A View from the Pew: 5 Questions to Help Plan Your Fall Festival

In the “before times,” when pandemics were far-fetched movie plots, churches looked for ways to gather for fellowship outside of Sunday worship. It was an added bonus if it could involve people outside of the church because then you could call it “outreach.”

One event that was previously the exclusive territory of schools and community organizations was the fall festival. Over the last 20-30 years, though, this once purely secular mainstay on our fall calendars has shifted to a church-owned and operated activity. Regardless of who runs it, a good fall festival can be an annual highlight for the church and the community.

As churches navigate the fragile state of “returning to normal,” they have to make decisions about any number of events, but given that the calendar officially flips over to fall this week, the fall festival may be on your mind. You may be re-evaluating all of your church’s activities in light of COVID-19, but even apart from those very serious and necessary concerns, it’s worth taking a look at what your church’s fall festival is all about.

To help with that thought process, here are 5 questions for your committee or staff to consider:

Should we continue having it? If your church is feeling the effects of volunteer burnout, this is a valid question. Sometimes a year off is all you need to approach an annual tradition with renewed focus and energy. The worst answer to this question is “Yes, we should because we always have.” A better criterion is the trend in participation. If it’s trending downward, don’t expect it to magically turn around without adopting new strategies to attract attendance. COVID safety concerns alone could be enough to diminish participation. If you see interest and commitment to the fall festival waning, this could be the year to take a break to evaluate the event’s future.

When should it be? The best answer to this question lies at the intersection of school calendars, community events, and the weather. It helps to have copies of the local schools’ calendars and even the college football schedule on hand when picking a date. Participation can be adversely affected by an unforeseen youth soccer tournament, school event, or football rivalry. Some churches have great success with midweek events as a part of Wednesday night activities while others can attract a crowd on Saturdays. Know what dates and times works best for your congregation and plan accordingly.

What is the purpose? This question can be asked about every event your church organizes. Knowing what you are trying to accomplish influences every aspect of your fall festival from the menu to the promotion. If the purpose is for church members to get together and enjoy each other’s company and fellowship, you do not need a lot of community promotion. If you are hoping it will be an outreach to the community, you need to put time and money into getting the word out through a variety of channels. A good starting place is signage and social media, but depending on how large a scale you have in mind, it may include advertising and local business sponsorships.

Who is it for? It’s best to decide if you’ll host a children’s event or a children-of-all-ages event before you book a clown, chalk artist, or bounce house. Some of the decisions that flow from knowing your target age range are obvious. The seniors won’t be in the bounce house—for the most part. But how you plan the program will be directly related to who you want to attend. If the answer is “everyone!” that’s fine. Just make sure your entertainment and recreation plans reflect that. Beyond age, it’s important to know if this is for the church folks or the community. You’ll know the answer better if you’ve worked through the previous question about the event’s purpose. Be sure to have a good handle on who you are doing the event for because your plan can have a fatal flaw on this point if you’re not careful.

How much should it cost? I don’t have a magic formula, but I do have plenty of examples of churches not having this conversation ahead of time and expenses running amok. If you are planning to use the event as an outreach, you may be able to tap into other budget line items, but that doesn’t mean those are effective uses of those dollars. How churches minister to their communities and the world is often measured in spending. Be careful not to invest too heavily in entertaining yourself at the expense of serving a world in need.

Whatever your Fall Festival 2021 looks like, be sure to keep the deacons out of the cider, don’t fall off the hayride, and look out for folks getting lost in the corn maze. My prayer is that we’ll all soon be able to attend fall festivals COVID-free.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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