/ Christian Living / The Halloween Conundrum – How Christians Should Think About Responding to Cultural Phenomena

The Halloween Conundrum – How Christians Should Think About Responding to Cultural Phenomena

Craig Smith on October 9, 2014 - 10:35 am in Christian Living, Craig Smith, Faith & Culture, Holidays, Parenting, Tough Questions

Let’s be clear, there’s really nothing Christian about Halloween, at least not these days (though see below) and this annual event presents some difficulties for followers of Jesus:  Should we give out candy?  Should we let our children participate?  Should we decorate our houses?

Some Christians see Halloween as something to be avoided entirely, some participate to varying degrees without giving it much thought and others see it as an opportunity to impact our culture with the Gospel.  The goal of this article isn’t to say that any of these approaches is necessarily right or wrong but rather to give you a grid for thinking about ways we can respond to Halloween (or really any cultural phenomenon).

A Little History

It’s not entirely clear that Halloween is as thoroughly pagan as is sometimes thought.  It is difficult to separate the history of the Christian tradition of All Hallow’s Eve from the pagan traditions which have been blended with it.  Some scholars believe that Halloween (originally Hallowe’en, an Old English contraction of All Hallows’ Evening) is a Christianized festival initially influenced by the Gaelic festival of Samhain which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.[1]  Other scholars believe that it originated entirely independent of Samhain and was initially a purely Christian celebration.

Certainly the festival has significant Christian roots, being part of a triduum of days (All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day[2]) which remembers and celebrates the lives of deceased faithful believers.  This set of “holy” days (i.e. holidays) is primarily observed among Catholic Christians, though there are some Protestant denominations which observe them as well.[3]

It may even be that many of the traditions associated with modern Halloween are at least rooted in Christian practices.  For instance, on All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before the beginning of All Saint’s Day, which we now know as Halloween, it was customary for criers to march through the streets calling Christians to prepare for the next day’s festival.  These criers usually dressed in black robes[4] which may have had some influence on the later tradition of wearing disguises (and perhaps may have even influenced the tendency towards morbid costumes).  Similarly, the practice of baking and sharing “soul cakes” may have contributed to the later tradition of “trick-or-treating”.[5]

However, it is equally clear that the cultural practices associated with the modern Halloween have little in common with these possible Christian roots.  While it is possible that some Halloween traditions are rooted in Christian practice, it would be difficult to deny that they are equal parts pagan.  Certainly the glorification of the gory, the macabre and the evil which dominates the American celebration of Halloween shares no common ground with Christian truth.  It is precisely this element of Halloween which has caused so many careful Christians to distance themselves from any possible association with the celebration.

How Should We Respond to Halloween?

Halloween presents an interesting test-case scenario for the ways we interact with any cultural phenomenon.  On the one hand we must recognize that Christians are not “of the world”; that is, we do not belong to culture but to God:

John 15:19  19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.

Furthermore, we are called to distance ourselves to a significant degree from the unrighteous non-Christian culture in which we find ourselves:

Romans 12:2  2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-- his good, pleasing and perfect will.

 On the other hand, it is also clear that Christians are supposed to be a light to the world and this requires some presence within the very culture that we are not “of”:

John 17:15-16  15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.  16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

Matthew 5:13-14   13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.  14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

There are a myriad of options for ways Christians can respond to a cultural phenomenon like Halloween, but nearly all of these options seem to boil down to whether our chosen response involves being absent from the culture or present in it and whether or not our chosen response involves being missional or non-missional.  Each of these terms deserves a careful definition:

Absent – the Christian response to Halloween (or any other cultural phenomenon) locates the believer outside the culture in such a way that non-believers can observe the response from their normal vantage point. 

For instance, if a church throws a “Harvest Festival” on the night of Halloween at their church, those who attend are absent because what they are doing is not observable by non-believers who are out trick-or-treating at that time.

Present – the Christian response to Halloween (or any other cultural phenomenon) locates the believer within the culture in such a way that non-believers can observe the response from their normal vantage point.

For instance, if a church puts together a hay-ride that goes through a suburban neighborhood while they sing David Crowder songs (he’s kind of country these days, right?), those Christians who participate are present because what they are doing is observable by non-believers who are out trick-or-treating at that time.

Missional – the Christian response to Halloween (or any other cultural phenomenon) is consciously – and, to some extent, explicitly - intended to provide a redemptive opportunity for non-believers.

For instance, if a church puts together a “hell house” where scary scenes of final judgment are coupled with a Gospel presentation in order to motivate non-believers to place their trust in Jesus, such a response would be missional.

