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One Church?: A Report on “the One project” Orlando

the One project Orlando

One Church?: A Report on “the One project” Orlando

“Have fun at your party!” my Lyft driver shouted over the noise of a boombox as I stepped into the evening, surrounded by a crowd of saints with lightsabers. The vibe: hype

A saber-bearer escorted me under street lamps through her fellow teens on skateboards toward the Warehouse Community building, where more One project hospitality representatives enthusiastically welcomed me.

Locals were surprised—impressed—that a real, live conference was happening in their Spanish-mossed town of Apopka, on Orlando’s northern fringes. The name comes from the Seminole word for “potato eating place.” (“Not much to do here. If you like parks, there’s parks, but I ain’t a park girl,” offered one local woman I ran into while running errands.) 

I traveled to Apopka for the 36th gathering of the One project with over 300 Adventists and the Adventist adjacent, who flocked to Florida from throughout the U.S., Europe, and Australia. The theme of the weekend: “One Church?” 

A lot hangs in the balance of conferences like these—this event in particular. A lot more than the General Conference seems to realize. 

Where have we been?

There have been three main phases of the One project since its 2010 launch. It started as a small group of friends trying to answer the question, “Why does Christianity matter?” The ensuing conferences sought to re-center Jesus in Adventist conversations. Back then, its founders were a band of avante-garde pastors, and a palpable core brotherhood persists to this day. 

Following the General Conference’s dealings with women’s ordination in 2015, a vigorous, oppositional publishing industry emerged to confront the One project. One leaders found this galvanizing. More books were published calling out the project’s sins than were published by the project itself. That antagonism helped spark the metamorphosis of the group from a band of “peripheral rabble-rousers” to a cohesive force that has markedly changed how the Adventist machine functions. 

The project shut itself down in 2018. Leadership felt they had accomplished their goal of elevating Adventist Christology—re-prioritizing Jesus. It lay down to die in Australia and San Diego. People cried. A select group tattooed the group’s motto onto their forearms: Jesus. All. 

Early the next year, the One project rose from the grave. In fact its leaders never really shuttered the project; requests for it to continue came too quickly, and there was only a lull in operations.

Musician and worship leader Nicholas Zork, who has been attending project conferences since the very beginning, noted an interesting shift in the energy. Recent conferences have emphasized things project leaders hope Adventism will address in order for the church to more fully love the people it is called to love. Conferences these days feel more celebratory and less like desperate survival-planning meetings among occupants of a sinking Adventist ship. The ship may still be taking on water, but the tone is different. The church has made progress. There is hope.

What’s next for the One project?

There is some debate over why the One project is still meeting. It had not met physically since 2020, in Boulder, Colorado, just before Covid shut the world down. Since then, the project organized an impressive portfolio of podcasts, panel discussions, and blog posts. Its online content deeply resonated with many left isolated during the pandemic’s physical distancing, along with those for whom typical Adventist environments feel uncomfortable and inhospitable. I, myself, have good memories of escaping virtually to SaltWorks from Southern’s quarantine dorm (whose windows were always inexplicably bolted shut). 

But the One project’s natural state is in-person, and its transition back to a real room where real people sit around real tables and have real conversations over real coffee seems to best exemplify its active, bodily, hospitality-conscious theology. 

Since the project feels it accomplished its goal of centering Christ in Adventist discourse, it now functions as a deep social scene—a nutritious petri dish for Adventists repelled by traditional camp meetings or GYC conventions as places to convene and connect. 

The project excels in two particular ways, from which the church needs to continue learning: 

  1. the One project references scripture highly and holds it in high regard. The sacred text feels sacred. According to one attendee, what Adventism needs is a “Gospel revolution,” a return to scripture-centric methodology. No other denominational conferences, anywhere, center around scripture as heavily as the One project, he said. 
  2. Its conferences foster genuine community.  Following each speaker’s presentation, attendees sit at circular tables and discuss prompts written by that speaker. The events are studiously designed to make people feel welcome and to connect; table conversations are no less important than the talks from the stage. meet Tara Isabella Burton’s definition of a “good party.” “Good Parties,” she says, “foster the virtue of loving well.”

