The One Project: Perceptions of a First-time Attendee
By Maylan Schurch, February 21, 2016: The One Project made another of its visits to Seattle during President’s Day weekend, February 14 – 16, and Adventist Today executive editor Loren Seibold asked if I would attend and report on it. First I’ll give you my experience, and then some conclusions.
When Loren offered me this opportunity, “The One Project” was mainly just a name to me. I’d heard some early negative buzz about it, but no such buzz in the past few years. I also heard that its gatherings were packed. In fact, the one I was attending was maxed out, but they managed to shoehorn me in. I would be one of 1,323 people in the Westin Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, where last October President Obama attended a fundraising luncheon for U. S. Senator Patty Murray.
What is One Project? Briefly, its goal is to make Jesus far more central in Adventist lives and church ministry. Co-chair Japhet (JAY-fett) De Oliveira puts it this way: “If you are looking to pause your life for a couple of days, and allow yourself space to be able to say, ‘God, what does your Word take me to? What is it that I actually need to do differently in my home life, my church?’, that’s what the One Project provides. Space.”
I arrived at the Westin early Sunday morning and found a table toward the back of the ballroom, and watched the people filtering in from the foyer. The majority of them seemed to be post-college young adults. Japhet would later tell me that the average attendee-age is 40, but I also saw quite a number of baby-boomers, and plenty of even older seniors. Childcare is provided, and there’s a special category for teens ages 13-17 called “One Generation.” The teens sit at tables in the main ballroom listening to the presentations with everyone else, and when discussion-time arrives, designated youth pastors help start the flow.
As the worship team (led by Elia King) began to sing, I confess that I braced myself a bit. Coming from a country-western gospel music background, I’ve always felt most comfortable when songleaders just get up and sing a song rather than indulge in diva-style vocal variation or—how shall I put it—choreography. But here at One Project, I squared my shoulders and resolved to put up with super-amped speakers, undulating singers, a bass-player who would get his money’s worth out of every fret on the neck, and a drummer who would double as an artillery gunner. And maybe even artificial smoke.
None of that happened. The bass player just played the essential notes—not even a single walk-up or walk-down progression. The singers just stood there and sang, understandably and appealingly, not a diva in the bunch. The two keyboardists did not obtrude excessively into the experience, and the drummer kept a steady and barely audible beat—except for amping up the haunting and necessary boom-boom-boom in “Bless the Lord, O My Soul (10,000 Reasons).” These people didn’t perform for us—they simply helped us sing. And they also helped insert into my mind a powerful ear-worm: Elia King’s “Hosanna (Kingdom Come),” written especially for this event. And I saw only about one in fifty people raising his or her hands, and not all were standing during the singing.
Another One Project surprise was the total lack of what used to be called “preliminaries”—long and fluffy verbal announcements which eat time from the main program. Japhet welcomed us briefly (no jokes about Seattle rain, no introductions of big-name speakers) and showed us a short video clip, and suddenly we were into the program. The theme was “The Final Week,” and a recorded voice read a Gospel passage from the last few days of Jesus’ life. As the last words died away, the first speaker was standing ready to present. These messages were generally about ten minutes each, and were given in batches of two, each preceded by a new Bible passage. Each two-presentation set was followed by a discussion time (called Recalibrate) introduced by WWU chaplain Paddy McCoy, who asked everyone to explore the questions projected on the screen.
Sixteen speakers (7 women and 9 men) presented messages during Sunday and Monday, mainly exegeses of the passages they had been assigned a whole year earlier. There were familiar names like Alex Bryan (One Project co-chair), Paul Dybdahl, Matt Gamble, Tara Vincross, Karl Haffner, Dilys Brooks, and William Johnsson. Most of the women were senior or assistant pastors or chaplains, though others included a nurse and a WWU advancement officer. Some of the women, and some of the men, recounted their deep disappointment with last July’s General Conference vote on women’s ordination, but in no case did this become the meat of their messages, though one speaker used it in the context of eventually rising above Gethsemane discouragement.
There were breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Lunch was two hours, during which we all poured out into a rainless and 60-degree Seattle to track down the many restaurants nearby. Then back to the Grand Ballroom for the afternoon session. There was no drop-off in attendance; these people had paid big bucks to attend, and more big bucks if they were staying at the Westin. And once during the session I went out into the foyer and discovered only 12 people in the lobby. People evidently wanted to be in the ballroom rather than loitering and chattering outside.
“Advance” and “Create”
Sunday and Monday constituted the formal One Project gathering, but for the very first time, two additional components were added. The first of these was a Monday-evening program called “Advance,” which began with a catered meal. Its goal was crisply stated by Mark B. Johnson, MD, MPH, who is both executive director for Jefferson County (CO) Public Health and a One Project board member: “Inspiration asserts that the ministry of the word and the ministry of healthcare are to blend in the work of the Adventist Church. Blend. Not just cooperate. Not just collaborate. Not intertwine. Not just work together in partnership with one grabbing hold with the right arm as an opening wedge and passing off to the other. Blend.”