Non-Missional - the Christian response to Halloween (or any other cultural phenomenon) is not intended to provide a redemptive opportunity for non-believers.

For instance, if a church puts together a “Halloween Alternative” where Christian families can bring their children instead of taking them trick-or-treating, this would be non-missional.

Please understand that I am not saying any of these elements is necessarily right or wrong or even inherently “better” than any other element.  I believe there are times when it is appropriate for believers to be present and times when we need to be absent from culture.  I also believe there are times when we should be missional and times when we can be non-missional, especially if we are being non-missional in order to strengthen or disciple believers.

It is my hope that understanding these four elements will give you a useful grid as you think about how to respond to Halloween (or any other cultural phenomenon) as an individual, as a family or as a church.  These four elements work well together, forming a set of quadrants into which nearly any possible response will fall rather easily:

If you think about this grid for a moment you will probably realize what the Shepherd Project team realized:  some responses can fall into different parts of the grid depending entirely on specific elements of the response.  For instance, a “Halloween Alternative” party could be missional or non-missional depending on whether or not there is an intentional attempt to include non-believers and share the Gospel with them.  Similarly, giving out candy at a “Trunk-or-Treat” could be absent or present depending entirely on where the “Trunk-or-Treat” happens…in the church parking lot or in a neighborhood cul-de-sac.  No one response is automatically relegated to a particular quadrant.  It’s all about specifics of motivation and execution.

To better understand the elements and the way they work together, let’s consider four different examples of ways to do a “Trunk-or-Treat”:

(If you’re not familiar with this term, a “Trunk-or-Treat” is traditionally where people park their cars next to one another and hand out candy from the trunks.  For our purposes here, “Trunk-or-Treat” may not necessarily involve cars, though…it can just be a place where Christians join together to provide a convenient place for kids to get lots of candy on Halloween) 

Missional/Absent:

  • Located in a church parking lot or inside the church itself, especially if the church is not located in a residential community
  • Advertisements about the event are distributed to the community prior to the event. Yard signs directing people to the church are put up on Halloween night
  • In addition to candy, kids’ Gospel tracts are handed out
  • Church members dress up as Bible characters and have “story-stations”

Missional/Present:

  • Located in a neighborhood cul-de-sac or some other location from which trick-or-treaters can stop by easily while they’re out trick-or-treating
  • In addition to candy, kids’ Gospel tracts are handed out
  • Hot chocolate and church brochures are given to parents
  • Church members present at the event are looking for opportunities to share the Gospel as the Lord leads

Non-Missional/Absent:

  • Located in the church parking lot or inside the church itself
  • The event is advertised only to church-members and intended as a safe alternative to normal Halloween activities
  • There is a teaching on the importance of being called out from the world and avoiding the appearance of evil

Non-Missional/Present:

  • Located in a neighborhood cul-de-sac or some other location from which trick-or-treaters can stop by easily while they’re out trick-or-treating
  • Only candy is handed out. No tracts or church literature available.  No indications on the cars or elsewhere that give a particular church credit
  • Church members participating in this event are doing so entirely as an act of love and service to their neighbors

Of course, I’m not saying that a given response has to have each of these precise elements to fit into that quadrant.  These are just examples of the kinds of things that will identify the nature of a particular “Trunk-or Treat” response.

As you can see, sometimes what moves the Christian response from one quadrant to another is a fairly simple matter.  Again, my goal here is not to encourage a particular kind of response but rather to provide a way to help you think through how God might be leading you to respond to Halloween this year in a way that is intentional and thoughtful.  It doesn’t have to be a “Trunk-or-Treat”…this is just an example of various ways one kind of response can fit into each category.  The same grid can be applied to nearly every possible response.  For example, are you going to carve pumpkins this year?  How could you do that in a way that would be Missional/Present?  How about Missional/Absent (that might take some thinking J).

What Is God Leading You to Do This Halloween?

At the end of the day, how we respond to Halloween (or any other cultural phenomenon) is often a matter of conscience and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We are not all called to respond to everything in our culture in exactly the same way, but we are all called to think carefully and biblically about the way we respond.  To do otherwise is to either forget the Christian worldview through which everything we do should be filtered or to forget that the call to be salt-and-light is an obligation that God has given to each of us.

Happy Halloween! (in whatever way God leads you to respond in faith to this cultural phenomenon)

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[1] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween:  From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] This part of the triduum is often less-known among Protestants but it is a day set aside for the commemoration and honor of all Christians who have died, but especially for those departed family and friends of living celebrants.

[3] The Eastern Church celebrates a similar festival, but does so on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

[4] The World Review, V.4 (University of Minnesota), 255.

[5] Rogers, Halloween, 28-30.

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