Each October, a half-million visitors invade Salem, Massachusetts. During the month-long Halloween festival, our little city of 40,000 gets overtaken by an eclectic whirlwind of costumes, families, partiers, and occult practitioners from around the globe.
This all began decades ago, when Salem businesses began to capitalize on the city's infamous witch trials of 1692, along with the popularization of Halloween and the revival of neopaganism in the U.S. They opened witchcraft shops and a Witch History Museum. They started tours and events. Salem soon became the world's greatest Halloween destination.
As you'd imagine, local Christian leaders picket and pray against these occult stores and celebrations. Our church, the Gathering at Salem, assembled 15 years ago to try a different approach: to set up alongside them.
It's the classic Christian "love your neighbor" approach; only this time, our neighbors are practicing witches, conjurers, Wiccans, and atheists. It's "love your neighbor," Halloween edition.
In 1999, we began working with the city to organize live music on the streets of Salem, where we also served free hot cocoa and set up tents offering spiritual encounters. People stood in line for up to an hour for free dream interpretations, à la Daniel or Joseph, or "psalm readings," with Gordon Conwell Seminary students sharing passages from the book of Psalms. This was the beginning of our ongoing experiment in festival evangelism.
We sought to relate to our neighboring neopagans as fellow humans, rather than enemies. We wanted to hear the cries of their hearts, to respond to them in a loving and gospel-centered way. Over the years, our outreach worked. It opened doors and initiated connections with people whose faith differed radically from our own. We eventually found ourselves caught between these newfound friends, who we wanted to serve and minister to, and our tribe of born-again believers, who continued praying against the people we felt called to love.
Denominational leaders from the Foursquare Church worried we had "become too close to the witches." In 2005, in the midst of our October evangelism, a picture of me greeting a vampiress actress was posted on a local pagan website and circled among churches. Some accused our ministry of aberrant engagement practices. Before being disfellowshipped the following year, our former denomination awarded us $84,000 to expand and continue our work. The foundation witnessed a season of miracles – even while we were being tried as heretics.
The tension over our approach reveals a larger struggle over missiology in the American church. Now, as an independent church, the Gathering continues its festival outreach, and each year we watch the same struggle play itself out on the streets of Salem each October. The variety of evangelism styles across the city creates a wild, sometimes violent culture clash.
Street preachers with bullhorns and placards warning against coming judgment took up prominent locations on the streets. Others passed out tracts and gently shared their faith. A youth team vibrantly offered healing prayers for passing revelers. Even the visitors know about our church. Occasionally someone will shout over his bullhorn, "The Gathering is a cult!"
Last year, Dan Kupka, a self-described agnostic and friend of our church, stood patiently in front of a street preacher to ask a question. Rain from the remains of Hurricane Sandy pounded the few visitors walking the streets. I watched nervously from a few feet away, wondering what craziness might erupt once the preacher finished his monologue. The preaching ended. Dan stepped close to the preacher's face, and he asked, "Can I get you a sandwich, or a coffee or something?"