This past weekend, I joined The One Project in Chicago for 2+ days of singing, preaching, training and conversation. The motto or tagline is, “Jesus. All.” I had a really meaningful experience refocusing on Jesus, seeing old friends, and making new connections. This is my third and final post about the event.
For those who couldn’t make it, here is a video report:
Reflection 1: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
Why write about The One Project on a blog about social ethics and action?
The simplest answer is because my faith is not “Action. All.” but “Jesus. All.” Presuming readers of this blog are SDA Christian activists and ethicists, our “main thing” is not peace and justice, but the God who created us, loves us, and calls us to work for peace and justice for God’s other kids whom he created and loves. It is good for us to keep this focus. This work is God’s work. We must remain focused on the One who calls us to these values and efforts. There are endless errors and dangers that can result from losing this focus–from grinding burn-out to developing a self-aggrandizing Messiah-complex.
In a paper for the recent GYC Social Justice Conference, I quoted Ron Sider’s thoughts regarding his vocation. I believe it fits here as well. Even though he founded Evangelicals for Social Action and helped pave the way for Christian Peacemaker Teams, Sider rejects the label of social activist. “I’m not a social activist. I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord of the universe.” He goes further:
Jesus’ gospel—his death, resurrection, and agenda—must remain at the center of any faithful Christian social action. Social action without an evangelical passion to share Jesus’ gospel fails to convert the next generation of activists. Social action without Jesus’ resurrection has no power. Social action without Jesus, true God and true man, at the center is not Christian.
As Seventh-day Adventists, I believe this is a fitting description of who we should be as well. We are not promoting a specific political agenda, but in following the Lamb wherever we are led, we are continuing the work of blessing humanity that was started long before us (Genesis 18:19). Our work promoting social justice, human rights and biblical social responsibility may be motivated for many reasons, but above all, may it proceed from our identity as disciples of Jesus, and may our food be to finish the work we have been given (John 4:34). Because of this, I believe The One Project is important for people like me who need to balance action with contemplation, for people who need to always be refocusing on Jesus.
Speaking of balance, people who only want to sit in church and in other meetings like The One Project may need to listen to this wisdom from Ellen White:
“Faithful work is more acceptable to God than the most zealous and thought-to-be holiest worship. It is working together with Christ that is true worship. Prayers, exhortation, and talk are cheap fruits, which are frequently tied on; but fruits that are manifested in good works, in caring for the needy, the fatherless, and widows, are genuine fruits, and grow naturally upon a good tree.” (Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 24; Welfare Ministry, p. 38)
And people who only want to walk in the latest protest or serve in the homeless lunch line may need to listen to the same author describe Jesus’ desire for time away from direct service:
But now Christ longed for retirement, that He might be with His disciples; for He had much to say to them. In their work they had passed through the test of conflict, and had encountered opposition in various forms. Hitherto they had consulted Christ in everything; but for some time they had been alone, and at times they had been much troubled to know what to do. They had found much encouragement in their work; for Christ did not send them away without His Spirit, and by faith in Him they worked many miracles; but they needed now to feed on the Bread of Life. They needed to go to a place of retirement, where they could hold communion with Jesus and receive instruction for future work. (“Come Rest Awhile” in The Desire of Ages, p. 360)
We need balance. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the wisdom to know which I need right now–training/reflection or action/service.
Reflection 2: Demonstrating Jesus’ Heart through Service
An attendee of the Chicago event commented on the Facebook group:
Would it be possible to include some sort of service element to OneProject? After talking about Jesus so much, I have this desire to go BE Jesus, and am finding further conversation frustrating. Where does our conversation as a group meet action? Should it only be when we go home? Or should it be while we are here as well.
These are good questions. Important questions, especially for a blog like this. I love this impulse–focus on Jesus, and then as his disciples go serve like he did.
