(photo credit: caufields.com)

(photo credit: caufields.com)

It’s that time of year again: fall (or Autumn, if you consider yourself better than the rest of us). The time when hipsters break out their slightly-less-ironic scarves, pumpkin flavoring seeps into everything, and churches everywhere roll out their 14th annual HallelujahWeen HarvestFest Trunk or Treat Hoedowns.

Full disclosure: I have both participated in and organized my fair share of the aforementioned event. The purpose of this post is not to be critical of churches who pull dunking booths onto their property once every October. Intrinsically, I think we’d all agree that there’s something more to a Halloween event than the event itself. And to be fair, these are questions that I’m asking of myself more than of other churches (more on that later).

So the post’s purpose isn’t criticism. Rather, it’s to ask a question that’s been rolling around in my own hollowed out pumpkin skull:

Are these types of “community outreach” events effective? 

My personal experience tells me that these events largely work to serve people at your church, and maybe people at other churches. (We all know the families who put trick or treating in the same category as – oh, let’s say the Bubonic Plague – but think nothing of loading up the minivan in their Moses / Esther / Seven Headed Beast of Revelation costumes and hitting every Holy Ghost Weenie Roast in the greater tri-cities area.) But when the hay dust has settled and the last bit of apple cider is gone, can we say we’ve had an evangelistic impact on our cities? When an outreach only reaches in, can we really call it an outreach?

Maybe it’s what we call them that gives me pause. I’m not sure that I’ve ever known an unbeliever who’s passed a church with a “Hallelujah Festival” ad on their marquee and thought, “That’s something that I just have to be a part of.” No, in most cases that would be viewed as an odd, insiders-only ritual that just makes them want to step on the gas and drive on by.

Or maybe it’s the “why” behind the “what” that I’m having problems with. If Trunk or Treat events only exist to provide a safe alternative to Halloween and to keep sinners with cooties at arms length, then we’ve missed the bigger picture. If our entire evangelistic goal of the evening is to hand out a Chick tract designed to scare the hades out of people, then maybe we’re doing it wrong.

Critical? Well shoot. Maybe so. But before you angrily toss your leftover fun size Almond Joy bars at me (because let’s face it, even the kids who don’t get sugar 364 other days a year ain’t touching those), what if we found an even better substitute for Halloween?

What if we discovered an alternative to our Halloween alternative?

What if we built the event on pre-existing relationships? What if we didn’t pour time and energy and resources into an event, and then opened the doors and hoped people from our neighborhood would show up? What if we didn’t engage the unchurched in our community only for special events, and then ignored them the rest of the year?

What if we encouraged our people to have real, authentic friendships with people they already live around? Work around? Play around? And what if we leveraged our “community outreach” events to maximize the outreach we’re already doing every single day?

What if we scrapped the event altogether and encouraged our people to get out on the street on October 31st and meet their neighbors and build a friendship?

Confession: the deeper I go into this post, the more I realize how much I stink at this personally. While our church no longer has Harvest Parties, we do have community outreach events on a massive scale. And so many times I get so busy investing in the event, I forget to invest in something even bigger: my relationships with unbelievers. I realize how far I have to go in befriending and serving the people on my street. I discover how many things I do in the name of “outreach” that really just reaches in.

So how about it, church leader friends? What if we got crazy intentional this year about hosting church events that unchurched people might actually show up for? What if we built new relationships outside rather than simply maintaining relationships inside? And most importantly, what if you mailed me all your unused Snickers Bars, because those things are awesome?

What successes have you had in community outreach events? I’d love to hear ’em. Comment below.