Published October 13, 2005
You'll have to excuse Jeannie Barfield for her growing excitement when summer comes to an end and fall begins to take over.
It's not that Barfield is an avid football fan or is desperate for cooler weather. It's just that the closer things get to October, the more excited the administrative assistant at Byron Baptist Church gets about leading the production of Judgement House.
"We love Judgement House," says Barfield. "The congregation gets excited about it and leading people to Jesus in different ways. We have about 145 people in the cast and the production brings about a lot of unity in our church."
Byron Baptist isn't alone, as one can find in small towns and urban areas alike across the state Judgement Houses, or variations thereof, used by Georgia Baptist churches.
In Judgement House, groups are taken on a walking tour depicting characters' choices regarding life and acceptance of Christ. A final judgment takes place and scenes depicting Heaven and Hell show the result of those characters' decisions.
This will be the fifth year Temple Baptist Church in Dalton uses Judgement House to reach others. Pastor Bret Yaeger says the expectation of people praying to receive Christ energizes his congregation.
"This is our biggest evangelistic outreach. Our people get really fired up about it every year because they know others are going to come to faith in Christ," he says.
Temple adds a different wrinkle to the event - it's held off-campus. Yaeger says this adds to the number of unchurched coming to see the presentation.
"In our third year we held it at a vacated Lowe's building. That year we had 313 salvations and 500 rededications."
This year will be Byron's fifth to have Judgement House. Barfield notes that the church's first year producing JH resulted in 1,149 attendants, 107 salvations, 124 rededications and gained 47 prospects.
"One year we got so excited we didn't even wait until October of the next year to do it again, so we had another that next spring in addition to the fall," recounts Barfield.
Heaven's Gate Hell's Flames is another popular choice for churches searching for a Halloween alternative. In it audience members see characters on stage given a chance to accept Christ and the ultimate result when those characters die.
Pastor Allen Holbrooke of New Hope Baptist Church in Thomson testifies to the impact his church's annual production of Heaven's Gates Hell's Flames has on the community.
"We can seat about 300 in our building and run full capacity each year," he says. "Over three to four nights about 1,000 people will watch. We average about 75 decisions each night.
"We were searching for a way to reach our community differently and the response we got with this was tremendous," says Holbrooke. "The first time we did it, we were scheduled to go one week. It was so popular that we held it over for a second week."
Making the Gospel known
"It's been the greatest evangelistic response I've ever done," attests Bob Rogers, pastor of First Baptist Rincon. "Large numbers of people come forward. It boldly and clearly makes the Gospel known.
"In addition to the cast, we use a lot of counselors because there will be typically close to 100 people making decisions each night. There are a lot of baptisms in our church from this. It's like a crusade that touches several churches and affects the whole area."
Brad Groce, youth minister at Welcome Hill Baptist Church in Trion, says Judgement House has helped him and his wife, Kari, in rebuilding the church's youth group.
Years ago, Groce himself was a youth and leading actor in the dramatization used at Welcome Hill. His father, Don, was youth minister of the church at the time and introduced Judgement House to the congregation.
"About 70% of our actors are youth," explains Groce. "We get started around mid-summer after we get back from camp. The whole church helps out. People see this and want to be a part of it."
Starting from scratch
Some churches may even create their own drama for October. Metro Heights Baptist Church in Stockbridge has hosted its Tribulation Trail for the past 12 years, 11 of them with co-director Alan Greene. The production requires up to 350 church members of varying ages.
"Our source for the material [in the production] is Scripture," contends Greene, who helped to write the script.
Co-director Carla Reeves says preparation for the expected 10,000-15,000 who will walk the trail on Friday and Saturday nights in October requires extra help for the church of 200 members.
"We have other churches from the area be involved [with production]" says Reeves. "There were 520 to pray for salvation last year and 2,486 rededications."
Church members and author Kyle Watson wrote the script for the Omega Trail, produced by the Summit Church in Loganville. Watson, who joined the church last spring, had already written a novel, Apocalypse South, dealing with the subject matter.
"We had a writing team and just started from scratch," says Watson. "I took ideas from everyone for the script and wrote a rough draft in one day. This is a story not set in the future, but in today's times."
Critics of dramas such as these accuse churches of trying to "scare the hell out of people." Those who have seen the results differ with that assessment.
"We're a new church start and this has been great for us," says Holbrooke. "In the three years we've had Heaven's Gates Hell's Flames there have been about 1,000 decisions made.
"I've heard the criticism that it is a scare tactic. I remind them that Scripture has addressed [the reality of heaven and hell]. All we're doing is bringing it to life. People don't realize that they aren't questioning the drama, they're questioning the Scripture."
"We need a healthy fear of hell," says Rogers. "People say that for a healthy fear of war, go see Saving Private Ryan. This drama features both heaven and hell. This is a Biblical message and we have a responsibility to warn people about the reality of hell."
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