I was a year or so into my career as a student pastor, carelessly bounding through the twisting cornstalk caverns on a crisp Fall evening in rural Pennsylvania, alongside a dozen or so Middle and High School students entrusted to my care.
The briskness of the night, the surreal surroundings, and the great company were combining to create the kind of memorable moment you dream of being a part of as a minister. We laughed and pinballed through the cornfield as our breath crystalized in the half-frozen air.
Then, things got weird.
We suddenly found ourselves in a large clearing in the center of the maze, met there by cups of steaming cider on a table near a large TV/VCR combo and a row of metal folding chairs. Without explanation we were quickly and matter-of-factly asked to take a seat. This ripped away the buoyant, giddy joy we’d just been experiencing and replaced it with an unsettling, awkward quiet; as if we were about to get a stern lecture from our parents or hear the news of a beloved aunt dying.
The TV screen flickered to life and for the next 15 minutes there in the middle of the cornfield we watched a poorly produced after school special showing a group of bright-eyed teens out for an alcohol-fueled joyride on the way to a party. The students eventually find themselves in a horribly violent accident, and as their car lies mangled and wrapped around a tree we see the otherworldly aftermath, as each dead student faces the eternal consequences of an afterlife with or without Jesus; some comfortably bathed in warm, brilliant light and others screaming in agony as the endless, fiery torture begins.
As the movie abruptly finishes, the same man who ushered us in comes out and makes his emotionally charged, carefully rehearsed script, inviting students to pray and ask Jesus into their hearts. Nobody moved—until we all quickly left.
I was mortified. I felt like a fool. I felt betrayed. I felt like I betrayed my kids. I couldn’t get out of that cornfield fast enough, and in many ways I’m still running from it.
Halloween is a time for being safely frightened and to become something we’re not for a few hours and for chasing sugar shock, but it’s also a time when Christians ramp up their best efforts to scare the actual Hell out of young people and send them frantically running into the arms of Jesus.
And every year it ticks me off in the depths of my being.
Religious corn mazes, salvation-themed Hell Houses, and Christian University fright nights sucker punch unsuspecting teenagers with a terrifying ultimatum: accept Jesus now or be burned in fiery lakes by a God who wants to love them but needs a magic prayer in order to do so.
Is this the best we can do?
Is this really the heart of our faith story?
Is this the character of a good God?
Is this the way we want to invite young people into a life-giving relationship with Jesus?
Are we okay presenting faith in Christ primarily as a way to escape eternal torment?
I don’t believe we can scare people into loving God, or that an uninformed, fearful knee-jerk prayer to avoid damnation is what this is all about. I’ve had my fill of horrors disguised as loving religion and I will not perpetuate such nightmares with my ministry.
I walked out of that freaky cornfield 17 years ago, convinced that I’d never again be complicit in emotionally manipulating anyone (especially a teenager) in becoming become a Christian. I won’t use dimly lit haunted houses or glorified rock show worship services or finger-wagging threats to force an immediate, emotion-based decision. If someone’s faith is authentic, it will be a choice they make in the unadorned, natural light of day without bells or whistles or bands or pitchfork-wielding devils.
This, after all isn’t a used car sale here and I’m not trying to hastily close the deal, afraid of buyer’s remorse setting in. I’m sharing with people the good news of a God who created them and adores them and invites them to respond to that limitless love through their lives.
I believe the words and life of Christ are worth emulating and that his ways are worth walking in, but I refuse to cajole someone into doing so because they’re terrified of Hell.
To some that might make me a negligent pastor and a counterfeit Christian, but I’m okay with that because when it comes to human relationships, real love is never grounded in fear. It is never chosen to avoid damage. It never comes packaged as a threat. We would never look at such things between two people and call them Love, but coercion, manipulation, and abuse.
And if God is as loving and good as we claim, love for God cannot be born out of fear either.
What Jesus offers is beautiful. It doesn’t need dry ice and mood lighting or corn maze bait and switches or eternal furnace pulpit threats to take hold.
Whether it’s with a Hell House or brimstone AM radio preaching or well-orchestrated megachurch spontaneous baptism events, let’s stop trying so hard to scare or trick people into believing in and following Jesus, and instead try living in such a way that faith is something they choose with joy because their hearts are touched and they are moved to reciprocate with the Giver.
After all, this is how love works:
It is a dream to awaken to, not a nightmare to run screaming from.