Burton further elaborates on love within community:

“We learn to see ourselves as part of a community: one defined not by hierarchy or even shared affinity, in the capitalist-consumer sense, but simply by our love for one another…[A Good Party] understands that friendship—the family of love rather than blood or birth—is at the heart of the Christian political life.”

The Medical One

There is a lot of crossover between the One project and the Adventist healthcare community. Three of the project’s founders—Japhet De Oliviera, Alex Bryan, and Sam Leonor—transitioned from pastoring to serving as Adventist Health administrators. 

Michael Nixon, former vice president for diversity and inclusion at Andrews University and current director of DEI at Beacon Health System, sees this crossover as a natural confluence in the types of conversations central to both groups. “Belonging” is a key common theme. “If your heart is beating in the church, asking questions about who gets to belong and how we make that happen is a natural outflowing,” Nixon said.

The five Adventist healthcare networks in North America progressively emphasize holistic care as they reckon with healthcare worker burnout that became even more pronounced during the Covid pandemic. During the One project Orlando healthcare lunch on Saturday, the topic of deep community building among employees and with patients emerged.

The healthcare lunch attracted a host of practitioners and administrators. The discussion panel featured six administrators from AdventHealth and Adventist Health, systems based in Florida and California, respectively. The uninitiated can easily distinguish them from one another by their almost identical logos, quipped emcee and Crosswalk Portland pastor Paddy McCoy. AdventHealth’s Apopka and Orlando hospitals were both within a 20-minute drive. 

The panel addressed the importance of non-practitioners, like janitors, to the whole-person care of patients. They discussed retaining Christian health ministry’s distinctiveness through avenues beyond a mere cross somewhere on campus, while being no less welcoming of patients hospitalized for substance abuse. They talked about all staff members’ need to connect deeply with medical ministry’s purpose (“ministry” being delineated from “evangelism”).

Historically, there has been a perceptible divide between Adventist physicians and Adventist clergy, the former tending towards nonsectarian Adventism for a variety of reasons. This social split has left physicians who work in Adventist hospitals where meat is regularly served, for example, sometimes awkwardly sitting through seminars on the sins of omnivorism by the local church nutrition lady (there’s always one), and sometimes without a church community of like-minded professionals. The One project, it seems, serves as a hospitable landing pad for this group.

One Church?

Discussion of Adventism’s future rippled through conference break times around ambiently lit tables and next to the professionally-operated espresso machine. 

Rick Johns, a pastor in the women-ordaining Potomac Conference who works under the shadow and furrowed brow of the General Conference, feels that a unified church is unlikely. But he also sees a top-down rift as improbable. An official split would sever Loma Linda money from the more conservative General Conference administration, as GC leaders know well. More plausible, Johns says, is a gradual, grassroots severance. People who find themselves alienated for a variety of reasons from the institution of the church will find solace in adjacent communities. 

Nicholas Zork observed that unlike many large projects that attract younger, more progressive audiences, or congregations who have uncomfortable religious ties—such as Hillsong—the One project and the Crosswalk Church network have an interesting advantage. They are blooming naturally in the fertile soil of an existing global church instead of trying to conduct their new choir from the top. This locally-driven, grassroots orientation (many of Crosswalk’s informal Lovewell communities started with lay church members disappointed in their existing churches) may be what gives Adventists the agency they need to create the communities they lack. It seems likely that progressive Adventism’s tendrils will continue taking root in this environment and eventually…be transplanted somewhere else altogether? Some feel this needs to happen. 

Zork in particular expressed optimism that non-church-affiliated programs like the One project can exist in creative collaboration with the church, buttressing a diverse, unified institutional whole by meeting the needs of otherwise overlooked members. 

Other sketches of a future Adventism included those offered by recently-ordained pastors and Andrews University seminarians. 

A Florida-based pastor who did not consent to be named in this article described two distinct groups of Adventist youth: those who created social networks within the denomination, who easily navigated its unique cultural topography, and those who did not and therefore could not—those uncomfortable with the church as a cultural unit. “The future of the classic, eleven-to-noon church service looks dismal,” he said. He noted that this is not the biblical definition of church, and that “church is far bigger than the physical building.” Church, he said, means game nights and volleyball nights, and people who carry their love with them “out into the world.” A deep, embodied community that may never even actually walk in the doors of a “church.” Adventists have always been obsessed with the idea of getting people in the doors, an even more consistent metric of church success than baptism, but this obsession may kill the church.

