By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
“That’s what stands out the most to me — seeing those reactions during the final scene,” said Cothran, now a member of Brentwood Baptist Church. “It was true and honest reactions from people who were realizing that their eternity was at stake.”
Creating those type of realizations is the very essence of Judgement House — a walk-through drama that guides attendees through a series of scenes, culminating with the depiction of the afterlife for believers and non-believers.
Since its inception in 1983, Judgement House has been presented in more than 600 different churches in the United States and has hosted more than five million attendees worldwide. It reached its high-water marks in the early 2000s, when it was produced in 32 states and about 10 foreign countries.
Although the ministry is not as prominent as it once was, Judgement House remains visible today, with roughly 100 churches in the United States, including seven churches in Tennessee, hosting the drama this year. (See below for list of churches in Tennessee that are hosting Judgement House).
“It’s been incredible,” said Tom Hudgins, who founded Judgement House with his wife, Karen. “In some ways, I can’t believe it’s still alive, to be honest. But God has really blessed it.”
In addition to helping attendees make life-changing decisions, Judgement House often has a lasting impact in the lives of church members, too. They become unified while working on, and praying for, the project.
Sammy Wallace, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church, Loretto, has seen that take place at his church, which is hosting Judgement House this month for the 18th consecutive year.
“It brings our whole church together,” said Wallace. “I’d say probably somewhere around 80 percent of our church takes part in this in some way, whether it be participating in the drama, serving as a guide, being involved in the prayerwalks or with the security and parking teams. There are also those who cook the meals (which are provided to those who work the event). So, it’s really everyone, from every age group, working together.”
At the end of each presentation, counselors are available for those who make decisions for Christ. Two years ago at First Baptist, Loretto, there was an average of one first-time profession for every 18-member group that went through the presentation. All told, Judgement House has helped more than 500,000 attendees become believers in its 34-year history.
“It’s not the drama that changes people’s lives, and it’s not great script writing,” said Hudgins. “It’s the spirit of God. That’s what changes people’s lives.”
Hudgins is now the pastor of a church plant in Clearwater, Fla. He continues to serve on the Judgement House board of directors, although he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day operations.
Hudgins worked full-time with Judgement House from 2000-2010, touring the country and giving training seminars. During that time, JH’s popularity reached peak levels, with an estimated 250 churches hosting the production each year in the United States. Productions were also held in Thailand, El Salvador, Jamaica and the Ukraine.
Judgement House, which is a registered trademark, began operating on a national level in 1988, when Hudgins founded the nonprofit organization, New Creation Evangelism Inc. Churches who wish to produce the drama become “covenant partners” with Judgement House, which provides the scripts and allows licensing of JH’s name and logo.
“People have asked me through the years, what makes Judgement House work?” said Hudgins. “And I think there are two things that make it successful: First of all, it’s very visual, which is so important to this generation. And secondly, it still works today because it takes all the church body coming together and operating in their own gifts and doing what they do well.”
Cothran, who participated in Judgement House as a member of his youth group at First Baptist Church in Norcross, Ga., said he remembers how the event galvanized the church.
“One of the most enjoyable aspects was just the fellowship with the people in our church,” he said.
Putting together a production of Judgement House requires hours and hours of preparation and, in some cases, perspiration (especially for those in charge of building the sets). But most of all, it requires prayer. And Hudgins believes that’s the key to JH’s success and longevity.
“The most important thing about Judgement House is that you have the people of God coming together to pray all night long,” said Hudgins. “When people pray, God shows up.”
In some cases, Judgement House is a joint effort, with multiple churches providing manpower and other support.
“We reach out to the other churches in the area, both Baptists and non-Baptists, to see if they want to have some of their members participate with us,” said Wallace about FBC Loretta’s production, which has hosted more than 1,600 attendees in the past two years.
Judgement House has sometimes been referred to as “a Christian alternative to haunted houses,” but that description is only partly accurate.
Yes, there is an intense “Hell scene” — which typically takes the attendees into a cramped, pitch-black room, where they hear the anguished cries of lost souls — but there are no real similarities with a tradional haunted house.
Instead of make-believe ghouls and vampires, Judgement House focuses on the very-real consequences of rejecting the gospel while portraying the fragility of life.
“To me, that’s what makes it effective,” said Cothran. “These days, people don’t want to hear things that don’t make them happy. But the truth is, there is sadness and sin in this world. It’s stuff that people don’t want to talk about, but they need to talk about.”
Through the years, Judgement House has been criticized for attempting to “scare people into Heaven.” But Hudgins said that’s a misperception.
“We’re not trying to scare anybody,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is to present what the Bible teaches about the reality of heaven, and also the reality of hell.
“I believe you have to tell people the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he said. “We are wanting to communicate what the Bible teaches about the reality of eternity. And from there, the choice is up to the individual.”
According to the Judgement House website, the following churches in Tennessee are covenant partners with the organization, and will be presenting Judgement House this year:
Bethlehem Baptist Church (Mercer, Tenn.)
First Baptist Church, Greeneville
First Baptist Church, Jamestown
First Baptist Church, Loretto
First Baptist Church, Rockwood
First Baptist Church, Selmer
First Baptist Church, White Pine
What is Judgement House?
FRANKLIN — Judgement House is a multi-scene, walk-through drama that culminates with a depiction of heaven and hell. Although the script changes each year, the premise consists of several central themes. In the first few scenes, several main characters have the opportunity to share, accept or reject Christ. In the following scenes, a tragedy occurs, taking the characters, along with the audience, into Judgement. Attendees are then taken through two eternal destinations — heaven and hell. The final portion of the presentation provides attendees with the opportunity to accept Christ. Those who make decisions can speak with an encourager/counselor. The Judgement House presentation takes approximately one hour to complete.
How did it start?
Tom and Karen Hudgins are the founders of Judgement House and presented it for the first time in 1983. At the time, Tom Hudgins was serving as youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Odenville, Ala. During a recent interview with the B&R, Hudgins said several of his youth had been involved with mischievous acts on Halloween night in the early 1980s, so he began developing ideas for something more constructive for them to do. When the youth suggested hosting a haunted house, Hudgins begin brainstorming about positive alternatives, and the concept of Judgement House soon arose and became an annual event. In 1988, Hudgins formed a non-profit organization called New Creation Evangelism Inc., and began extending Judgement House to a national level. Hudgins is now pastor of a church plant, Transformation 517, in Clearwater, Fla., but remains on the Judgement House board of directors.
How do churches start the process of hosting Judgement House?
The first step is to become a “covenant partner” with the Judgement House national network. Churches can then choose from Judgement House’s catalog of scripts, which includes more than 20 scripts. After becoming partners, churches have licensing rights to use the Judgement House logo and name. Churches are also eligible for training events and customer support. More information can be found at: http://judgementhouse.org/become-a-partner/what-is-a-partner.