the One project: Why I'm Mad
William G. Johnsson
Sometimes things get so bad in the church you just have to speak out. Right now there is a sickness in Adventism, and no one seems to be dealing with it.
Noelene and I are happily retired in Loma Linda, where the sun shines every day. We live the good life—walking, gardening, writing, teaching classes for the School of Religion, spending lots of time with each other. Silver Spring, the Review and Adventist World are far away, out of mind, but not out of prayer. Recently, we became aware of stuff going on in the Adventist Church that we find appalling. If I don't say something, I'll blow a fuse. More important, one day, perhaps very soon, I'll have to answer my Lord's question: " Why did you stay silent when you knew what you knew about the One project?"
Our acquaintance with the One project (TOP) is recent. I won't attempt to enter into discussion of what did or did not take place prior to the current year, 2016. During this year, however, we have gained abundant knowledge based on firsthand experience, not on hearsay. What we have seen and heard has crystallized into several distinct conclusions about TOP and the people who are involved with it.
The One project is from the Lord. It is something to encourage, not to vilify. Those who feel constrained to attack it should tread exceedingly carefully lest they be found fighting against God.
I'll tell you how we arrived at this point.
In late 2014 I was surprised to receive an invitation to be one of the speakers for the TOP gathering that would be held in Seattle in February 2016. Since I knew almost nothing about the One project, I checked out its website. What I found there—the goal of making Jesus the center of Adventist proclamation and life—led me to agree to the request. The theme of the gathering would be the events of the Passion Week. Speakers would trace the footsteps of Jesus from the Triumphal Entry through Calvary to the Resurrection. My topic was to correspond with the Sabbath when Jesus lay in the tomb; I was to speak on the meaning of Christ's Death. The organizers of the event obviously considered this topic of great importance. I was allotted 40 minutes, whereas, the other presenters had only 16 minutes. All speakers were required to send scripts of their sermons three months ahead of the Seattle gathering in order that the messages could be checked—no criticism of the church or leaders—and so that discussion questions might be generated.
Noelene accompanied me to the Seattle gathering. It convened at the Westin hotel, a major facility in the center of the city, and ran Sunday morning through Monday noon. The organizers had planned for 700 attendees, but so great was the interest that they extended the number to 1,200. With that increase not another body could have been shoe-horned into the large ballroom. Everything was superbly organized: sound, visuals, coordination, keeping to allotted time. No introductions of speakers—the focus was Jesus. The audience was multi-generational, with Boomers and Millennials predominating. Speakers were evenly divided male and female. I was two to three times older than the other presenters, but it didn't seem to matter to the audience. Their focus was on Jesus, not on me. Everyone mingled freely, pleasantly, joyfully. Dress was business casual, with a few men wearing jackets and ties. We expected the music to be loud and not to our liking. We were wrong—it was beautifully worshipful, blending contemporary gospel with classics like "Amazing Grace" and "Jesus Paid It All".
Only one aspect diluted the joy we felt: the group was overwhelmingly White. When it came my turn to address the gathering, I gently noted that concern and the audience broke out in applause. Later, the organizers sought me out to recount the efforts they had made to include more diversity, but they had been largely unsuccessful.
Now, more than six months later, the spiritual exhilaration of Seattle is still with Noelene and me. But one thing bothers me: Will someone, anyone, please enlighten me as to what is the problem with the One Project? It seems as though most everyone has heard that there's something not quite right, but no one can inform me where the problem lies.
I've inquired of many people including some at church headquarters in Silver Spring, but all I get back get back is smoke—rumor, suspicion, hearsay, allegations of conspiracy, what others are saying, what they read in some book or viewed on a website, DVD, and so on. On the other hand, those who have actually been to a TOP gathering are glowingly positive in their evaluation.
So blest were Noelene and me by Seattle that when the organizers later asked us to join them for TOP gatherings in Sydney and in Perth, Australia, we immediately said Yes! As I write, we are just back in the U.S. after the two-week trip. The meetings were like Seattle all over again but on a smaller scale. Same Spirit. Same love. Same focus on Jesus. We came home weary but with cups overflowing. Different topics were presented in Australia, all built around the teachings and Passion of Jesus. We heard presentations on what Jesus taught about the Trinity, about the End, about Discipleship, about the Kingdom. I was asked to present twice—on what Jesus taught about genuine religion and on what Jesus taught about the Sabbath.