There were a number of thoughtful responses in the FB group–the challenge of doing meaningful tasks devoid of enduring relationships, the struggle to get so many unskilled laborers to work on a single project, the need to take this impulse home and serve where we’re planted, the possibility of doing a future event focusing on the missional aspects of discipleship. I appreciate both sides of this, the original intent of the question–let’s put our boots and gloves on now–and the responses–yes, but at home where we can build relationships and make a lasting impact.
Before commenting on that part of the discussion, I want to expand readers’ awareness of what was talked about at the event that likely played a role in fostering that attendee’s desire to serve. As I reported in my last post, Sam Leonor talked about Jesus’ method of evangelism as described by Ellen White–mingle, proclaim, demonstrate. He stressed that we need to amp up our ability to demonstrate God’s love to bring it up to the level of our proclamation.
Later, Dustin Aho used the same quote from White in his description of UReach, which has ministries like job training, a thrift store and quilting. I wished his presentation could have been seen by a wider audience. It was compelling.
I also wished I could be in two places at once because while Dustin was speaking, Chris Blake was leading a separate session describing his model for Sabbath School that involves meaningful prayer time, relational development, thorough Bible study, and practical community service and engagement (see Reinvent Your Sabbath School).
All this is to say that The One Project is more than just preaching. The preaching was great (and the sermons will be online in 6 weeks or so; watch them), but the table discussions and the evening presentations were designed to take our focus on Jesus and apply it to the many areas of our lives, including social action. Jesus is practical.
Now to the idea of including a component of service: I appreciate both the desire and the responses summarized above. In addition to these responses, I would add that as important as social action is to me, The One Project is about more than service. That is one very important part, but the intersections and conversations were on exploring Jesus in many different contexts, including education, personal devotions, the workplace, youth ministry, mentoring and our culture. While each has over-lap with service or volunteerism, it is just one facet of each. If I were a planner of TOP, I would be challenged to design service projects that could be meaningful to people who focus on each of these different areas. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but merely that I don’t readily see how it would work well; therefore, I am quite patient with a service component not being included.
Secondly, there is a matter of maximizing our time together. Doing direct service in a group can be bonding–that was likely the greatest benefit to AIA service projects while I was an undergrad–and there is some minor benefit to the local agency or population being served, but over-all, one-off projects don’t contribute a lot of bang for the buck, and TOP participants put out a lot of bucks to be at the rendezvous. To maximize the return on their investment, I believe they need to capitalize on the greatest assets of the event–the range of other people in the room. Time spent on additional stories of how people are focusing their work on Jesus is important for fostering new ideas for service, whether the sphere of focus is the school, the church, the workplace, the printing press, or the Internet. For example, more people benefited from listening to Dustin Aho’s presentation than if they had painted a room with him. Only a few people could hear his stories there, whereas many more could listen and ask questions in a presentation setting.
Again, I really appreciate the desire to serve. That’s what motivates this blog and this community. And I also think that the best return-on-investment for our time at TOP is participating in the activities as planned, and saving hands-on application for our local communities. All that said, I’m glad the participant raised the questions so the leaders could contemplate the possibility and think intentionally about what to include and forego.
Reflection 3: Keeping Up Appearances
As I sat in church today and looked around, I thought about something that had been on my mind at TOP–appearances. Appearances don’t matter; and yet they do. Diversity is beautiful. God created diversity. Ellen White held up the need to embrace unity in diversity, not uniformity. This diversity can manifest itself in all kinds of ways–personalities, skills, values, skin color, age, gender, socioeconomic level, and more. We need young and old. We need cooks, painters, teachers and preachers. We need men and women. We need every race and ethnicity. We need introverts and extroverts; we need people who are task-oriented and others who are people-oriented. We need people with financial resources and people who couldn’t care less about money. We need people who specialize in music and people who specialize in management. The kingdom of God needs much diversity.
