological concepts is not the way to invite them into a whole and balanced relationship with our Creator. I am an ardent proponent of ecumenical programs, but this is clearly one event in which we should have no association with Church Y.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I enthusiastically welcome any further dialogue you may want to pursue.

One of the other things that bugs me that wasn’t in the original letter: Pastor X closes his letter “For the Kingdom.” ARGH! What the crap kind of kingdom is he working for? I want God’s Kingdom here, now, where love is the law, not scare-tactics. In fact, this may be too cynical and slightly without foundation on my part, but the dominance of scare tactics sound like our current kingdom?

It’s clearly out of touch with how to bring Jesus to Durango’s somewhat cynical and thoroughly postmodern culture. Walking among us, Christ clearly did not say, “Here, let me graphically re-create the explicit consequences of your sins, and scare you into being the good and faithful servant my Father wants you to be.”

So, who wants to go trick-or-treating?

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3 responses to “Hell Houses

  1. We’ve had something called Tribulation Trial when I was in middle school and high school, which was about the post rapture world. It was kind of like “The Streets of Bethlehem” in Salinas, but with more blood and guts, wailing, and mutants. And although I thought it was biblically informative and accurate (well an accurate interpretation anyway) it was still in a layout that screamed, “You better take Jesus, or else…!” Jesus didn’t say, “Hey chumps, you either have Hell or me.” I am of the mindset that he wanted followers that actually loved Him, not just chose Him because they wanted to sneak past fires of hell. The scare-tactic doesn’t create Christ Followers, it creates Hell Avoiders. I might give Pastor X the benefit of the doubt and say that his intentions are good, but his mode may be a little off. Much like some “missionaries” during the Spanish Inquisition.

  2. I’m an atheist and desperately want to go to one of these hell houses. Sadly, i live in San Francisco, and won’t be going to some flyover state anytime soon. Anyone know of a local (50 miles) Hell House?

  3. Tony,
    Thanks for stopping by. No ideas as far as Bay Area stuff… good luck.
    -RPD

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