by Rick Richardson
My Introduction to Burning Man
In the spring of 2010 I received a call from my son, who lived in Denver. For several years, he had been “spiritual but not religious.” He would say he loves God and seeks to give his life to God and God’s purposes, but he had also been influenced by the spiritual trends in the Denver area.
He started talking to me about a new experience where a lot of spiritual but not religious people gathered and were on a journey of seeking together. He started telling me about Burning Man—a gathering of 70,000 people in the desert of Nevada, in a place called Black Rock City. For the week leading up to Labor Day, this desert becomes the largest city in the state.
It is a temporary city, filled with RVs and tents and art cars and edgy musicians. The city is built around a desert playa that becomes a stage for performers, for a temple celebrating the lives of many who have died, and for a 90-foot constructed electronic and wooden statue of a man that is burned on the next to last evening of the festival.
In order to be with my son and connect with the significant arts and self-expression festival, I decided to attend. I also decided to bring a few students to learn about this cultural cutting-edge event and to connect with and reach out to seeking people.
A number of things stunned our little team from Wheaton College that week. For one, we had the impression that Burning Man was a big weeklong party where marijuana would be in plenteous supply and clothing would be somewhat optional.
What struck us first were the ten principles upon which Burning Man is founded, including community, inclusion, no trace left behind, gift-giving, and resistance to the commodification so pervasive in American society. For instance, nothing was bought and sold except coffee and ice in center camp. And everywhere you went, people gave you gifts and affirmed you and were open to receiving whatever you had to give.
Our team gave spiritual blessings. We prayed for and blessed people, called out the good in them, and spoke about God and his son, Jesus.
One camp I passed by was called the science of churchology. I walked up to a man wearing a white collar and discovered that he called himself Messiah, though he did so in a self-deprecating way. One of his followers was passing the plastic bin as a collection bucket, and when I engaged her in conversation, I had a sense that she had a broken heart. I mentioned this to her, and she broke down in tears. I asked if I could pray for her and she shared that her boyfriend had broken up with her the night before, stomping her heart to pieces.
In our prayer time, I invited the Holy Spirit to minister to her and affirmed God’s love and Jesus’ embrace. With tears in her eyes, she said that prayer time and our conversation was the reason she came to Burning Man. She was seeking a voice beyond herself—the very voice of God.
At the end of the week, I was able to pray for the 25 young people in my son’s Seed of Denver community. Along with another team member, I was able to deeply minister to and give fatherly blessing to many young people who had been absent from church for some years. I am still regularly praying and sharing with his friends even today. It was a work of God!
The Rise of the Dechurched
When we returned home, I began to reflect on the meaning of my experience. I realized that many of the young people at Burning Man were developing alternative spiritualities that were beginning to replace the inadequate versions of Christian faith they had gotten from earlier days in various churches.
According to Barna research, 43% of Americans are no longer connected in any meaningful way to a church. Of that 43%, most (totaling 33% of Americans) could be called dechurched. Many of the dechurched in our culture are seeking alternative ways to fill the spiritual void in their lives. Burning Man is filled with such seekers, so I decided to keep attending in order to learn why the church had never captured or compelled them, how they thought about Jesus, and who at Burning Man might be reaching them with the gospel and with a church to which they could understand and connect.
I went back the next year alone because we were not able to get tickets for the team I had planned to take. Burning Man has become a huge event, often with 40,000 tickets selling in the first five minutes of sales. So in 2011, I spent the week with my son’s community and began to learn and understand the worldview that many had.
Most had found church to be an alienating experience—dogmatic, exclusive, and irrelevant when it came to understanding the longings of their generation and healing the hurts that many had from difficult family backgrounds. They were looking for a connection to something bigger than themselves and a community that understood and embraced them, and they had never found that in a church. They were also looking for a place to express their creativity and their artistic proclivities in ways they felt the church had never welcomed.
I decided to go again and to begin to involve more students. So in 2012, my colleague, Beth Seversen, and I, took eight Wheaton College Intercultural Studies MA students to the desert for a course in ministry to people embracing alternative spiritualities. We explored how the gospel could be contextualized in this kind of a culture.
At Burning Man, our students were challenged, better understood some of the cultural shifts our country is experiencing, and received basic tools for ministering in a world where alternative spiritualities are more common in Western contexts.
In 2013, we shifted our focus. Beth and I took a research team to Burning Man to begin formalizing what we have been learning about people with alternative spiritualities and how to reach them. Out of that trip came a 30-minute documentary that Lorna Dueck, one of our students, developed. This video was shown on national Canadian television and received a very positive response from across the country.
Fast Forward to 2015…
This year, we are returning with a small team to more deeply develop our research and begin writing articles. Our end goal is a book to help the Church understand the alternative spiritualities people are beginning to pursue, and how to communicate and contextualize the good news about Jesus into that context.
We will be asking two main questions at Burning Man:
- What are the alternative spiritualities that dechurched people in Western contexts are embracing that are replacing their Christian backgrounds?
- What are Christians at Burning Man doing to effectively and powerfully reach people who are embracing those new spiritualities?
The trip will be a tale of two camps. We will be connecting to one camp called Sacred Spaces that has become a kind of spiritual center for many attending Burning Man. We will also be connecting with Freedom Lounge, a camp of Christian young people that has been at Burning Man all the years I have been there. Freedom Lounge has effectively prayed for and applied the gospel into the lives of Burners so that many have come to Christ and profoundly touched by the Holy Spirit. The language and ministry patterns at Freedom Lounge might seem very nontraditional, but they are seeing many Burners encouraged and helped in their journey toward God.
One of the great benefits for me over the past six years is that my relationship with my son has deepened profoundly. He and I have both learned from one another. He has taught me much about the longings of his community and in many ways, his generation. And I have seen him deepen in his prayer life and his longing for God and responsiveness to Jesus.
Additionally, I have loved seeing what God has done in my students over the years. And I am very excited about how God might use what we are learning for the extension of His kingdom in our world today. May God be glorified in this journey.
Would you like to learn more about journey and pray for us? We would love it. Just visit our Billy Graham Center for Evangelism Burning Man webpage.
Dr. Rick Richardson (@reimaginer) is a professor at Wheaton College and director of the MA in Evangelism and Leadership and the MA in Missional Church Movements degrees. He is also evangelism fellow for the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. Rick consults widely with churches on evangelism and healing and reconciliation for the emerging generation and on contemporary missional churches and missional movements.