About five or six years ago, Luke Haidle, pastor of Henderson (Nebraska) MB Church, forgot to turn on the house lights for Halloween evening. When a neighborhood kid rang the bell and asked for candy for himself and his friend, who was afraid to approach the house because it was dark, Haidle was struck by the irony.
“On a holiday that I would consider to be one of the most spiritually dark days of the year, why is my house scary?” he says. “The opposite should be true. My house should be the place of light, not only physically but also spiritually.”
The interaction rumbled about in his mind until three years ago, when he and his wife, Joanne, tried an approach to Halloween that has quickly turned into a fun way for the Henderson MB congregation to be that light and to connect with both their neighbors and other community churches.
“It’s the only day of the year when all your neighbors will simply show up, knocking at your front door.”
The idea behind “Garage Parties” is simple: On Halloween night, host families open their garage, throw the lights on and invite their neighbors in. They provide candy for the kids and snacks for the adults, then visit with the neighbors who drop in.
Haidle notes that Halloween provides a remarkable opportunity for Christians to engage their community.
“It’s the only day of the year when all your neighbors will simply show up, knocking at your front door,” he says. The parties offer a way to have fun and build relationships.
The well-lit garage provides physical light and creates a safe, inviting space for both kids and their parents. Hosts are encouraged to decorate for fall, with leaves, scarecrows and pumpkins rather than with spider webs, goblins and witches. Refreshments, folding tables and lawn chairs inspire lingering conversation.
Haidle notes that the parties work best with a team approach with three or four adults working together in one garage to keep the snacks stocked, hand out candy and wrangle children. And, Haidle says, folks do linger, so having volunteers prepared to simply chat is key.
Host families in Henderson engage in a bit of friendly competition to make parties inviting. Some host families dress in costume to add to the fun. One gentleman set up crafts and woodworking activities for the kids. A woman known for her baked goods provided irresistible treats. One host couple even set up laser tag in their barn.
The Garage Parties aren’t overtly evangelistic. The goal is simply to engage the community and to be a light.
“It’s a way as a church and as believers to engage in Halloween with some purpose and some intentionality, but also with a Christian mindset,” Haidle says.
Garage Parties also have helped Henderson MB connect with the other area churches. After the first Garage Party was a “raging success,” Haidle mentioned the idea to three area pastors with whom he meets regularly. The three churches now work together to make the garage parties happen.
Volunteers have freedom to work with those who attend different churches, which encourages relationship-building. And, Haidle notes, the interactions are centered around something fun, which helps curtail squabbling about theology.
Because the churches cooperate, the Garage Parties can have a bigger impact in the community. Not only can they have more host homes, which means more fun and more visibility, but they can also promote Garage Parties as a safe community event rather than the effort of one church. That lends more credibility to the effort and allows them to, for example, distribute fliers in the local school.
The churches print a map with the party locations marked. Kids collect stamps or stickers at each location; if they collect five stamps, they can bring the sheet to one of the churches on the following Sunday morning to collect a prize. Prizes might be items such as a box of kid-friendly cereal, small ball or Lego set, a flashlight or “anything with Elsa or Anna on it.” Haidle says Wal-Mart has proven a great resource for such prizes.
Last year, at least half a dozen garage parties were scattered throughout Henderson, a community of about 1,000 people. While Garage Parties idea might not work as well in a larger city with many competing Halloween alternatives, response in Henderson has been very positive. Their experience has been that the garages are full of people all evening long, with perhaps 20 people at any given time.
Haidle suggests that others who are interested in trying Garage Parties start small, with one party as a test. Use a team approach to do it well. Have fun. And, above all, be prepared to engage the neighbors who come.