'Tis the season for fall festivals and trunk-or-treat. Especially if you’re welcoming diverse neighbors, make sure your church knows how to party with a purpose.
Understand the Message Through the Ears of the Audience
Some cultural celebrations, especially when embraced by churches, raise troubling questions for immigrants.
A few years ago, a Sierra Leonean leader addressed fellow board members at a D.C.-area multiethnic church:
I used to think of Halloween as the devil’s day, and I did not let my children participate. People in West Africa struggle with witchcraft, magic, and evil spirits, so I wondered why a church would have a party on that day. But then I realized that Halloween actually is a big opportunity for me to teach my children and relatives that God alone is the creator. He has authority over everything. Even the powers of darkness are powerless before him. In Jesus Christ, we do not have to hide or live in fear of any created things. We can even laugh at them! So I think it’s good to let the children have fun and celebrate.
This animist perspective shifted the board’s concern from whether the church should host festivities on Halloween night to why and how. During the weeks before the event, leaders not only addressed potential misunderstandings but also leaned into a vivid object lesson for discipleship.
So before you blow up the bounce-houses, consider the point of view of your neighbors. What questions does Halloween raise for them? Do some research, and seize the opportunity to share the Good News.
Know What’s Culturally (In)appropriate
Caving to a pastor’s desperate plea for last-minute volunteers, I once donned a Marilyn Monroe costume and bedazzled myself with fake diamonds for a lip sync contest at our church’s harvest festival.
I was just trying to be helpful.
But my very modest imitation of an infamously materialistic Hollywood flirt offended the conservative Mexican congregation. It took a long time for the pastors (and me) to regain their trust.
We all commit cultural gaffes. A well-meaning Caucasian youth leader asked a silver-haired Korean pastor to wear a clown suit. He also included the Indian pastor in the dunking booth rotation. Big mistakes—and he was just trying to be helpful.
Cultural standards of appropriateness vary according to age, status, modesty, face-saving, children’s safety, etc. If you want fun and games for everyone, do some intercultural homework first.
Consider Facilitating Someone Else’s Party
Is your church’s neighborhood diverse? Are there entire groups you’re not reaching? If so, maybe you should consider stepping out of the spotlight for your next large-scale event.
Take your resources and energy backstage. The youth should still prepare baked goods. Your staff should still run themselves ragged in mobilizing volunteers, gathering materials, advertising, and finalizing the details. But do it for someone else.
Let another church (or a handful of other churches) write the script, run the show, and get their name in lights. Work to attract their neighbors to them, rather than to you.
Why? So that their people—Pakistanis, Latinos, Koreans, or groups across a socioeconomic border—can hear the gospel and be invited into the community of faith in ways that feel natural and credible to them. Which churches in your community are reaching those groups? What could you do to catalyze their success?
Few North Americans ever think to ask other pastors a game-changing question: “If money and manpower were no obstacle, what would you do to reach your community?” Maybe your church has just the resources another church needs.
Missiologist Tom Steffen of Biola University beautifully describes this behind-the-scenes approach as facilitation—an idea that can exponentially increase your effectiveness in sharing the Good News across cultural borders. Unlike the typical approach of creating and controlling a new ministry, facilitation looks for the God-inspired vision of others and then supplies what is missing to make it happen. Steffen even presents a carnival case study to illustrate this principle.
When my family lived in Southern California, we witnessed the power of such facilitation in strengthening the evangelistic reach of local churches. W.O.W. International, led by Stephen and Linda Tavani, organized festivities to attract a crowd—like a giant mound of snow for summer sledding. They shared the gospel message in cooperation with area churches, who supplied volunteers for prayer support, counseling, and follow-up so that anyone interested could connect with a church easily.
The genius of the plan was that the faces of the event were Christian neighbors—not the organizers or the donors who paid for it.
Facilitation recognizes the kingdom impact that can occur when churches with resources resist the urge to lead, choosing instead to follow those who connect most naturally with unreached communities.
It’s not easy. When it comes to reaching out across cultural and social borders, “doing for” others is usually easier than “doing with” them. But it pays!
So for your Fall Festival (or later for Spring Fling, Fam Jam, or Summerfest), help your church party with a purpose. Seize teaching moments. Consider your neighbors’ customs and questions. Even better, help them throw their own party so that the name of Jesus will be elevated among their people in ways you can’t accomplish yourself.
The harvest and the harvest festivals are plenty, so the workers must party with Great Commission purpose.
 My paraphrase
 Steffen, Tom. (2011). The facilitator era: Beyond pioneer church multiplication. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.