Come Halloween, costumed witches and goblins won't be haunting Bethel Baptist Church in Ellicott City -- the Rev. Bruce A. Romoser says they're not welcome.
Instead, he wants children to dress as shepherds, angels and other biblical figures as part of an alternative, Christian-themed event known as "Hallelujah Night."
"We don't want them to come as witches . . . Frankenstein . . . no kinds of evil costumes," said Mr. Romoser, who is concerned about what he sees as the emphasis on evil in some more traditional Halloween observances.
Halloween falls on Oct. 31, the day before All Saints' Day in the Christian tradition, and now is a holiday of pranks and trick or treating.
But the roots of the celebration lie in an ancient Celtic festival marking the new year and welcoming the spirits of the dead.
This year, Mr. Romoser decided that Bethel should take part in the Hallelujah Night event, which was begun 10 years ago by the Rev. Willie George of Tulsa, Okla.
Bethel is one of 180 churches in the Baltimore-Washington area that paid $29.95 each for a director's guide to Hallelujah Night, said Kim Terrell, marketing director for Willie George Ministries.
Over the years, he said, more than 1 million Americans have participated in Hallelujah Night.
"Our idea is to show [children] fun that's healthy, rather than fun that can lead to evil," Mr. Romoser said. "The devil doesn't have to have all the fun time."
Bethel's Hallelujah Night, the first for the 200-member church, will begin at 6 p.m. Sunday at the church, 4261 Montgomery Road, and will feature treats and a costume contest.
Adults are asked to wear western-theme costumes to coincide with a Wild West videotape. Children are asked to wear costumes with biblical themes, though they also will be allowed to dress in clown suits or other costumes that convey what is called a positive image.
As Bethel offers its alternative to Halloween, other county churches plan haunted houses and more typical Halloween parties. Ministers at those churches view the traditional Halloween events as innocuous fun.
"I personally don't see Halloween as being an evil thing," said the Rev. Sidney Venable, pastor of Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City. "Certainly, I don't agree with some of the pranks."
He recalled that when he lived in Tennessee, vandals sometimes burned barns on Halloween night, which he called "deplorable."
Stephen P. Bryant, pastor at Emory United Methodist Church, said he, too, sees nothing wrong with harmless traditional Halloween events.
"It takes all the fears out of goblins, and we make fun of them," he said. That in itself is a strong statement of Christianity, he said, showing that "we have nothing to fear but God."
Mr. Bryant said he does not oppose alternative celebrations but that people need to remember Halloween itself is merely the lead-in to a religious holiday honoring the saints.
"Yeah, there are critics on both sides," said Mr. Terrell of Willie George Ministries, "but the Bible is real clear about what you pay attention to and what you pour your life into."
Halloween, in his view, is essentially a celebration of the devil, rather than a celebration of the Lord.
"Instead of discouraging kids from celebrating Halloween, we encourage kids to celebrate Jesus in church," Mr. Terrell said.
Mr. Romoser said he is aware that critics might say he is taking Halloween too seriously, but he warned that "evil is very serious."
Even the seemingly innocent custom of trick or treating could pose moral problems, he said.
"Trick or treat says, 'If you don't treat me, I'll trick you,' " Mr. Romoser said. Children "need to learn how to be blessed and not cursed," he said.
Some adult Bethel members might reject the Halloween alternative, he said, and let their children wear traditional costumes and go trick or treating.
But he added, "There's got to be families out there who want alternatives and don't want to say, 'You can't dress up and can't go out because it's the devil's night out.' "
Vickie Linehan, of Ellicott City is one such parent.
She doesn't oppose trick or treating but likes the Halloween alternative because it changes the emphasis from what she views as the evil usually associated with Halloween.
"Quite frankly, in our house I don't want to give Satan the room," the Bethel Baptist member said. Instead, her three children will dress as a cowboy, a ballerina and Robin Hood on Halloween.