COMMENTARY | Chase Abner
Note: This article originally appeared on Collegiate Collective, a new resource that features articles, podcasts, and videos designed to equip leaders to advance the gospel on college campuses.
Okay. Here’s my qualification to talk about Halloween on campus: I served as a campus minister for seven years in Carbondale. Beginning in the 1980s, Carbondale became known for its raucous Halloween celebrations. In fact, most folks these days refer to them as “the riots.” Cars got turned over. Store windows were busted. Bottles were thrown at police. After a particularly violent weekend in 2000, city officials closed the bars on “the Strip” each Halloween in hopes that it would discourage the behavior. Instead, students just celebrated a week earlier in what is now infamously “Unofficial Halloween” (or simply “Unofficial” if you’re a cool kid).
Even this year, Unofficial got bonkers and police showed up in riot gear to mace and pepper spray the crowd after a car got turned over just blocks from campus.
I never found an effective way to engage students during Unofficial outside of throwing my own tamer Halloween party. I can’t talk about that or I’ll draw the ire of my more fundamentalist friends. However, I can talk about what I think students’ fascination with Halloween reveals about culture on campus.
Part of what makes haunted houses and scary movies enticing to people is the notion that there are malicious spirits that walk among us. In some ways, it’s a subtle rejection of the naturalistic worldview that can be common on campus, especially among those immersed in the physical sciences. Even as Dawkins-flavored atheists/agnostics become more vocal, research shows that the majority of Millennials believe in God with “absolute certainty.”
While it may be disconcerting to see students toy with the concept of evil spirits for the sake of entertainment, I encourage you to see it as a bridge to talk about Christ. Christians, of all people, should be ready to affirm the existence of a paranormal reality and to point others to the one who is ultimately victorious over evil.
Research by the National Retail Federation predicts that 67.4% of 18-24-year-olds will spend money on Halloween costumes this year. These young adults predict that they’ll each spend about $40 on their costumes. I guarantee that these students aren’t going to shell out that much cash to get all dressed up and have nowhere to go.
The point of wearing a costume is to join the throngs of costumed students in the campus community – to see and be seen. Halloween reveals, almost as well as athletic events, that students want to be a part of a community rallying around a common purpose. Like all people, they have an innate desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to belong and they want to celebrate.
Our ministries have so much more to offer that desire than Halloween can provide. We can provide ongoing community that is centered around an eternal purpose realized in the mission of God.
When I try to figure out what might motivate a college student to don a costume and go make mischief (like tipping a car over or assaulting police officers, cf. “Unofficial” above), one answer that comes to mind is boredom. I think a lot of the trouble students get into at Halloween stems from the extended adolescence that finds fertile ground during college. Without a clear path to make a difference in the world, many students will use their freedom from immediate parental guidance to indulge some of our basest desires simply for lack of something better to do.
One way that our ministries can serve students (even before they know Jesus) is to provide them with opportunities to make a positive impact in the surrounding community. These students may not ever be ready to teach Bible studies, but they can read to underprivileged children, clean up litter, or clean out gutters for the elderly. Imagine the Gospel-centered conversations that could occur between students as they do community projects together. Imagine the good that could be done for your city if you find a way to channel bored students’ talents and energy into a Kingdom-focused alternative.
I know some will accuse me of over-thinking things. “Can’t Halloween just be about fun, Chase?” Of course it can, but even the desire for fun reveals something about the human condition, no? We all chase various things in hopes of being satisfied. So whether students are seeking supernatural affirmation that there’s more to life than what they see…or a sense of belonging with others…or an escape from a routine, meaningless existence…the Gospel of the Kingdom offers more than they could dream.
So, this weekend, I’m not asking you to ruin anyone’s Halloween fun. But as you observe the celebration (and probably mischief) in your campus community, let it freshly awaken you to why you’re there and why collegiate ministry matters.
Chase Abner is collegiate evangelism strategist for the Illinois Baptist State Association.