If Halloween, with its pagan and dark themes, is troubling to churches, they don’t mask it well. Just call it something else — Trunk or Treat or Harvest Festival or Light in the Night — and make it a church party complete with costumes, candy and carnival games.
On Monday night, when millions of American children will stomp through neighborhoods impersonating Spider-Man, Darth Vader or Herman Munster and inveigle treats from households, many churches will be invaded by vampires and Yodas, cowboys and angels. Whether children exploit neighbors in traditional trick-or-treating or pass through a church parking lot in "trunk-or-treating" from decorated cars and vans, all will go home with bags full of candy.
Touted as a safer, more wholesome way to spend the beggars’ holiday, many churches have created fun nights for their neighborhoods, sometimes thinly veiled outreaches to the communities including games and group activities on Halloween night.
"We’ve been doing it for five years," said Terry Wright, education chairman at North Scottsdale United Methodist Church. "It is kind of like an overgrown block party. It’s a great fellowship event for all ages."
The church has chosen to have Trunk-or-Treating Fall Festival on Sunday night, rather than Halloween, because Sunday is the traditional "church night." As many as 75 vehicles are decorated by owners, and their trunks or hatch spaces overflow with goodies. "Last year, we had a Volkswagen Bug dressed up like a ‘great pumpkin,’ " she said. Trunks sometimes sport fangs or ooze artificial fog.
In trunk-or-treating, children make their way from vehicle to vehicle for handouts and interact with dressed-up hosts.
Epiphany Lutheran Church in Chandler held Harvest Festival for five hours on Sunday, with a petting zoo, pumpkin patch and praise band. Though it came a week before Halloween, it served the same purpose — a lively event for children of the congregation and the neighborhood, said Cari Drees, who leads children’s ministries.
The church opted not to have the carnival on Halloween weekend because it would conflict with Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday in October, when youth are "confirmed," or formally received into, the Christian faith.
Drees said the church has been in its location for 40 years, and the neighborhood’s transient population compels the church to work hard at outreach. "You have to do something to reintroduce yourself to your immediate community," even within just a two-mile radius, she said.
Vineyard Community Church in Gilbert plans a Velcro wall, bungee run, sumo wrestling and game booths for its Harvest Festival on Monday night. "We are not just doing it for our kids, but we would like to see kids from the community come in" and make it a service to them, said Jack Moraine, senior pastor.
"It is a bit of an outreach. We are not preachy. It’s just trying to make connections with people," he said. "Along the way, there may be people who come, and, as a result, would conclude, correctly, that we value children and families. Maybe they would like to see what else may be offered for the kids and families here."
Halloween has been fully assimilated into popular American culture, he said, and so churches, without compromise, can easily separate it from any Celtic and pagan history. "I personally don’t believe that trick-or-treaters who dress up in costumes and go get candy door-to-door are opening themselves to the demonic realm, or something like that," he said.
Some brief skits with a Christian message will be weaved into activities at Cornerstone Bible Fellowship in Mesa for its Harvest Festival on Monday night.
The church has been putting on the event since the 1980s. "It just gives our children an alternative," church elder Jeff Larkin said. "Halloween is nothing the church would want to celebrate. It comes out of some pagan ritual hundreds of years ago of lighting fires on the hills to drive away evil spirits. That is nothing we would want to celebrate."
As many as 1,500 are expected for the two-hour Harvest Party on Monday night at Mesa First Assembly of God, said Pastor Craig Carter. "Our purpose is to create an alternative for the neighborhood children and a safe environment. Nothing is charged, and it is not even regarded as a evangelistic tool, he said. "We just make it a nice atmosphere for people," Carter said.
For children who go trickor-treating, it’s common to find tracts, or Christian brochures, when their bags are emptied at night’s end.
The American Tract Society publishes 20 Halloweenthemed tracts and ask Christians to give them to the young guests at their doors.
"Halloween is our biggest time of the year," said Donna Skell, spokeswoman for the society, based in Dallas. "We are encouraging Christians not to ignore Halloween, but to turn on their house lights and attract people," she said. Its Light Up the Night project is being called "an aggressive evangelistic campaign."
Some children turn the tables and hand tracts to householders in direct exchange for treats, she said. "Christians give out a lot of gospel tracts, and we see a lot of decisions from them at Halloween time.
"I think Christians want to use this holiday for good," she said. "It has kind of evil connotations, but we can turn it into the biggest harvest time of the year for the Lord. People are open, they’ve got their hands out, and why not put the message of the Gospel in it?"