I pull oversized goggles over my eyes and secure the bandana covering my nose and mouth. Squinting, I follow the outline of the caped man on the bike in front of me as a blinding dust storm threatens to render me sightless. Human forms covered in fur coats and blinking LED lights pass me on bicycles as we move forward, and a looming shape that turns out to be a giant shark-shaped car pumps electronic music into the swirling desert wind around us.
How did I end up in this surreal landscape?
It started with the caped man ahead of me. He’s Dr. Rick Richardson, director of the Wheaton College Graduate School’s M.A. in Evangelism and Leadership program and professor of evangelism at Wheaton since 2005. Rick, along with Beth Seversen, associate director of Wheaton’s Evangelism and Leadership program and a guest faculty member, have led multiple teams of Wheaton graduate students since 2010 into the Black Rock Desert outside Reno, Nevada, to participate in an annual festival called “Burning Man.”
These Wheaties join tens of thousands of people from all over the globe who converge in the desert for a week to create “Black Rock City,” a camping settlement that brings people together to pursue creativity, self-expression, community, spirituality, and self-reliance.
Wheaton’s teams of students and faculty attend Burning Man to teach intensive classes and to conduct evangelism-related research. Interested in the distinctive cultural milieu and burgeoning forms of experimental spirituality that have grown up around the gathering since its genesis in 1986, Rick and Beth hope to translate their research into scholarly journal articles and eventually a book to help Christians reach a group of people often distant from the church.
While the innovative costumes, audacious art, and harsh weather might make Burning Man seem like an odd context to find two research professors from Wheaton College, Rick and Beth consider it a rich landscape for learning.
“There may be a lot of Christian institutions that would say, ‘Well, that’s a little risky; we don’t know if we want to be associated with that,’” Rick says of Burning Man. “But I have always found Wheaton leadership to be completely supportive, because Wheaton loves the gospel. Wheaton has blessed our going because they love to reach out across boundaries and cultures to engage people that we’d love to see come to know Christ.”
Dr. Nicholas Perrin, dean of the Wheaton College Graduate School and Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies, helps explain why Wheaton supports sending evangelism and leadership faculty and students to such a landscape.
“Reality as we know it has been changing at an in-credibly rapid pace,” Dr. Perrin says. “We want our evangelism and leadership students to understand these changes, as well as general principles for reading a culture and becoming a catalyst for change. Wheaton’s presence at Burning Man may raise an eyebrow among those of us who are locked into a more staid culture. But of course Jesus’ own cutting-edge ministry raised a few eyebrows in his own day. I am grateful for our gifted, passionate researchers whose determination to be Jesus today will prepare us all to follow Jesus more closely tomorrow.”
Indeed, this crossing of cultures for the sake of the gospel is what has always driven Wheaton’s involvement with Burning Man. Rick’s initial participation came out of a desire to connect with Richard ’16, his son and a long-time Burning Man attendee, and Rick now sees the potential Burning Man has to serve as a laboratory for understanding alternative spiritualities cropping up among today’s emerging adults."
"Burning Man helps me to teach about how culture is changing,” Rick says. “It’s helped me understand what’s happening in our broader culture, and it’s helped me communicate and teach that to students so we can contextualize the gospel.”
Contextualization of biblical truth has a rich history in Christian missions. Beth compares the Wheaton approach at Burning Man to that of 16th-century Jesuits, who sought to respectfully engage the culture of the Chinese people to whom they hoped to evangelize. Cultural accommodation for the Jesuits included everything from learning a new language to adopting new styles of dress—and a similar phenomenon is taking place at Burning Man.
“You’ll see many of the Christians at Burning Man in costumes, because this is a costume-wearing community,” Beth says. “Christians here are also trying to use fresh language for those who have been supersaturated in Christian culture and are very turned off by ‘Christianese’ jargon.”
