It’s Halloween night. The aroma of funnel cakes hangs in the air as costume-clad children and their families explore the carnival-like atmosphere at the “big field” on Heritage Bible Church’s campus, playing games and eating candy.
One child takes a turn in a game booth, using a water gun to extinguish the light from a tier of candles. Another drags a pillowcase full of candy behind him—too heavy to carry.
It’s all part of “Fallelujah,” Heritage Bible Church’s alternative Halloween event that provides a safe and welcoming environment for children and families and allows church people to welcome and share the love of Jesus with everyone who walks through the gate.
“We’re known to be a really open, friendly congregation, so we just take that out of Sunday church and put it in a party carnival atmosphere,” says JR Ross, who leads the Fallelujah planning committee. “We’re welcoming everyone that comes in.
“We’ve got music playing; we’re giving away raffle prizes; we’ve got game booths and inflatables,” Ross adds. “So, the kids just come and have a great time.”
Fallelujah began indoors
The term “Fallelujah” was coined in 2013, but Heritage Bible Church (HBC) has provided alternative Halloween events such as Trunk or Treat or simple carnivals in Bakersfield, California, since 1990.
Targeted toward elementary and junior high age children, the outreach began as an indoor fall festival in the gymnasium with the purpose of reaching families of the children attending Heritage Christian Schools (HCS), which is attached to the church.
“Many of those families are un-churched people,” Ross says. “Their children are getting the gospel and the Word at school, but the families don’t have any place of worship to go to and oftentimes don’t even have a faith.”
Over the years, the event has grown and expanded as the outreach blossomed into the church’s neighborhood. Today, Fallelujah is a large, outdoor event.
“We have popups that have sides, and we make it just like a carnival to where there’s backdrops and very colorful, inviting decorations,” Ross says.
In 2017, 335 people attended Fallelujah, a number Ross says was lower than average. As many as 900 people have attended in past years. Speaking prior to the 2018 event, Ross says she anticipated 750 attendees this year.
In addition to Ross, the 2018 planning team included Jayme Gooding, Jim Aiken, Jerry Koop, Chad Dixon and Marissa Navarette. The event also involved between 25 and 30 volunteers, not including setup and teardown. High school kids from HBC served as volunteers.
Lots of candy and games
This year, the Oct. 31 event included five game booths, a gospel booth in which participants made bracelets and heard the plan of salvation, bounce houses and a giant slingshot where kids tossed wet sponges at targets. The planning team limited the number of game booths—in past years, the event has included as many as 12—but added new activities, including a 68-foot-long inflatable obstacle course, an inflatable soccer ball dart target, gunny sack races and a basketball shooting game.
Game booths included “Dino Dig,” where children could dig for dinosaur bones and eggs buried in a pool filled with corn; a “Fishing Game,” where kids used fishing poles to “catch” prizes; the “Candle Shootout,” in which kids extinguished the light from a tier of candles using water guns; and “Boat Races,” in which kids propelled small boats down two water-filled troughs by blowing air through a straw.
“Every element has candy to give out, so they get lots and lots of candy,” Ross says. “All the candy is donated. Our church and the school step up tremendously.”
In the past, HBC has had as many as 12 five-gallon tubs full of candy to give away.
Attendees can also purchase food. One family from HCS makes carnival food for events across Bakersfield. At Fallelujah, their menu includes funnel cakes, corndogs, kettle corn and snow cones, and the family donates 20 percent of proceeds to the church’s Fallelujah fund. This year, another school family had a baked potato booth to raise money for the school.
HBC advertised the event at church and HCS and put flyers in local businesses.
More than a carnival
Fallelujah is more than a carnival; it’s a way to welcome people and show them the love of Jesus, Ross says.
Greeters welcome people at the front gate with love and attention and extend a parting word when attendees leave.
“Some people just want to come in, do their thing and get out, and that’s fine,” Ross says. “But some of them want some interaction, and they need to see the love of Jesus. Our goal at this event is to be the hands and feet of Christ and showing it in a fun atmosphere. We want to love on everybody while we’re having a great time.”
HBC’s evangelism commission is active during the event, interacting with people, learning their needs and building relationships. The church provides a welcome booth for those seeking more information. Anyone who fills out a card is entered in a drawing for a gift card, which happens every 30 minutes.
Everyone is accepted at Fallelujah, providing a witness to the community.
“Especially when a costume isn’t quite appropriate, maybe a little scary, they’re so appreciative that we’re not judging them and turning them away,” Ross says. “One night, one mother said, ‘Thank you so much for accepting us. Thank you for doing this. My kids don’t have any safe place to go.’ That really hit me hard like, ‘Okay, this is why we do this.’ We’re hoping that they see the light of Jesus and that they want to be part of it.”
Fallelujah’s impact goes beyond fun and bellies full of candy.
Last year while decorating for Fallelujah, Ross says she was visiting with a woman who had recently started attending HBC. In the course of the conversation, the woman said she had come to a Fallelujah event two years prior—her child attended HCS—and because of the connections she made at Fallelujah, she started coming to church.
“This night is happening with or without us,” Ross says. “(We) might as well make it into a positive, godly thing versus the negative connotation that it could have.”