7.5 Lessons I Learned About Outreach At Burning Man

September 1, 2012 — 4 Comments

The famous Burning Man Festival is happening right now in the desert north of Reno right now. About 50,000 people from all over the world are gathered together to celebrate – uh, all sorts of things. If you ask them, they will give lots of different answers as to why they are gathered together, but one thing is for sure, BM is a great place to connect with people who are in search of a spiritual connection.

As you watch the news footage about Burning Man on Labor Day, the lessons below might put things in better perspective.

There are two of the little known facts that people generally don’t know about me.

A. A few years ago I went with a team of friends to serve folks at Burning Man, and

B. I was a guest on the Jerry Springer Show. (Yes, you can see the episode on YouTube, but I’ll save the story for another article.)

Here are a few lessons I learned at the Burning Man festival when I was there with a team a couple of years ago.

1. Being around extreme people tends to beat negative religion out of a judgmental person like me.

We will not be effective in outreach as long as we carry around judgmental attitudes towards not-yet Believers. Pretty much all of us have some measure of a judgmental attitude, it’s just that we are in denial of that truth.

As far as outreach goes, it’s vital that we break free from the grip of negative, judgmental attitudes. When I use the “R” word, I’m referring to human attempts at making something spiritual happen without the power or presence of God. That kind of religion is common, but it is something God hates, something that people outside the Church hate and above all, something God despises.

Extreme people are a gift to Believers. God will bring Burning Man people into your life – not literally mind you – but those he will use to reshape you. Resist the temptation to isolate yourself and only hang out with those who think, look like you, drive cars like you and who work where you work.

2. We need big hearts for others if we hope to be successful in outreach.

You will never get a heart for others while you are stuck at home just thinking thoughts or reading books. Change happens when you get around others.

3. To be successful in outreach we need to destroy ridiculous myths we carry about regarding “Those kinds of people.”

Perhaps in all of our lives, there are some we categorize as ones who are impossible for God to reach. We think of them as “Those kinds of people.” They may be people who have wronged us, or maybe they have even done something wrong to all of America. We may feel obligated to dislike them.

As my friends and I drove up to the entrance gate of the BM event I was rubbing my eyes a bit like Mr. Magoo (if you have seen those cartoons of the nearsighted man on TV Land). I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was real. It was a scene that resembled what I imagined Woodstock would have been like only a few steps beyond that event. People sported fluorescent wigs and crazy get ups beyond that even.

I had always had categories in my mind – that there were “easy to reach” people, then there were the “hard to reach” ones. People at events like Burning Man were in the latter category because of what seemed to be their wild ways. But surprisingly, when I actually got around them, I quickly discovered they were super nice, very approachable, and in many ways, easier to reach out to than middle-class people I’d been reaching out to for decades in the suburbs across America. Go figure!

It was important that I just stop judging them, open my heart, talk to them, and most of all, listen to them. As my inner chatter stopped a bit he began to speak to me about his love for them.

4. To effectively connect with not-yet Believers, I have to be myself, with no attempts at looking any different than I really am.

In other words, I couldn’t have been anyone other than myself and gotten away with it. Folks at BM have a highly developed BS detector – even more sensitive than most others in the general culture.

Being myself is a high value for me, and probably for you as well. When I drove through the gates at BM I realized that this was not a place where you could fake it for a minute and get away with it.

As well as being transparent, the question was whether I was willing to be a little flexible and join in on the fun. Either you wore a neon wig or you didn’t! (Hey what’s wrong with that! You might look good in one yourself. “All things to all people…”)

5. To walk powerfully in outreach we need to be stirred with love for those outside of Christ.

God will give you a heart for others if you are open to being touched. Just ask him for his heart. He is in the business of touching hearts with his passion for others. Warning: His heart is sometimes offensive to your sensibilities and background.

6. Outreach – especially the practical kind – can connect with radical not-yet Believers more than church folks think is possible.

We found it fairly easy to connect with folks at BM. We reached out a couple of ways – the water give away as already mentioned and something pretty different that fit the BM crowd – Biblical Dream Interpretation. We saw some amazing responses. In a future entry I’ll blog about that unique outreach.

7. The Holy Spirit is strongly at work in the lives of not-yet Believers around us, no matter how they appear on the surface.

In addition to serving BM people, we followed that up with a simple question – “May I pray for you for ten seconds?” Many at BM had a different version of the spiritual world than us, but we brought them the Kingdom’s presence as we prayed for them – for ten seconds. Jesus prayed for less than ten seconds most of the time and amazing things happened.

7.5 Outreach is big fun!

We learned this important lesson. We gave ourselves permission to have fun as we loved and served others. One thing is super clear when you drive onto the grounds of BM – everyone there has come to play!

At a place like this you can’t take yourself too seriously. How often in life will you sit on a toilet only to notice later that your backside is completely covered in blue from the body painted person who went in before you. Hello! That was another blow to the remnant of negative religion in me.

We experienced the favor of God at this festival. We crossed paths with the founder of Burning Man and ended up hanging out with him. He liked us and, though I’m not sure he fully understood what we were doing in serving people with God’s love, he really loved our idea. We ended up hanging out with him for a while and in the end he asked one of our team guys to be on a regional board for him.

I’m not sure I’d recommend going to Burning Man willy nilly unless you feel called to serve and minister to people. If you do end up there, one thing’s for sure – God will “Mess” with your heart and mind and it will be difficult to be the same again. As it turns out that was something I desperately needed.

  • http://www.haitiheart.blogspot.com melinda

    Great teaching article. And brilliant graphics to go along with it. Thank you! (PS Was at the orientation in downtown L.A. today for the APU grad program in Urban Transformational Leadership and two of the students were from George Fox.)

  • Oengus

    This might seem very impertinent, and I beg your pardon for asking, but my curiosity has got the better of me and I feel compelled to find out.

    But did you have any hint, however faint, of conversions there? I mean anything remotely like a “change of mind” or something event a little like what I read about in 1 Thess 1:9? I mean, maybe, something like someone there saying “hey, you are right about this. I need to turn from my self-centered ways and follow the Christ you’re telling me about. When can I be baptized?”

    I am having a hard time explaining myself and I guess my question must sound really really silly; least of all do I mean to sound disparaging or critical in any way. I am glad that at least you had some fun and made some kind of effort. If I were there, I would just make a complete dunderhead of myself.

    I just wish I could know something a little more about the outcome. Please forgive my curiosity if it seems rude to you.

  • http://Stevesjogren.com Steve Sjogren

    People def responded to our sharing of the verblization of the gospel. I didn’t share it all in the article because it was already getting quite lengthy, but we did another outreach along with the water give away. We offered biblical dream interpretation. We were trained by pro interpreters who take biblical images people commomnly get in dreams, then we convey those when folks share their dreams. I could share a lot more about this – maybe will in a future entry – but was amazing how many shared remarkable yet obvious dreams of ahold calling people to relationship w him. Numbers prayed to receive Christ on the spot.
    In all fairness, our point in doing the water was to nudge people toward Christ – an entirely biblical notion – salvation is a process that takes time, especially w those far away – “Plant, water, harvest” – Progression – 1 Cor. 3:6

  • Oengus

    I am glad to hear more details. Thanks for the response.