In 2012, Beth taught an intensive course at Burning Man that she and Rick co-designed addressing cultural hermeneutics. The coursework facilitated cultural critique and understanding, as well as hands-on ministry while at Burning Man. Eight students from Wheaton’s Christian formation and ministry, evangelism and leadership, TESOL, and intercultural studies master’s programs participated in the course.
During their trip to Burning Man in 2013, Rick and Beth conducted ethnographic interviews targeting emerging spiritualities in 19- to 29-year-olds. They learned that many spiritually seeking Burners were piecing together unique worldviews made up of elements from Buddhism, New Age spirituality, Judeo-Christian traditions, and more. The objective for this year’s trip was to conduct research with Chris-tians carrying out ministry at Burning Man.
Kerilee Van Schooten ’14, M.A. ’15 claims that Burning Man will have a “lasting impact” on her. After spending the week conducting interviews alongside Rick and Beth and participating in the creative spirit of Burning Man by sharing original poetry at an open mic session, Kerilee says, “I would go back in a heartbeat! There are a lot of people who have grown up in a religious context but haven’t met the side of Jesus that makes them come alive. Being part of the evangelism and leadership program at Wheaton equipped me to engage subcultures like this one on their own terms and empowered me to communicate the gospel in fresh ways.”
According to Rick, Kerilee’s response isn’t unusual for Wheaton students who journey to Burning Man. “Students get a new heart for the gospel,” Rick says. “They get a feel for new ways to communicate Christ to others.”
Beth and Rick appreciate this exchange of gifts—humbly learning from Burners through research and relationship, while also seeking to share gospel truths with them—both emotionally and intellectually.
“I think there’s always something to learn in this community,” Beth says. “It’s a growing culture, and one we need to be alert to and learn from. I want to see these people, who are imprinted with the image of God, fall in love with the gospel.”
Wheaton’s Office of Christian Outreach
Wheaton College's Office of Christian Outreach (OCO)
“Not all attempts to approach people with hopes to eventually share the gospel are ‘successful’—sometimes it’s awkward, and there isn’t a chance to share. The point is to be faithful and to reach out anyway.” Nathaniel Mullins ’16 and Jon Zeldenrust ’15 shared this sentiment in June 2015 as they reflected on their journey backpacking through Europe as part of Wheaton’s Youth Hostel Ministry (YHM). The ministry, which seeks to offer friendship, evangelism, and service to the traveling communities of Europe, requires that student participants become travelers themselves as they seek to enter into honest conversations with other globetrotters about living a life of Christian faith.
Remaining willing to talk about their beliefs with grace—even when faced with rejection or just plain embarrassment—was a challenge for these two and their teammates throughout the summer. As Franklin Ballenger, volunteer outreach coordinator for Wheaton’s Office of Christian Outreach (OCO), notes, “Many students have never seen or heard of evangelism done well and often have misconceptions or fears about it.”
Despite negative connotations for some, dozens of students like Nathaniel and Jon are encountering a new vision of evangelism through the OCO, which is dedicated to helping Wheaton students learn through serving the communities around them. Directed by Reverend Brian Medaglia, the OCO houses six fully Wheaton-run ministry programs and works with over 70 local partners with which Wheaton students can volunteer.
“I want students to know that service is not just something they prepare to be involved in after graduation, but should be integrated into their Wheaton College experience now,” says Brian. “An important outcome for students in OCO programs is for them to be involved in kingdom works of compassion, mercy, and justice as well as kingdom words, which involve evangelism. Word and deed were important aspects of the ministry of Jesus, and I believe strongly that students should follow this model.”
The communities in which these students serve are both global and local, with opportunities in far-flung countries and nearby neighborhoods made available to students each year. Long-standing and Wheaton-initiated programs like Global Urban Perspectives (GUP), Student Ministry Partners (SMP), and BreakAway send students out of state or out of the country for trips over spring and summer breaks. Closer to home, Wheaton’s 70 local ministry partners include at least 35 that are within a 10- to 15-minute walk or drive from campus.
