“To Hell and Back,” an illustrated sermon that takes the audience on a journey to hell to meet those who have been condemned, has been a staple event of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit for over a decade. On Friday evening, thousands will watch the scary and insightful message yet again, and just in time for Halloween.
"To me, when you talk about hell, when you talk about demons and ghouls ... that's always seemed to be what Halloween has represented,” said Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, senior pastor of Greater Grace Temple, in an interview with The Christian Post on Thursday. “So we're trying to take it now and put a positive twist to Halloween."
Ellis says the event, which has been held on the Friday before Halloween for the last 13 years, isn't a drama but is an illustrated sermon composed of dramatic elements. “To Hell and Back” features an angel who guides Ellis through hell, where suffering sinners share their testimonies about how they lived their lives apart from God.
The bishop says the concept for the sermon came from another pastor, Tommy Barnett of Phoenix First Assembly of God in Arizona, who allowed him to adjust the script to make it more relevant to a primarily urban, African-American crowd. Among the characters who share their testimonies from hell are biblical names such as Judas Iscariot, Cain, and “the rich man” who treated Lazarus poorly, along with more contemporary individuals including “gang bangers,” a false prophet, a drunkard, a fornicator, homosexuals and an internet predator.
"There's some people who will only step in a church for a funeral,” Ellis said. “There are some people who will come to what they perceive to be a play, a dramatization, and we're very careful to say, 'This is not a play, even though it looks like a play. This is an illustrated sermon.'"
The first time the church put on the production in 1998, he says, around 3,000 people attended and approximately 400 people responded to an altar call. Some people stayed until 2:30 a.m. following the presentation, because 250 people lined up to get baptized that night.
He says, on average, between 350 to 500 people respond to the altar call every year, and between 60 and 90 people are baptized. Approximately 5,000 people pack into the 4,000 seat church each year to watch the living sermon illustration, and Greater Grace Temple also invites people far and wide to watch the event via a live internet broadcast through the church's website.
Not only is the concept intriguing, but the bishop says the production is of professional quality as well. It features high quality makeup, pyrotechnics, and skilled staging. He describes the makeup as gruesome, like something you might expect from Hollywood movies like “Night of the Living Dead.” The clothes, he says, are like those worn in the music video for Michael Jackson's “Thriller.”
"God has really blessed me with some skilled people who really helped to make this not a church basement play, but it is really a professional dramatization,” he said. A press release from the church says it takes over 100 people to put on the production, which was previously broadcast nationwide on The Word Network.
Though people can watch it live online, many travel hundreds of miles to see it in person. A travel agency in Columbus, Ohio, even offers annual trips to the event, Ellis says, and this year already has over 100 people who will travel on two buses signed up to come.
Though the quality of the production is high, and the church could easily charge for tickets, Ellis made it very clear that the event is a part of a ministry, so attendance is free. The church does take a “love offering” to cover its costs, but he doesn't want to hinder the free Gospel message by demanding money in exchange for a seat.