(in our book Reframation, we describe two different ‘pilgrimages’. One taken by Alan yearly, Burning Man, and another walked by Mark both in 2013 & 2018, Camino de Santiago.)
Most Christians would probably dismiss Burning Man as a debauched pagan festival, fueled by drugs, nudity, and sex, and the Camino as a misguided appropriation of the Christian understanding of pilgrimage—a vain attempt to create meaning in an increasingly meaningless world. And while these various dimensions are most certainly present, in our experience they are by no means the primary dynamic going on at the Playa or on the roads to Santiago. Implicit in these modern-day pilgrimages is a search for God, even if the participants cannot fully name what is really going on.
These contemporary pilgrimages are far more spiritual than might first appear to the critical onlooker. In fact, these experiences, and the numerous others like them scattered across our cultural landscapes, might well contain clues vital to unlocking both the power of the gospel and to accessing the real desires of the human heart in our time. In the process of coming to grips with the nature of the spiritual quest going on in the world, we might well also renew our own tired, middle-class, churchly, adventure- less spiritualities. Avoiding engagement with communities like those of the Playa or the Camino will, in the end, undermine our own experience of God and diminish our understanding and application of the gospel. Genuine missional engagement with culture always ends in renewal of the church and its spirituality.
Most people remain highly interested in God/Being/Spirit; most will readily affirm, even inevitably propose, that Jesus is one of the greatest people who ever lived—often he would be at the top of the list; and most people are searching for identity, meaning, belonging, and purpose in whatever pilgrimage they find themselves on. They are spiritually searching in all corners of culture, much more than might appear at first glance. What has become clear is that many simply cannot draw a straight line between these spiritual pilgrimages and the church or those who represent this Jesus. This is partly because they cannot readily interpret their own actions as questing, but also because they cannot see any relevance in the church today and the story of God being told.
Perhaps more alarming for Christianity than atheism is the rise of the so-called Nones and Dones. The Nones can be categorized as those professing no particular religious faith, not because they have no belief in God or gods but because they simply perceive no real need for it. Nones see no ultimate reason for any particular religious beliefs about a divine being and in fact reject the claims of all religions to be able to make such assertions. In comparison, the so-called Dones are a rapidly increasing demographic who no longer believe they need the institutional church to practice whatever belief in God they may have left. Many in this category claim they had to leave the church in order to find God. In addition to this, there is also an increasing cultural gap between the church and Millennials—who are looking for purpose, community, and authenticity in faith communities—and yet for many their only experience of the established church is of religious activity, judgment, and hypocrisy.1
These current cultural analyses obviously shed some light on why the average person on the Camino discounts the spirituality of someone in a religious vocation. If the message, whether perceived or actual, is one of hypocritical, heartless judgment, then no one desires an encounter with someone giving that kind of “good” news.
Taken together, these are not just problems of perception, or ones of church attendance in decline, but a serious spiritual crisis. This is a missionally profound moment of truth because our capacity to function as credible witnesses of God and gospel is at stake. We are not witnessing to the incredibly good news of Jesus in ways that either make sense or resonate.
Culture is telling us something here: whatever we appear to be expressing through our standard churchly offerings (traditional or contemporary) is simply not connecting with increasing portions of our populations, who are in search of something so much more.
The human quest for God can take many forms. We need to learn to construct ways to recognize this, and, as witnesses, help when and where necessary. We believe humans are wired for this search for God from the start, and express that intuition in countless ways. We also believe that God, who has made us and knows us more deeply than we know ourselves, has communicated to us and is actively reaching out to us in ways far too numerous to list. In fact, human beings are haunted by God and simply cannot escape the fact that life is lived under the auspices of eternity. The passageways are simply everywhere, if searchers are willing to open their hearts—the doors of their spiritual imagination and consciousness.
In this universal search, it is not that God has stopped making himself known. Rather, it is that people (both those with belief and without) are unfortunately seeking the right things in the wrong places. The ability to discover and experience God in this search has been greatly diminished because, as Christians, we have invariably reduced the reality down to a religious formula or some church/clergy-bound sacrament, forgetting what a biblical encounter with God looks and feels like.