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The Church in Black Rock City

Temple of the Heart, photo by Rand Larson

In my 58 years of ordination as a pastor, I have served 5 congregations ranging in membership from 36 to 2400.  Not one of the congregations grew in membership during my tenure.  In fact, in all my years of ministry, I witnessed the Presbyterian Church (USA)  steadily decline in membership.  The seminary where I received my degree and taught for 12 years struggles today with incoming classes in single digits.  Is the Christian Church in the United States heading towards extinction?   

The responses to the threat of extinction have ranged from what is needed to fix “the problem” to harsh condemnation of why and how Christianity has failed.  The one common sentiment, among all the responses, has been the desire to cling to the church as we remembered and knew it to be, the church we loved.  What is overlooked or lost in that response is how Christianity is viewed.  Christianity is viewed not simply as faith, but as a particular constellation of religion, nation, sexuality, the family, and race.  One striking result of that view is that globalization, migration, and gender ideology are perceived as threats to church and society.  And because the threats are occurring, the fear is dangerously acted out in American Christianity.  We are witnessing the effects of climate change, especially as it has accelerated emigration from the global south into the north, shifting the religious and racial demographics in North America dramatically.  Self-preservation as the driving theme and force serves to intensify the response to the threat of extinction.  And when Christianity consolidates culture, nation, and race, we witness the justification—in the name of Christianity—unjustifiable and blatantly un-Christlike horrors, such as preaching white supremacy and waving the American flag in one hand and the Bible in the other during the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Throughout my 58 years of ordination, the Presbyterian Church struggled to find its way through one controversy after another—the Confession of 1967 and the Westminster Confession, Civil Rights and the Anti-Vietnam War movement, Angela Davis and Saul Alinsky, the Ordination of LGBTQ candidates and performing Same Sex Marriages, Immigration and Black Lives Matter—resulting in a constant hemorrhage in membership.

But what if we saw the decline of Christianity not as catastrophe but as grace?  And that we are being called to resist the siren song of self-preservation and follow Jesus’ path of “letting go of one’s life in order to save it”?  Jesuit scholar and priest, Michel de Certeau wrote that “the truth of Christianity is not a fragile artifact to be clung to and defended but something waiting to be made.”  What if permanence was never our calling?

In the Gospels, Jesus tells his first disciples to leave their old way of life behind, going so far as to abandon their plow or fishing nets where they are and, if necessary, even to leave behind their parents.  A church that doesn’t expect at least this much from one another isn’t really a church in the way Jesus spoke about it.  It also is likely a church that won’t survive the challenges facing us today.

The threat of extinction today could be the beginning of a new moment for churches, a moment marked less by aspiration to respectability and success, with less focus on individuals aligning themselves with American values and assumptions.  We could be a witness to another way of life outside conventionally American measures of success.  Churches could model better, truer sorts of communities, ones in which the hungry are fed, the weak are lifted up, and the proud are cast down.  Such communities might not have the money, success, and influence that many American churches have so often pursued over the years.  But if such communities look less like those churches, they might also look more like the sorts of communities Jesus expected his followers to create.  

In Acts 2:42-47, the early church was described this way:  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  

Burning Man provided me a hint and reminder, actually a taste of the church in Acts 2.  I had conversations with total strangers over the meaning and purpose of life.  Shed of protective coverings/masks/pretensions/status/material worth… we were who we are, ourselves, our naked Child of God selves.  Conversations ranged from grief and death to regrets and the need for forgiveness and to forgive.  In every conversation, it was an experience of unconditional love, of grace and acceptance.

An annual experiment in temporary community in the Black Rock desert, Burning Man is guided by Radical Self-expression and Radical Inclusion—two of the 10 Guiding Values in the Burning Man Experience.  The other 8 values are:  Gifting and Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance and Communal Effort, Immediacy and Participation, Civic Responsibility and Leaving No Trace.

Everything is gifted, everything.  I told Jason that I felt guilty for enjoying a glass of beer without paying; and asked how do I repay?  Jason counseled me, “Dad, just be present, be open, opportunities will come.”  We all took turns preparing meals for our camp.  I witnessed Jason giving away his photos to appreciative strangers.  Everywhere, total strangers were helping one another with no strings attached.

I loved this passage by Jake Meador from his article, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church”, in the July 2023 issue of The Atlantic: “What is needed in our time, more than ever, is a community marked by sincere love, sharing what they have from each according to their ability and to each according to their need, eating together regularly, generously serving neighbors, and living lives of quiet virtue and prayer.  A healthy church can be a safety net in the harsh American economy by offering its members material assistance in times of need: meals after a baby is born, money for rent after a layoff.  Perhaps more important, it reminds people that their identity is not in their job or how much money they make; they are children of God, loved and protected and infinitely valuable.”

The congregations I served in all my years of pastoral ministry did not grow in numbers.  I hope that in my failure to grow the congregations I served, God was using me to help the church lose its life in order to save it; and that the church heard and took to heart what the women at the tomb of Jesus heard:  “He is not here.  He is risen!”  And ran in fear and in faith to find him…even in a place like Black Rock City.

“Temple Burn”, Top Cover Photo by Rand Larson

“Temple”, Pinhole Project

temple interior, photo by Josh

4 thoughts on “The Church in Black Rock City”

  1. I love your questions in this post: “What is we saw the decline of Christianity not as catastrophe, but as grace? What if permanence was never our calling?”

    How much of our churches energy is given to self-preservation? It’s like maintenance has replaced vision. Thanks, Cal, for this picture of “radical gifting” from Burning Man; it both judges the Church and holds promise.

    Jason, so glad you and your dad had this experience. Beautiful art too!

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