Labyrinth Prayers, Burning Candles, and Mystical Rituals
“Labyrinth prayer.” I can’t remember where I first heard the term, but in 2010, when I thought of it again, the picture that came to my mind was a maze containing a person praying for a way to get out of it. Knowing that it wasn’t the true definition of the term, I decided to Google it. From there, terms such as “Emergent Church,” “contemplative prayer,” and other similar terms began to fill up my computer screen.
I had never previously heard of the emergent church, but the concept intrigued me. I began to research the subject, and learned about some of the movement’s most famous individuals, such as Brian McLaren, Doug Paggit, Tony Jones, and Phyllis Tickle, among others. I decided that 2010 would be the year I learned about the Emerging Church. Throughout that year, I systematically read through the publications of the Emergent Church’s highest-recommended authors.
However, during this period of research and information gathering, I also discovered that there was a significant movement against the Emergent Church in the evangelical world, and thus I added some of the prominent opposition writers to my list as well. As 2010 transitioned into 2011, I began to gain a good sense of what the Emergent Church was and what they were trying to accomplish, as well as the main critiques of the movement.
I learned about the implications of their ideas, and what they meant for denominations that chose to embrace the movement. Most importantly, I identified the Emergent Church’s incompatibility with the Adventist Church’s beliefs, message, and mission. It was with great surprise, therefore, that I heard there was a movement within the Seventh-day Adventist Church that was advocating that we embrace the methodology and practices of the Emergent Church.
Adventists Embracing Emergent Theology?
A friend emailed me a sermon presented by Pastor Steve Wohlberg. The content of his presentation was on the emergent church. As I listened to the sermon, I learned about a ministry called the ONE Project. After watching the sermon, I googled the ONE Project and began to watch a few of their sermons. I read their description of themselves and their ministry, and noticed that I knew several of the individuals who had founded the ministry, as well as others who were involved in running it.
As I continued to watch the videos on the ONE Project website, I realized that Wohlberg had made a mistake in his characterization of the ONE Project as being emerging/emergent. His characterization of the ONE Project didn’t square up with any of the theology or methodology I had discovered in my own research of Emergent Church thought-leaders.
However, while I felt that I possessed a good understanding of the Emergent Church movement, I didn’t have an objective methodology with which to evaluate a ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and thus I dropped the subject and moved on with life.
2013-2014 was a tough time in my life, as I was battling cancer. During that period of time, a good friend, Dave Fiedler, sent his regards to me and mentioned that he was working on a book that was to be published in a few months, a book on the Emergent Church and its inroads into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I asked for a copy of the manuscript to read in the hospital while receiving treatment, and he graciously shared it with me. As I read Fiedler’s manuscript, it occurred to me that he, as well as others who were speaking about the ONE Project, would benefit greatly from talking directly to the founders of the ministry. “Had anyone talked to the ONE Project ‘guys’?’ I asked. “No,” replied Fielder. Would he personally be open to such a conversation? He was.
Three of the founders of the ONE Project live and work near me here in Southern California. I have worked alongside two of them, Pastor Terry Swenson and Pastor Tim Gillespie, on the campus of Loma Linda University (I as the associate director of Advent HOPE Sabbath School and President of Restoration Ministry on the LLU Campus, Gillespie as the pastor at Re:Live Sabbath School—both Sabbath Schools are part of the Loma Linda University Church—and Swenson as the LLU Chaplain). One of the ministry’s leaders, listed on the ONE Project website, was Pastor Paddy McCoy, whom I had worked under as a student in Campus Ministry at Kettering College of Medical Arts from 2000 to 2003.
I contacted Gillespie on Facebook and asked him if he would be open to talk with Fiedler. Gillespie was cautious in his reply. In our conversation on Facebook, he denied that he and the ONE Project were emergent/emerging, and stated that the Emergent Church philosophy was incompatible with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unfortunately, my impending third major surgery prevented me from following up with him, and the conversation between Fiedler and Gillespie never came to pass.
