Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hell House - Christian outreach?

Ghouls and ghosts, mummies and vampires, that’s what haunted houses are made of?  Or so I thought.  I’m really not too sure because I don’t endorse them.  I can recall years ago when our church youth group - yes, a church youth group -  visited a popular one, only I was the odd duck out.  

It puzzled me then and it puzzles me now as to how being scared is “fun and entertaining” let alone the idea of a church sponsoring a haunted house ...or field...or trail..or whatever other place might be used to spotlight fear and death.

And then I read about Hell House.  

Hell House is a violent haunted house sponsored by the Pentecostal Trinity Church near Dallas, Texas that attracts over 13,000 people every October.  “The Church hopes to scare the hell out of them”  according to their website.  The church is using this modern media as part of an evangelical outreach, affecting a haunted house to serve as a pulpit for the ultimate fire and brimstone sermon.

Visitors to Hell House are led room to room by “demons” to view scenes of school massacres, teen suicide, date rape, drunk driving, drug use and botched abortions.  The idea is to shock and overwhelm visitors, who may not be church goers or believers at all, into examining the realities of life and the choices they must face.  The phenomenon of Hell House has been so popular it was made into a documentary film some years ago which you can find on Amazon; I found an interesting online film review here.

Reading abut Hell House immediately took me back to my days at Calvary Baptist Church as a preteen and being made to watch “Will You Be Left Behind?”  a movie that preceded the evangelical world’s infatuation with the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.  This movie scared me and was the source of subsequent nightmares.  Which brings me to the question, does our culture need to be scared into following Christ?  Do the world news headlines everyday not serve this purpose?!  

According to the reviews I read, at the end of the Hell House encounter, visitors are taken to a “decision room” where they learn about Jesus and the alternative path in this world.  There they are pressured into accepting Christ and praying the sinner’s prayer, hopefully invoking an emotional conversion experience.  

As an Orthodox Christian, I have mixed feelings about Hell House.  On the one hand, reading about it left me with thoughts of C.S. Lewis and his Screwtape letters, depicting a demon’s view on sin and spiritual warfare.  A book which may ‘shock’ the complacent person into a new perspective on sin and yet, Hell House presents theological problems that I didn’t find evident in Lewis’ writings.

Coming from an evangelical background, I can testify that there is a problem for many new converts who go through an emotional conversion experience only to drift for a few months or years wondering, “What next?” “How do I follow Christ? What does it mean to be a disciple?”  “Does gaining knowledge equal spiritual growth?”

There is an insightful review I found on Amazon while reading about the Hell House documentary.  It allegedly comes from a former cast member and he writes:

“I spent ten years working various scenes at the Trinity Church Hellhouse. Yes, it is a bit campy, and yes, it is often over the top, but I can say that the people are well intentioned, just a bit off target. I attended Trinity Church from birth until I was 22 years old. I do not attend their anymore because of the close-minded attitude that is prevalant in this documentary. I stopped doing HellHouse when they added the decision room my last year. I just felt it was an un-biblical scare tactic. I now feel that way about the entire operation. The worst feeling I get is knowing the young teenagers are blindly following the leadership without doing any research themselves. I know because I was once one of them. I have found that a growing number of former Trinity Youth Group members my age do not attend there for the same reasons I listed above. This movie will open your eyes to the way teens are herded like cattle in fundamentalist Christian Churches.”

My concern isn’t so much with the vivid scenes based in reality recreated in Hell House, my concern is for the kids who are being pressured into “decisions for Christ” while not being granted an accurate view of the nature of Christ or how to participate and grow in the life of Christ.  They are trying to grow fruit without water.


E.B. said...

I do understand people’s concerns and hesitations regarding evangelical outreaches such as “Hell House.” If you will bear with me for a moment, I will explain why I personally could defend such a project.

The first point I want to make in defense of Hell House and its ilk, is regarding what St. Paul called the “foolishness of preaching.” Why did Paul call preaching “foolishness?” He tells us in the passage below.