An Andrews seminarian named Alden said, “If the church as an institution is a sinking ship, let it sink. I’m here for the community.” Conferences have quietly worried about a pastor shortage for years, but the reality will likely become more obvious in the coming decades. Alden told me that at a recent pastor’s conference he attended, those who had served for over thirty years were asked to come to the front to be recognized. He was one of the only ones who didn’t meet this criteria. The Adventist pastoral workforce is rapidly aging. This means that should the Advent movement survive—and it will—the work may increasingly fall to people not ordained by the church hierarchy. 

As I listened to table conversations, I noted the observation that the project’s inclusivity did not seem to extend to the institutional church.

I reached out to the General Conference, curious about its stance toward the One project, which is not officially affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist church. In an email response, associate communications director Sam Neves seemed amenable to the project’s central theme, praising its focus on the centrality of Christ. He stated, however, that “there has been a temptation to use this gathering as a platform of discontentment with the voted actions of the world church, in particular as it refers to women’s ordination.” He explained this in detail.

Regarding the church body, Neves distinguished between “fellowship” and “membership,” noting that everyone is to be included in fellowship. “However, we have biblical standards for membership,” he said. “Sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sin. Same-sex intimacy is also a sin. This means we will not accept into membership someone who is unmarried while living with their partner, for example.” 

From the Stage: One Church…?

Michaela Lawrence Jeffery, a pastor from Athens, Georgia, described the way a church’s expiry can bring regeneration. “As heartbreaking as I’m sure it is to watch your denomination fall apart,” she said, “I can’t help but believe that there must be something healthy about this eventual level of honesty and a willingness to figure things out in newly formed groupings. We can’t be afraid to fall apart.” 

Jeffery dove into the metaphor of the armor of God. “Armor is a uniform…The conscious or the unconscious expectation makes sense that if we all have on God’s armor, then we will all look a certain way,” she said. “Instead of representing heaven-sent gifts, then our armor begins to represent our particular practices that have shaped out particular religious identities.”

She advocated reorienting truth, pulling focus from I have the truth to Jesus is the truth. “Truth,” she asserted, “becomes an experience, not a destination to be conquered.” When a church begins warring with itself, it may destroy its current composition and grow into something else. And maybe that’s a good thing. 

While the project regularly features addresses from its founding brotherhood, other speakers also cycle behind the mic—like Jeffery. Loma Linda University campus chaplain Dilys Brooks also spoke.

“I long for a Vatican II in the Adventist Church,” Brooks told the audience. “I am looking for the uprising of the Spirit on people who understand that we are not simply to be content with having the truth, but actually, actively participating in our communities and the world, beyond what ADRA does.” 

Brooks urged attendees to remember where they came from, whose they are, and who they are becoming, and called on her hearers to surrender the way they were, who they used to be. She used her native Jamaica as an example of remembering, and then surrendering, a tragic past. She addressed Adventist classism, calling out a culture highly stratified by how many generations of Adventist one can trace and where someone went to school. She criticized navelgazing and called for getting out into the world. “Matthew didn’t say blessed are the peacekeepers,” she emphasized, “he said blessed are the peacemakers…In order to make peace, you may have to have hard conversations.” 

Brooks noted Jesus’ words in Matthew—blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. “Righteousness is not perfection and sinlessness,” she said. “It is having the same discomfort that the Spirit of God has with seeing injustice in the world. We sleep too good at night.

Conversations happening at the One project are important, perhaps prophetic. There’s a butterfly-effect potential here. To most, Adventism doesn’t have the same state-of-emergency feel that it did in, say, 2015. But the cumulative decisions of individual churches and conferences become precedents and norms. And, as the thrust of several conversations suggested, some things need to be allowed to die before they can ever be reborn.

About the author

Christina Cannon is a researcher and writer currently based in San Francisco. She is a recent graduate of Southern Adventist University’s history program. More from Christina Cannon.
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