Service opportunities available through the OCO are as diverse as they are numerous. Take for example Zoe’s Feet, a dance ensemble that performs the annual “Confessions” worship event on campus. Zoe’s Feet recently traveled to New York City to attend a Christian dance convention also ministered in Times Square through worshipful movement.
The New York trip was a fantastic opportunity for Zoe’s Feet to engage the Christian community, the larger dance community, and the world as a whole,” says Zoe’s Feet member Rachel Steeves ’17. “We grew closer as a team, and we learned from those who are currently worshiping through dance, even in a secular setting like the city.”
The Illinois School Project, an initiative led by Calvin Reeh ’17, mobilizes Wheaton students to mentor Christian students at local high schools and encourage them to serve as missionaries in their public school settings through outreach events.
“Many students become completely different people after taking the initiative and leading gospel outreach at their high schools,” Calvin says.
Additional ministry opportunities include everything from businesses that hire ex-offenders to community projects that utilize art-making to build unity, giving Wheaton students a number of ways to glimpse what it looks like to live out the gospel incarnationally.
“There seem to be several pockets of students across campus who are discovering the contagious joy of sharing the gospel and are growing in their own faith in the process,” says Franklin. “Praying weekly with students and staff for evangelism on Wheaton’s campus really excites our team, as does hearing of the opportunities that students are taking to boldly show and share God’s love with others.”
Dream to Action
Outside of Black Rock City, alumni are evangelizing in cities worldwide. Kevin Palau ’85, who is often introduced as “Luis Palau’s son,” brings a fresh perspective as president of the Luis Palau Association, a Portland, Oregon-based organization that exists to support his father’s ministry. Kevin is certainly no stranger to the kind of evangelistic outreaches that made his father famous. But in the last decade, he’s been pioneering an approach to reaching unchurched people that looks a little different.
“The evangelical community has often been known across the country as a group that opposes things,” Kevin says. “We’ve been known more for what we’re against than what we’re for.”
Looking for a way to turn this paradigm on its head, Kevin and a handful of local pastors approached the mayor of Portland in 2008 to ask a simple question: “How can we best serve this city?”
Out of this initial conversation, a partnership grew between civic officials and church leaders that utilized the strengths of both to work toward the common good. Civic authorities identified five key areas of need in the city: homelessness, hunger, health care, the environment, and public schools. Kevin and the other pastors responded by mobilizing volunteers from their churches in those respective areas, resulting in 15,000 workers offering to serve their urban neighbors.
The movement of churches uniting to serve their cities, which has come to be known as “CityServe,” exemplifies what it looks like for the gospel to be truly good news for those who encounter it. The CityServe movement has since spread to dozens of other cities across the country from Anchorage, Alaska, to Houston, Texas.
Hoping to inspire other churches to unite and better love and serve their own cities, Kevin wrote a book about the CityServe story entitled Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel (Howard Books, 2015).
“I’m so passionate and excited about what God is doing in Portland,” Kevin says. “To see relationships being formed for the good of the city and the good of communicating this life-changing message of Jesus Christ—that’s why I wrote this book.”
This past year, CityServe went to New York City. Churchgoers from multiple boroughs were mobilized to fix buildings, organize community health fairs, and more to benefit local neighborhoods and to preach the gospel through their actions. CityServe facilitators also sought to unify churches across the city in the months leading up to NYC’s “Cityfest,” a celebratory festival in Central Park involving 1,700 churches, spearheaded by Kevin’s father, Luis. Estimated to have drawn 60,000 attendees, it was the largest evangelical gathering the Empire City has seen since Billy Graham’s crusade in Queens in 2005.
In the original Portland scenario, the emphasis on preaching the gospel primarily through action might make Kevin’s approach seem different from his father’s expository preaching style. Yet Kevin is hoping for the same thing as his father: a world that knows the good news as Jesus taught it.
“Evangelism is the primary calling of the church,” Kevin says. “If we love Jesus Christ and want to be obedient, then it’s not just one little extra side thing we do. It’s the heart of what we do. Evangelism really is just a reflection of the life of Christ in us.”