A Closer Look at the ONE Project
At the end of 2015, Compass Magazine asked if I was interested in attending the ONE Project and writing a “few articles” on my experience at the Gathering. The then managing editor, Rachel Cabose, had attended a 1:1 event, and had written a brief report on it. The magazine was interested in a more in-depth look at the ministry. I figured that I had watched enough of the symposiums against the ministry, and read enough books and papers by the ONE Project founders, that the next best step to learn more about the ministry was to attend a Gathering myself.
In addition to the original assignment I accepted from Compass Magazine, I thought it best to attempt to interview the founders of the ministry while attending the Gathering. Much has been said, written, and published about the ONE Project, but I decided that it would be of interest to people, when I wrote my articles for Compass Magazine, to find out what the founders actually believed theologically and how they arrived at their points of view.
How does one evaluate a ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church?
Depending on whom you speak to, the ONE Project is:
“The beginning of the Omega Apostasy”
“The next best thing in Adventism”
“A beautiful expression of Christ”
“The Emergent Church in the Adventist Church”
It is difficult to reconcile such a wide disparity in views. I asked several people who expressed their views on the ONE Project how they had evaluated the ministry and come to the conclusions they now hold. Again, I received a vast and disparate flurry of answers. These are just a few of the responses I received…
“Look at the founders”
“By their fruits”
“Watch this sermon”
“Ellen White said…”
“Read this book”
“Use the Bible”
“Attend a Gathering”
“Watch this Symposium”
…and the ever-popular…
“Study the history of the Jesuit infiltration into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
“Adventism” or “Adventisms?”
In Loma Linda, just as with potluck cuisines, there is a wide range of “Adventisms” that are both practiced and preached. Most of my spiritual experience from 2004 till 2010 revolved around Advent HOPE Sabbath School, South West Youth Conference, Restoration Ministry, and being in charge of recording seminars at GYC for AudioVerse. I was thoroughly immersed in what some would call “conservative circles.”
The only exception was when I would occasionally attend a young adult Sabbath School at CrossWalk SDA Church. One of my “progressive” friends, Ron Osborn, ran a discussion-style class, and I would occasionally drop in to join the “conversation” which mostly consisted of me holding one “unique” (read: “traditional Adventist”) view, and the rest of the class holding another view on the subjects discussed. Overall, though, since my days at Kettering College, it had been a while since I had attended what I would term a “progressive” ministry event.
At The ONE Project: Live and In Color
When I arrived at the ONE Project Gathering in Seattle, I set up all my interviews with the five founders of the ministry. Pastor Japhet De’Olivera was the first person I talked to about sitting down for an interview. Pastor Sam Lenor agreed as well, and seated next to him was the head of the European ONE Project, Dr. Tom DeBruin, who also agreed to join in.
A few hours later, I ran into both Pastor Alex Bryan and Pastor Tim Gillespie having a conversation outside the main Conference Hall. They both agreed to be interviewed, but requested their questions in writing, “So that I can give precise answers,” said Bryan. I ran into Pastor Terry Swenson during one of the breaks between the sessions, and he agreed as well. With all five founders agreeing to talk on the record for The Compass Magazine, I felt I had secured a good opportunity to gather first-hand data for my yet-to-be-developed framework for evaluating the ministry.
As I settled into my chair at the Gathering, I noticed a few changes from my previous liberal Adventist experiences at Kettering College, as well as what conservative Adventists typically expect at progressive convocations. Gone was the emphasis on feelings and emotion; in its place was a minimalist style approach to worship. There was a simple song service—yes, with guitars and drums—but also sermons that possessed actual Biblical content and frequent use of the Spirit of Prophecy.
As I listened and participated in the conversations held after the sermonettes, I was impressed. The attendees at my table ranged from a young pastor and his wife to some high school and college students. All of them used both the Bible and Ellen White’s writings (and not in a general way, but quoting specific verses and passages from both).
Granted, I have friends who would have been deeply offended by the drums and Christian Contemporary Music, but there wasn’t anything being preached or discussed at my table that was remotely un-Adventist, let alone emergent. As I walked out of the Conference Hall after the last event, a radical thought struck me:
“Has God moved on from GYC and decided to start something with the ONE Project?”
Back in my hotel room, a friend called me. She wanted a full report of the day’s events. We talked for over two hours, and at the end, I said, “You have to come next year! Buy your ticket now!” “Okay, I will,” she promised. The next day, she did.