CHICAGO, IL (September 14, 2015) — Days after returning from working on her research project at the weeklong Burning Man festival, Beth Seversen was still recovering. She had endured extreme heat, cold nights, and days of swirling sandstorms that made seeing beyond several feet impossible.
An estimated 70,000 people traveled from around the world to reside in Black Rock City, which is erected in the middle of the Nevada desert for the festival and completely dismantled at the end. Participants come to dance, create, and engage in various bacchanalian pleasures. Many wear avant-garde costumes.
It also is a place where many are seeking a deeper spiritual encounter. Larry Harvey, who founded Burning Man in the mid-1980s believes the festival and the ongoing communities around the world it has birthed can change the world. He is an atheist. While he says he doesn’t believe in a supreme being, he believes that “Being is Supreme.”
Seversen went with two fellow researchers, seeking answers to two questions: “What are the emerging spiritualities that are beginning to replace Christian faith in the West for the dechurched and unchurched?” and, “Who is reaching people with those spiritualities, and how are they doing it?”
“I’m interested not only in the tale of two camps but how to translate the gospel to Burners and about what attracts them to the spiritualities they dabble in and what backgrounds they are coming out of,” Seversen said.
This was Seversen’s third research trip to Burning Man. She and one of her co-researchers, Rick Richardson previously taught an elective at Wheaton College called Cultural Hermeneutic Practicum to Burning Man, which included traveling to Black Rock City with eight students. “The students spent mornings at Burning Man studying cultural exegesis and afternoons doing evangelism ministry,” Seversen said.
In a blog post, Richardson wrote, “This world-changing vision is shaped by ten values, many of them worthy of Scripture, including radical inclusion (what Christians call grace!), community effort, civic responsibility, and leaving no trace on the environment. Burners also practice a culture of gifting (everyone brings a gift to the community, reminiscent of the body of Christ). They also practice decommodification: nothing and no one can be bought and sold at Burning Man, except for the coffee and ice at Center Camp.”
“People line up to receive a spiritual blessing,” Seversen said. “There is such an openness to being prayed over. After you’ve prayed over them, they’ll go and get their friends.”
Seversen said she was impressed by those who attended in order to share the gospel. “People are stepping out in way that are uncomfortable for them.”
She said that what the researchers are learning at Burning Man will aid evangelism far beyond Black Rock and among more people than just the Burners. She noted that a lot of the people attending were coming from Christian and Jewish backgrounds and believed their religious heritage held no future for them, which is the case for an increasing number of millennials.