Paul writes in 1 Cor. 1:20-24:
“Where is the wise man (the philosopher)? Where is the scribe (the scholar)? Where is the investigator (the logician, the debater) of this present time and age? Has not God shown up the nonsense and the folly of this world's wisdom?
For when the world with all its earthly wisdom failed to perceive and recognize and know God by means of its own philosophy, God in His wisdom was pleased through the foolishness of preaching [salvation, procured by Christ and to be had through Him], to save those who believed (who clung to and trusted in and relied on Him).
For while Jews [demandingly] ask for signs and miracles and Greeks pursue philosophy and wisdom,
We preach Christ (the Messiah) crucified, [preaching which] to the Jews is a scandal and an offensive stumbling block [that springs a snare or trap], and to the Gentiles it is absurd and utterly unphilosophical nonsense.
But to those who are called, whether Jew or Greek (Gentile), Christ [is] the Power of God and the Wisdom of God.”

The sharing, preaching, teaching, or whatever you want to call it, of the Gospel message can be ridiculous, unsophisticated, irrational and various other things. However, it is the way the Gospel was and is communicated. Throughout the NT we see the Apostles preaching some sort of message that drives home the point of the Gospel message. Consider Paul at Mar’s Hill (Acts 17), Peter and John on the way to the temple (Acts 3), and Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. In each of the examples I gave above, the Apostles used something pertaining to their targeted audience to drive the point home, exemplified by Paul’s use of the statue to the unknown god. I think a good argument can be made paralleling that to the dramatic depictions in Hell House.

I believe the use of such drama is a similar way to speak the truth of spiritual matters to some people. None of us like to be confronted with the ugliness of our sin, but the reality is there, heaven and hell. Dante had his Inferno, Bunyan’s Pilgrim had to Progress. We might disagree on points of theology in these dramatic depictions. However, there is a reality and truth about good and evil, heaven and hell, damnation and redemption that is the essential truth of the Gospel. In this age, as in ages past, there is always an urge to want to squelch the truth, but people need the whole, entire truth to make an informed decision.

Regarding the decision room, Jesus gave us the parable of the sower (Matt. 13) and the seed. Any time any individual hears the gospel message, it is up to them, more or less as to what they want to do with it. Which kind of ground/soil will they be? When Jesus knocks on their heart’s door (Rev. 3:20) will they let Him in? Will they invite Him to stay? Jude speaks in verses 22-23 of sometimes being compassionate in our approach and sometimes the need to be much more compelling, saying, “…and some save with fear…”

This reminds me of my dear friend S., who needed and finally received a kidney transplant. She claimed the old hymn “God Leads His Dear Children Along” had a special meaning for her:
“Some through the waters, some through the flood,
Some through the fire, but all through the blood;
Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song,
In the night season and all the day long.”
We don’t know what God might do to shake us, awake us and invite us to Him, but so long as it lines up with scripture and remains true to the Gospel of Christ, it does the intended job.

amy said...

Thank you for such an in-depth response, E.B. I agree with your comments regarding the "foolishness of preaching" as stated by St. Paul.

Maybe to some the "shock and awe" of Hell House is, indeed, an eye-opener to the depths of sin. The fact of this truth makes me wonder about the desensitization that has been taking place in America over the last five decades. "Casual" violence has crept so thoroughly into our culture through cartoons, video games, movies, comic books, etc. that news reports of real violent acts seem to be met by our youth with a disconnectedness that I find startling.

You wrote:

"Regarding the decision room, Jesus gave us the parable of the sower (Matt. 13) and the seed. Any time any individual hears the gospel message, it is up to them, more or less as to what they want to do with it. Which kind of ground/soil will they be? When Jesus knocks on their heart’s door (Rev. 3:20) will they let Him in?"

This is where I can respectfully disagree. The Gospel message is Christ and Christ crucified. I didn't read anything about this message being delivered in the Decision Room at Hell House. But what I did read was about the "pressure to make a decision".

Too often, I think, evangelicals seek to do the work of the Holy Spirit. We are commanded to share the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit work as He will on the heart of man. I don't think we should seek to pressure kids to make a decision for Christ. By "pressure", I mean to create an emotionally charged atmosphere where a decision must be made NOW in the presence of peers who may be openly pleading for their friends to accept Christ. I think this method often leads young folks to act in accordance to peer pressure rather than allowing for a genuine transformation of the heart.

At any rate, I am so glad you visit here and are willing to share your insights and wisdom; thanks again and God Bless.

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