When I looked around TOP and then again at church today to see who was present and who was missing, I noticed varying degrees of variety in the visible categories–gender, age, race, etc. Some categories were pretty well represented (e.g., gender) and some not quite so much (e.g., socioeconomic). But the groups I was most looking for were the dirtbag adventurers and the radical activists. I was looking for these because I identify with them even though I look pretty thoroughly baptized in Adventism (I’m fifth-gen after all; though not as deeply rooted as my wife, as she likes to point out in jest). Now, don’t get me wrong, activists certainly come in all shapes and sizes and colors; they don’t all have long dreads, but there is a certain look that is not exactly uncommon.
When I go to peace and justice events, the attendees often look very different from people at SDA gatherings, even ones like The One Project. For example, here I am pictured with my roommate and another companion at last year’s vigil to close the School of the Americas/WHINSEC.
Does my faith community have the ability or desire to include people like this without making them feel like second-class citizens? Any time someone is trying to change how we look, we know we’re not fully “in.”
And we can’t write them off and simply say, “Freaky radicals don’t want to be in church anyway.” I attended a Christian peace conference hosted at a seminary, and on the last night of the shindig, the Anabaptist/Mennonite crew met together at someone’s house for informal conversation; no more paper presentations. In the room were four people with dreadlocks, a few with various ear and nose piercings, and a tattoo (on someone who works for the Mennonite church at the equivalency of the NAD), as well as people who would look at home at any SDA potluck. These were committed church leaders, theologians, and activists. I’ve simply never seen this kind of variety and inclusiveness at an SDA gathering. They would be second-class Adventists, not even able to be baptized with the jewelry. These Mennonites were not simple enough to be Adventists. [pause for effect]
Mennonites have struggled with how to be a peculiar people, just as we have. As a community they have embraced the call to stand apart from mainstream culture. At a time when Adventists were struggling with whether or not to wear wedding rings, Mennonites were discussing neckties (to wear them was seen as being ostentatious) and bonnet strings (with or without). Yet Mennonites have figured out–or are in the processing of figuring out–that the importance of their message and faith transcends these specific markers. They have developed a big tent where multiple expressions of radical commitment to Jesus are accepted. I long for this for my Seventh-day Adventist church. Will my peace and justice compadres ever be accepted as first-class members without bending to SDA norms for appearance? Or would that reality itself be seen as a watering down of Adventism, a capitulation to liberals, progressives and “emerging” folk? Would The One Project receive even more criticism if it were successful at inviting people who looked different?
Let me share two contrasting stories. First, a pastor came to my in-laws’ church when I was in town, and in the afternoon he had a meeting on the perils of the emerging church. I had to go. I really appreciated his heart even though I didn’t follow all of his logic. He shared a story about his own son who attended church one Sabbath after many years away. A lady behind him said loud enough for him to hear, “Do you see that guy with dreadlocks? He’s what wrong with Adventism today.”
Compare that with a scene my wife observed while we were at a Mennonite university out east (my examples are from Anabaptists because I did my graduate studies at a Mennonite seminary). While my wife waited for me to get out of my mediation class, she noticed students coming out of another classroom. An old-order Mennonite woman in plain dress and bonnet exited a room with a guy well-decorated with tattoos. They were talking excitedly, clearly enthusiastic about their shared passion.
Will we find a way to be open to such diversity of appearance? Is this such a critical issue that people who fit in a certain radical culture will not be welcomed into the Adventist community? Does our culture hinder some who would embrace doctrines like the seventh-day Sabbath or non-eternal hell?
I’ll end this post with a question similar to the one the preacher this morning used to conclude his sermon on Mark 5:21-43: Am I–like the crowd around Jesus–standing in the way of someone who is trying to get to Jesus? I ask: Is my church’s culture standing in the way of some who would embrace Jesus and the three angels’ message? Is it even safe to ask the question?
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Additional writings on The One Project:
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 Ronald J. Sider, I Am Not a Social Activist: Making Jesus the Agenda (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008), 21.
 Ibid., 23–24.
 Tony Campolo describes his macro political views like this: “We’re not into partisan politics, though we have a bias for political policies that foster justice for the poor and oppressed, regardless of which party espouses them,” Red Letter Revolution (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 5.