The trip afforded us opportunities to observe the organizers up close and personal. In Sydney we all stayed, not in a fancy hotel, but in a rented Airbnb home in order to reduce expenses. Noelene and I couldn't help noticing the uplifting conversation, how easily and often it was about Jesus. The TOP people worked hard, up long before the light in order to care for their ministries back in the U.S. and the added responsibilities in Australia. The One project brings no material gain or benefit to these devoted men and women—only work, care . . . and, unfortunately, vitriol.
The final meeting in Australia, held in Perth late on Sabbath afternoon, opened for us a revealing window on their ministry. This meeting was an add-on for those who wanted to ask questions about the One project. Although the meeting was calm and matter-of-fact, the material was powerful and disturbing. We learned that criticism of TOP started soon after its inception when a European with a checkered history in his relationship to the church launched a full-scale attack and circulated it far and wide. His claims were blatantly in error: he based his work on material he found at the1project.com, a now-defunct website that is a totally different outfit from the Adventist the1project.org. The false allegations made in this initial attack continue to circulate. In recent years, as conspiracy theories have taken root, the allegations have grown more strident, more extreme. The One project has been linked to Satan: I saw a graphic that portrays a serpent labeled "The One Project" swallowing the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Opponents have shouted out "You're a witch!" to leaders as they drive away from gatherings. In one city, two young men donned sackcloth and ashes and sat outside the venue of the TOP gathering.
It gets worse. Even the children of the organizers have been targeted and vilified on Facebook. That is despicable.
Could this be happening among Seventh-day Adventists? I am mad at such lies, such shameful behavior, and mad that no one is speaking out.
An attorney who works in a law office that deals in litigation was present at that late Sabbath evening session. She expressed the opinion that in Australia such egregious charges would not enjoy the protection of the law, and she posed the possibility of recourse to the courts as the best way to bring the attacks to a halt.
Our visit to Australia was wonderfully inspirational, but we came away with a troubling question on our hearts. In Sydney the attendance was 170, in Perth about 100. But all those who came only heard about the event through private channels. By order from church headquarters in Silver Spring, no mention of the gatherings was permitted in official church media, From those who came, we learned of people who had quit attending church but as a result of the TOP gathering were planning to give it another try, of others who had heard negative rumors and hesitated to attend but who received a wonderful blessing, and so on and on. I'm delighted with those accounts, but what about the hundreds of others who might have attended if church media channels hadn't been closed?
For more than a year the leaders of the One project have requested church leaders to tell them where they are out of line—if they are out of line—in order that they may make corrections. So far they have received no response.
That is not right.
There's a sickness in my beloved church. We've permitted extreme views to take control, views that play on fear, that weave conspiracy scenarios around End-time events and unsettle the hearts of the saints, that are light-years away from the sane, thoughtful teachings about the End that we find in Scripture and in Ellen White's writings. Some of these wild views circulate widely by means of books, websites, and DVDs prepared by independent ministries. Overall, I strongly support independent ministries but only so long as they do not make their living by preying on trusting members' fears.
Where are we headed in this church? Is no one else mad like me?
The 13-hour flight from Sydney to LAX goes on forever. As the Boeing Dreamliner cut through the darkness over the trackless Pacific Ocean 40,000 feet below, I had lots of time for reflection. An overwhelming sense of grace rolled over me, of thanksgiving for the wonderful followers of Christ whom we met for the first time and for those with whom we had served. And most of all for Jesus, who is incomparable, whose love we can never exhaust.
But along with blessed reflections, a sense of incredible irony. What, vilified for proclaiming Jesus, just Jesus, with no ifs and buts? Vilified. Not by unbelievers, but by members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Incredible!
Maybe not so incredible. Whenever and wherever Jesus and His righteousness are proclaimed, ugly things happen along with the good. As among the churches of Galatia in Paul's day. As in Minneapolis in 1888.
As in 2016.
William G. Johnsson is the retired Editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World Magazine, and the author of numerous books including the recently published, two-volume Jesus of Nazareth.