by John McLarty
The One Project held its second American gathering February 13 and 14, 2012, in Seattle. About 700 people spent two days at the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle. They came from all over the U. S. and from Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Norway, Brazil, Denmark, Switzerland. The the majority were church employees—pastors, church administrators, teachers, editors. There were over a hundred students, mostly college, but also a few from academies. There were a fair number of clergy spouses and laity. Each day's program included several sermons and extensive time in small groups around tables.
What was the purpose of the gathering? From the One Project website: "We are committed to the idea that a Jesus-driven, Jesus-bathed, Jesus-backed, Jesus-led, Jesus-filled, Jesus-powered, all-about-Jesus Adventist Church is the uncompromising directive from our past, the joy of our present, and hope for our future. We claim the Primal Adventist Impulse: a longing to be with Jesus. … The One Project seeks – through gatherings, conversations, web-based content, and Christ-focused publications – to stimulate preaching, worship, and adoration of Jesus within and through the Adventist church." The slogan of the organizers is, “Jesus. All.”
The first day's sermons focused on moments in Adventist history: 1844 (the early Adventists eagerly anticipated meeting their Savior), 1888 (a precious message about Jesus), 1957 (the book, Questions on Doctrine, attempted to place Jesus and the gospel more squarely in the center of our faith). The second day's sermons considered the role of Jesus in Adventist doctrines and Jesus in the church community.
Most of the sermons included significant references to contemporary controversies in the church, so I would expect people to evaluate the actual content of the sermons differently depending on their points of view. But for sheer force and effectiveness in communication, the preaching was superlative.
The speakers repeatedly called for the church to make Jesus central in everything, from our preaching to our policy making, from our identity as a people to our message as an organization. They easily demonstrated that Adventists through the decades have prized their relationship with Jesus. A comment by James White late in his life, formed the centerpiece of one sermon, “I have an unutterable yearning of the soul for Christ.” From the very beginning Jesus has been central for Adventists. Jesus, not doctrine. Jesus, not prophetic scenarios. Jesus, not rules about food or clothes or Sabbath keeping. The reason for our existence is first, last and always Jesus.
Many of the speakers voiced concern that this centrality of Jesus—a value they argued ought to be a given for a Christian church—was threatened by a number of elements in Adventist culture. In fact, sometimes it is challenged by the culture itself. We risk becoming so engrossed with our own identity and mission that the person of Jesus is obscured. The speakers cited a variety of instances where this obscuring of Jesus has occurred in Adventist history. Many of their challenges can be supported by direct quotations from Ellen White. But they did not stop with the failures of yesteryear. They spoke pointedly to practices and policies in today's church that seem incompatible with the mission and person of Jesus.
It is common in Adventist circles for people to argue we should read only Adventist authors (which, of course, means our ministers could not learn Hebrew or Greek because the grammars and lexicons were not written by Adventists). One speaker showed slides of various pages in the Seventh-day Adventist hymnal with the author's names highlighted. The Adventist hymnal includes hymns written by ancient and medieval monks, Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, Quakers, Beethoven and Anonymous, among others. In fact, 85 percent of the hymns in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal were written by people outside the Adventist community. Did we really think our worship would be better if we eliminated all these non-Adventist voices? He answered his own question: No! The audience roared with laughing approval.
There was similar vocal audience approval when several speakers wondered how we could imagine that Jesus would exclude women when he so pointedly contradicted the mores of his day to include them. Could we really imagine that Jesus had intended the leaders of his church to use their institutional power to keep others “in their place?” I did no survey, but my read of the mood of the crowd was that the vast majority shared the speakers' views on these issues.
On the other hand, some participants were expressed puzzlement at what they saw as a difference between the advertised focus of the gathering and the apparent focus of the preaching. They felt the church and its problems had somewhat eclipsed Jesus as the center of attention. These folks agreed with the critiques of church policy, but they felt a dissonance between their experience in Seattle and their expectations based on the advertising. Everyone who mentioned this dissonance to me was over forty. The reactions among younger people, both clergy and students, appeared to be universally positive. They heard the speakers giving voice to their concerns, saying what Jesus would say in our context. Many of these young people said the experience gave them renewed hope for their church.
When I asked Alex Bryan about the concern of older attendees that “issues” received too much attention, he said this: “This year's gathering called the church to consider how our human relationships are impacted by Jesus. How we treat one another. How we affirm the spiritual calling of both men and women. How we relate to one another across cultural and racial borders. These issues are uncomfortable–I know they are for me! But Jesus challenged the church of his day with these issues as central to what it means to follow him. We cannot talk about Jesus without talking about what he talked about.”
Reaction from church administrators I talked to (all over fifty) reflected the generational divide. They, too, voiced strong exception to some of the current initiatives and policies in the denomination. Still, they did not think this gathering was an appropriate venue for addressing issues of church governance. They argued these issues should be handled “in-house.” Young preachers should leave these matters to “proper church authorities.” Washington Conference president, John Freedman was concerned because he had invited many people to the gathering, including young people and people new to the church. As a pastor, he worried some of these vulnerable people might be unsettled by what they heard. On the other hand, the younger pastors in his conference told him they were energized and encouraged by the gathering.
Both in their public presentations and in private conversations, the leaders of the One Project evince an intense commitment to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Like James and Ellen White, Taylor Bunch, H.M.S. Richards, Sr., and Morris Venden before them, their commitment to Jesus is supreme over all and is the ultimate spring of their preaching.
The next gathering of the One Project in the United States will be in Chicago in February, 2013. It will include live translation into Spanish. According to the organizers, over a 100 have already registered. The focus in Chicago will be the four gospels. Eight speakers will explore Jesus through words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
John McLarty is a former editor of Adventist Today and a pastor in the Washington Conference near Seattle.