Outreach is often urged on evangelical Christians, but maybe most of us have been doing it all wrong?
Some evangelists will point to the love of God and the hope of eternal life, but one US church has for decades been promoting salvation through a fiercer, more fiery means: an 'experience' known as a 'Hell House'.
The Hell House riffs on your Halloween-inspired 'haunted house' funfair-ride, with a more theological slant – where non believers are taken on a dramatic tour of human depravity that supposedly inspires you to turn to Christ.
As the Friendly Atheist summarises: 'The rooms in these houses typically include scenes of a woman having an abortion, a school shooting...a former beauty queen descending into prostitution, a gay person dying of AIDS...It's why, by the end of your journey, you will hopefully commit to Christ to prevent all these awful awful things from occurring.'
It's the 27th year that Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas is hosting a Hell House event. And why stop? Just last year saw 9,249 visitors, 640 conversions and 1,165 recommitments to Christ. Isn't God clearly at work?
One visitor was less positive, detailing the graphic horror that awaits at this hellish youth-centric experience in a Vice exposé.
Jeremy Donovan, the youth director at Trinity Church says the Hell House is ultimately about encountering the 'love of Jesus', but I have questions.
This may just be a whacky outlier even in US evangelicalism (it would never fly in the UK), but as a clearly established and quite successful event it demands to be challenged.
However well-intentioned, at its heart the Hell House appears to centre on a gospel pitch that relies on fiery damnation for its rhetorical spark. And theologically, this is a far more popular idea – that you can't preach Jesus until you've preached the terrifying hell he saves us from. Otherwise, why did Christ come? Skipping out on the eternal conscious torment awaiting unbelievers is just liberal weakness, say the hell-raisers.
But you don't have to be a Rob Bell-adoring revisionist to think that's wrong. Did you know that in the entirety of Scripture, the words 'heaven' and 'hell' never appear in a verse together? And yet evangelical theology has ridden for decades on a rhetorical paradigm that says that life is about just that: choosing heaven or choosing hell. We're worthless, doomed sinners – but God punished Jesus so we can escape eternal judgement. That's a caricature, but one not far from what many promote.
The love of God, the restoration of all things, the cost of discipleship and the call of the Church to serve the world – these themes are often omitted from evangelical preaching. And that's tragic, because they really are essential to Scripture's story. Christ talked about hell, absolutely, but it wasn't just a scary set-up for his Gospel preach. And his gravest warnings of judgment came not for unbelievers but for the religious who claimed to be speaking for God.
And if Christians 'speaking for God' today end up terrifying outsiders with a mentally traumatic, emotionally abusive and theologically inaccurate picture of the Gospel – one more likely to deter them from faith than attract them to it – then woe unto them. The gospel literally means 'good news'. We should start preaching like it is.