The One Project: An Almost Epitaph

This coming week the final “One Project” gathering will take place in San Diego. It was started by a group of folks who were primarily chaplains at Adventist colleges and universities, to focus on “celebrating the supremacy of Jesus through the Adventist Church.” It became very controversial in some corners, with people saying it pushed “spiritual formation” and “contemplative prayer.”

I went for the first time in 2015.  I looked up the notes I made in a letter to some friends at the end of the meeting.

“I like the idea of short talks followed by conversation,” I started by saying (it was kind of a TED-talk format).

I  was a table leader, in charge of facilitating the conversation at my table. And I noted a frustration I had: “I think they sometimes short-changed the conversation.”

My primary criticism with the event was that it was big and flashy and cost a lot of money to put on. And it didn’t need to be any of that.

“Personally, I think an event like this can be one on a smaller, less expensive scale.  I’d limit the attendance to 500. It felt like a high tech camp-meeting.”

Some critics felt that these events were somehow subversive, or preaching doctrines that were not Adventist. In my experience, this was baloney.

“It was clearly Adventist. A wide range of folks were there. Lots of conference, union, and division folks, and at least a couple with GC titles. The focus was unpacking the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ words.  With an introduction that encouraged us to also look at the black words—the words that tell us the reaction of the people.”

My table included some young theologians and pastors, and a chaplain friend.

“And we had a great time together—I just wish we could have had more time.  I heard no conspiracies. No ‘New Age.’ No ’emerging church.’  One person did say ‘Jesus was a contemplative’ (with a knowing nod—and she even pronounced the word ‘contemplative’ correctly).  But the Bible was uplifted.  Ellen White was quoted.  It was clearly an Adventist gathering.”

And this, I felt, was a weakness. It spoke too much to in-house issues.  And a friend who was also facilitating a table said some non-Adventists left part way through, commenting that they thought it clearly wasn’t for them.

It had the feel of kind of a camp-meeting, I said above. A gathering of friends. And that made it feel kind of exclusive. Each year speakers were drawn largely from the same circle of friends. From the reports I heard of other events, it was like they continued the same conversation from year to year, from gathering to gathering, with the “substance” remaining the same and the “accidents” (the place, the Scriptures reflected upon) changing.

It was neither the stuff of conspiracies nor the stuff of revolution. But a gathering of friends who were likeminded and wanted to do cool stuff together, reflecting on the words of Jesus in the context of living in Adventist institutional centers. And so I felt kind of left out. I don’t live in that world. Most of the people I minister to directly, and most the chaplains I work with, don’t live in that world either (though some of the chaplains do, if they are at Adventist colleges or hospitals).

Most of the people I talk to on a daily basis don’t talk about the issues that generate so much heat inside the Adventist bubble. They talk about issues and fears and hopes and dreams that were never raised in the talks from the big flashy stage. They look for a Jesus who isn’t just the Jesus who condemned Pharisees, but the Jesus who hung out on the docks, and at the well, and among the tombs.

That’s where the conversation needs to go. And I hope, now that The One Project is ending, that those involved will take it there.

It takes once more starting this coming weekend, and I’ll attend. I’ll let you know if I have a different impression this go-round.

Addendum. I had the same feelings this time, and I shared them with several of the leaders, who got my point. They said TOP was intended to be an internal conversation, and yes, in the future they will each be focused outward. My prayers are with them.