Re-Engaging the Dechurched: Lessons From Burning Man

Three themes from the annual festival that can help us better reach the younger, dechurched, spiritually seeking generation.

With as many as two-thirds of emerging adults (those ages 19 to 29) turning from their Christian upbringing, we are at a critical moment to understand why this is the case and to begin to reach out to these dechurched individuals in such a way as to recapture their image of the true God.

A team from the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism (BGCE) journeyed to Burning Man earlier this year to learn more about this community, research the dechurched and share God’s love. Many of the 70,000 people who attend Burning Man attend the event in order to express their creativity, find community and seek spiritual encounters. Ninety percent of the people the BGCE team interviewed were from mainline Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. They are, at this point, very dechurched. Most attended church in high school and earlier, but were never captured by the church. They are not hostile, just disinterested. They are spiritual, but not religious.

Here are three themes that emerged as we interviewed “Burners.” We believe these can help us better reach out to the younger, dechurched, spiritually seeking generation.

1. Many Burners are looking for the opportunity to express, in a context of radical acceptance, sides of themselves they have ignored, repressed or discounted. The church is not often perceived as a place of radical acceptance (or radical grace) toward people as they are. The church for Burners will have to practice a radical grace and acceptance that will be surprising for people who long to express “new” selves.

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2. For many Burners, the good news they are longing to discover relates to achieving wholeness and expanded consciousness. They long to feel whole, connected to others and to the world. The church for Burners will have to bring the healing and transformed consciousness (mind) that Jesus so often modeled in his ministry and community.

3. Many Burners are looking for a faith that is integrated with their bodies, sexuality, minds, hearts, creativity, imaginative sides and larger social and cosmic environments. For many, the church seems more focused on managing behavior and controlling thinking through dogma. The church for Burners will have to express a positive vision for the arts, imagination, sexuality, intuition, the cosmos and the interconnectedness of all humanity.

Dr. Rick Richardson is evangelism fellow at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and director of and professor in the M.A. in Evangelism and Leadership and the M.A. in Missional Church Movements programs at Wheaton College.