There may be legitimate reasons for charging for some events, for example, if you are bringing in a professional Christian comedian or speaker—someone has to pay for their time and expenses. However, in most instances, I believe strongly that it communicates an incorrect message if a church charges (or even asks for donations) at a ministry event.
Fall Festival mixed message
I recently looked at an advertisement for a Church Fall Festival. It was going to be an alternative Halloween event, something that is always popular with the community. I was told that in years past this church put on the event as free community outreach, but this year things were different. The person showing me the invitation card was concerned and here's why:
The invitation said: "Fun, games, food, candy for all!" and in big letter, "No entry fee"
In much smaller letters it said, "There will be a small charge for food, candy not included."
"There will be a charge for professional photos at the event."
What's wrong with that?
Times are still really hard for lots of folks and it was not only a very confusing message, but I think one unworthy of the gospel. Let's look at the food charge first and then the photography one.
About the food:
It was confusing because it was not clear what is free and what isn't? Does that mean if you are struggling and jobless, your kids can go and get free candy, but sorry, no hot dogs, chips, or drinks for your kids?
How much is a small charge? For people without work or underemployed, what might seem like a "small charge" might mean the equivalent cost of half a week's groceries (you can buy a lot of food at your local 99 cent store for five dollars).
About the photography:
Several years ago, Group Publishing had a fantastic Halloween outreach program where they encouraged churches to take pictures of kids who came to the alternative Halloween program and then to mail them to the families in a complementary frame after the event. This was a wonderful way to get names and contact information and then to give back to guests. What a wonderful basis for building a relationship with unchurched people!
But this one....totally different. A professional will charge you for photos. That would accomplish NOTHING in terms of outreach and again has the potential of making some little kids feel sad and left out.
Why both are unworthy of the gospel
What really bothers me about both of these items is their obvious disregard for "the least of these." Whoever wrote or approved these charges is obviously not struggling with not being able to pay for many things for their kids.
I hate (forgive the strong word, but I think this deserves it) hate, hate it when children come to a church "outreach" event, and then some of them cannot have what others have because they can't afford it.
Maybe a family comes to the event having eaten a really little dinner. Yes, the kids can get candy, but they aren't allowed the hot dogs, chips, and drinks other kids are having. What does a mom say when her child asks, "Mom, why can't I have a hot dog?"
Maybe a family would really like a picture of their child at Halloween, but again, if you have not done without, you may not realize that a camera digital or throw-away may simply not be part of what you can afford.
That family gets to watch those who have money get professional pictures taken. A child may not understand the fee system and may make the mistake of asking, "Mommy, I want my picture taken, can I get it?"
What could have been a pleasant night out for the family becomes one more embarrassment because they don't have money.
What to do about it
For any church holding an outreach event, I would advise:
- If you can't afford to give things away to everyone, don't offer them to some.
- If your church can't afford to do some things and some folks really want to offer them, challenge them to raise the money to pay for it. Though many people struggle today financially, many others are doing just great. It doesn't cost a whole lot to buy dozens of hot dogs and soda. If you can't trust God to raise money for that, your church has more problems than a lack of funds for Halloween food.
- If you can't afford to pay for a "professional" photographer, go with amateur and free. Most people would love something simple, fancy isn't what's needed. Memories don't require professional polish to be meaningful.
What would Jesus do? That saying has of course been overused, but in this situation, the answer is quite obvious. At His table, when he was on the earth and forever, everyone is invited, everything is free. Jesus truly paid it all.....and the only required response is that we come.