The presentations covered, among other topics, “Healthcare as the Gospel,” “Narrative Medicine,” “Patient Experience,” and a harrowing video and presentation by Kirra Moser, educator-practitioner for Peace Hospice Care in Hertfordshire, UK, on “Palliative Care.” She mostly asked us challenging questions about how we would respond, for example, to a patient who wanted counsel about assisted suicide.
Tuesday, the focus shifted to the “Create” program. Japhet told me that the One Project staff has learned that it’s best for the main presentations (the “ballroom” ones) to be “pastoral” in nature—in other words, designed to feed and inspire the individual soul. “Create,” which 170 people attended on Tuesday, was to go a step further—how can we help change what needs changing in our congregations? “Our greatest challenge,” Japhet wrote in the Create brochure, “is to find ways to connect with our communities, meeting real needs and introducing people to Jesus. The Create conference aims to develop ideas and resources to make our churches places people can turn to for help in times of need, rather than simply walking on by.”
Alex Bryan (WWU church senior pastor) set the tone. He told us that Tuesday’s day-long session could easily become nothing more than a gripe session, where we shared all our hurts and frustrations about local church situations. He urged us instead to look forward, and think about redemptive, Christ-centered solutions. He went on to present his own topic, “A Local Revolution,” and was followed by Tim Gillespie (“Why Good Theology Requires Place”), and Lisa Clark Diller (“The Work of Neighborhoods”). After lunch we heard from Japhet (“How the Local Church Can Bless the Global Church”), Sam Leonor (“Why Higher Education Needs Local Congregations”), and Paddy McCoy (“Local Work: Mentoring and Trusting the Next Generation.”)
Paddy is Walla Walla University’s campus chaplain, and his talk was particularly vulnerable and heart-wrenching. He told us that he stays awake at night asking himself, “Where can our college graduates go after graduation where their ideas can be welcomed?” He described how, after four years of academy and four years of college, in which students are in environments where programs are planned with them in mind, they’re ejected back into local churches which may have quite different agendas.
He then talked us through seven myths many churches have about integrating young people back into the local church, myths such as “The right program can reverse the trend of youth leaving the church,” and “Keeping the youth is all about worship style.” To the latter point, he mentioned a survey which states that 67% of young people prefer a classic rather than contemporary worship service, and 70% prefer a church sanctuary rather than some other venue. He strongly insisted that rather than having separate youth or young adult worship services, an intergenerational ministry (where all worship together) is healthiest and best.
Following his talk, several individuals got to their feet and described—often with emotion—how older church members believed in them and mentored them. “That’s why I’m still in the church today,” was a sentiment several expressed.
Some conclusion about my One Project experience
One Project attendees really want to be there. I talked to people who had attended as many as four One Project events. When I asked why they returned, they gave answers like, “It’s good to see people I know again,” and “Each time I get more excited about Jesus.” There was a definite camp-meeting feel in the air, without the passivity one often also sees.
One Project attendees actively care about the church. I’m basing this on the attendees I was personally acquainted with, such as the couple who had left my own congregation a few years ago to help with a creative church plant, and another couple who had worked with Pathfinders for years. This impression was solidified by the discussions around the Recalibrate tables and during the Create session. People’s facial expressions were intense and hopeful; these folks cared about their congregations and were actively involved there, but were frustrated that the work of Christ was going slowly, and wanted to find out how to change this.
Ellen White was not quoted often, but was quoted with respect when she was. Occasionally, presenters during the two One Project days (and again during Advance and Create) would put Spirit of Prophecy quotes on the screen, Some were used as authoritative, others as confirmation for already-exegeted Bible passages or concepts.
I detected no snarkiness. The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th edition, defines snarky as “rudely sarcastic or disrespectful.” There was humor—including a jocular running banter between Alex Bryan and Paddy McCoy during the Create segment—but even though the failings of any local congregation could provide abundant fodder for comic sarcasm, I heard none. Instead, I sensed a deep, tender respect for the Adventist message and its people.
I literally left with a sense of peace. Sometimes seminars leave me wired. Sometimes they leave me with “seminar burnout”—too much information too fast. Sometimes they leave me bored, impatient to get back to my regular routine. But as I drove away from the Westin that Tuesday afternoon, I noticed that I was feeling peaceful. Even though my growing pastoral to-do list needed attending to, there was an unusual calmness in my chest. The only reasons I can come up with is that this program had been prayed about, very strongly, and that its staff had carefully listened to constructive feedback. I really do believe that the Spirit of Christ was moving approvingly among that assembly, and I am glad I went.