by Beth Seversen, with Rick Richardson
(Editor’s note: With this blog post we continue our series, “The Stories within the Story.” Each article will include how to use specific passages and stories in scripture in gospel witness.”)
I had an experience of not only sharing a parable to reach someone, but even more of praying and becoming part of a parable to reach someone. And of all places, it happened at Burning Man. Could we do the same where we are?
Imagine for a moment the Burning Man festival—70,000 people, many young adults, creating a city on the Nevada playa where there is only desert. It includes:
…and flying machines
…and big beautiful moving art cars
…and animated creatures.
It is also a place:
…where dance and song and speeches and art and creativity and beauty are valued and celebrated
…where the ten core values include no consumerism, leave no trace, and community
…where everyone participates and no one is left out
…where when you meet someone, he or she immediately kisses you on both sides of your cheek and begins talking and moving quickly to things of the heart, of weighty things that matter.
Burning Man is also a gift giving community. People will walk up to you and give you all kinds of things. Often, it is the jewelry they are wearing, their scarf, food, or anything they think will bless and encourage you. It is quite remarkable.
Burning Man is much like the Kingdom of God, though it is a fallen kingdom.
We have traveled to Burning for the past several years and have had rich experiences of reaching out to emerging adults who are practicing diverse spiritualities.
On one outing, I saw a scantily-clad woman watching one of our students pray for people. As I watched her, her interest turned to a sense of longing. As people lined up to pray with our student, the line was getting longer and longer. So I walked up to the woman and said, “Tell me about you, tell me your story. I would love to hear your story, where you are in your journey, and what bought you to Burning Man.” I learned that the woman’s husband had recently abandoned her and that she was starting life over. I then asked if I might give the woman a gift of prayer. She was open, welcoming, and interested.
As I prayed for her, God gave her an image of the Prodigal Father. So I simply prayed over her what I visualized: this image of a dignified Middle Eastern man in an arid context (like Burning Man!). And he was running to welcome home his son and his robes were flapping in the wind and here we were out in the middle of this windy playa. The father embraced his son and was eagerly welcoming and forgiving him for his waste and his self-destructive lifestyle. There was no shame and blame in the story. The Father was welcoming him home and celebrating his return.
I prayed for her that she might know and experience in the same way God as Father, as the forgiver of anything she had done that troubled her, as the restorer of her life and repairer of it, the one who can put her life back together again and make it beautiful and transform her pain.
As I prayed, I felt my hands getting wet and I looked up, startled. This abandoned woman was weeping! Tears were streaming down her face onto my hands. After we prayed, we had a wonderful time of unpacking the story from the Gospels. It is a mirror, a lens that Jesus gave us so we might know what the Father is like.
My reaction to that evangelism experience was: “Jesus, you are so utterly amazing!”
Here is Jesus, the master repairer, putting the broken pieces back together and healing.
Here is the Holy Spirit, speaking and leading and creating connection and ministering in power.
Here is experience before explanation, and meeting someone a long way away from openness to the organized church in a way that speaks to where she is on the spectrum of spiritual openness and in a language she could understand.
Here is a word from God, from beyond herself, that spoke to who she is and that she is loved and connected, and that there is hope.
When we think of parables in the process of evangelism, we should think about going beyond mere telling. Perhaps we should pray them with people. Perhaps we can even enact them with people.
Stories have power, especially when we become part of the story.
Beth Seversen is former associate director of the MA in Evangelism and Leadership and MA in Missional Church Movements programs at Wheaton College. She is an adjunct professor at Wheaton, where she teaches Introduction to Evangelism for undergraduates. She is pursuing a doctorate in intercultural studies, researching evangelizing churches and the factors that make churches evangelistically effective.
Rick Richardson (@reimaginer) is associate professor of intercultural studies at Wheaton College and director of the MA in Evangelism and Leadership and the MA in Missional Church Movements degrees. Rick consults widely with churches on evangelism and healing and reconciliation for the emerging generation and on contemporary missional churches and missional movements.