Halloween outreach 'hammers out the Gospel,' pastor says
The members of his congregation obviously agree.
Rather than avoiding the night that is traditionally linked to ghosts and goblins, First Baptist embraces it by hosting one of the largest fall festivals in the state.
First Baptist, which has about 200 members, welcomed more than 7,000 attendees to last year's fall festival. And they are expecting that number to be even larger this year when the event is held on Halloween night.
"The overwhelming majority of our congregation is involved with this," Brown said. "They get fired up about it, to say the least."
The event, which is free to the public, features many of the traditional fall festival staples, including inflatable bounce houses, cotton candy machines, games, and, oh yes, lots and lots of candy. The church estimates more than 50,000 pieces will be given out.
"The people of our church work really hard to make sure that this is something special," said Debbie Frazier, the church's administrative assistant and event coordinator for the fall festival. "It's been fantastic to watch this (event) become what it is now."
Brown, who has been the pastor at First Baptist for less than a year, will be experiencing the church's fall festival for the first time.
"It's going to be my favorite day of the year," he said.
Although some churches struggle with how to handle a holiday that is often associated with evil, Brown said he believes Christians should take a proactive stance. And he said the fall festival is an ideal time and place to spread the Good News.
"Every Halloween, lost people are coming right up to our doorstep," he said. "So why would you not want to utilize this? Why would you not want to leverage this for the Gospel?"
A little more and a little more
The fall festival at First Baptist has grown from the humblest of beginnings: It started in 1998 with two people sitting in the church parking lot, giving out candy.
But thanks to the efforts of a tireless congregation, it has blossomed into an event that is unrivaled in the Waverly area. The city shuts down, somewhat literally, for the annual festival.
"At some point through the years -- and I don't know exactly when it was -- the police began shutting down Main Street right outside of our church (in order to ensure an orderly flow of people)," Brown said. "And that's when things really began to take off."
Hosting 7,000 people on Halloween night is not only a big undertaking for the church, but also for the city of Waverly itself, which has a population of only about 5,000. But with the help of local police, firemen, and several other organizations, the town makes it work.
"It really draws the community together," said Frazier, who has been involved with the event essentially since its inception. "We start getting calls about a month in advance, with people asking when it is and asking for all the details."
Brown said it is unlikely that anyone could have envisioned the fall festival becoming such a smash. But the genuine commitment of the congregation made it happen.
"I am thankful for all the men and women who have gone before me and who have pushed it along," the pastor said. "Each year, it's just been a little more and a little more. There is no indication that it started with this big dream of having thousands of people. Instead, it just started out with some folks who wanted to connect with people and use this for the Gospel."
Not afraid of Halloween
While Brown doesn't deny that there is a dark side to Halloween, he is not willing to let wickedness -- be it real or perceived -- prevent the church from using Halloween as a means of outreach.
"I've been in churches where the approach to Halloween is to go home, shut the door, turn out the light, and spend the whole night in prayer," Brown said. "But that's not how I see it. I go to Genesis with the story of Joseph, where he says, 'what you meant for bad, God used for good.' "
Brown understands why some churches are uneasy about celebrating Halloween. Still, he doesn't think the evil elements linked to Oct. 31 -- or even the origins of Halloween -- should give the church an excuse to miss out on a chance to share the message of Jesus.
"My take is, who cares what the culture has tried to turn Halloween into, or even what it started as?" Brown said. "As it stands, this is a grand opportunity for Christians to use this for the sake of the glory of God.
To hide from this is to waste the greatest God-given opportunity that we have to connect with our community and see lives changed."
Telling the old, old story
Although the festival features plenty of pageantry, the event goes much deeper than simply being a family-oriented Halloween party. Indeed, this isn't just an event; it's a ministry.
"Our goal is to introduce people to Jesus," Brown said. "That's the part we are praying that we get right. If everything else falls apart, that's okay, as long as we get that part right."
Brown has been working with a team of church members who will join him in witnessing to the attendees. The group has a strategic plan to connect with as many people as possible.
"We are going to be wandering about in the crowd," he said. "We will be mingling with the people, fellowshipping with them, joking with them and just getting to know them. And we are going to be very intentional about what we're doing. We're going to be seeking to have gospel conversations with people throughout the night."
Brown will also be delivering a series of quick welcome messages to the crowd. Each time, he plans to include a three-minute sermon in which he "just hammers out the Gospel" for attendees, he said.
"Our goal is that not a single person will set foot on our property without hearing a clear gospel presentation," he said.
Making it last
If there is one area in which Brown believes the event can become stronger, it is the area of follow-through. Brown said he hopes to see the church be more diligent in that capacity this year.
"If we have 7,000 people come through here, I want to have follow-up with as many of those as possible," he said.
When attendees arrive this year, their first stop will be at the registration tables, where they will be given an armband or a ticket. Each attendee will also fill out a brief registration card, which will enable the FBC staff to ascertain some information.
Those who indicate that they are active in a church will receive a thank-you card for attending the festival. Those who indicate they aren't currently active in a church will receive a letter and a call from a Sunday School teacher, inviting them to First Baptist. And those who indicate that they don't have a relationship with Jesus will receive an invitation to the church by mail and a personal visit -- from either Brown or one of the church's evangelism leaders -- within two weeks of the festival.
Brown said he believes the church members are committed to doing their diligence in regard to making a lasting impact on the attendees.
"If I can brag for a second, I want to brag on our people," he said. "They just really believe in the power of the Gospel, and they're willing to take risks and make sacrifices to get the message out."
Everyone has a role
In order for it to be successful, the fall festival at First Baptist needs virtually all of its members to take on a role. And that's exactly what they've done.
"It's reached the point where people pretty much know what their job is -- and they just do it," Frazier said. "It's kind of built in all of us now."
Brown said he never has to drum up business from the pulpit when it comes time to ask for workers.
"Our people just really believe in this," he said. "It is the single greatest event we do all year in terms of manpower, but we never have any issues when it comes to volunteers. People wait all year to sign up. They can't wait to be a part of it."
In regard to the event's success, Frazier said there's no trick. It's just about treating others in a Christ-like manner.
"For us, it's really just about being out there, loving on people," she said.