The One Project: Create Conference (Part 4)

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The One Project: Create Conference (Part 4)


 Editorial Note: This is part 4 of a series covering the One Project. In this article Adrian Zahid, gives a summary of the Create Conference (February 16, 2016) as well as his personal reflections of the speakers’ presentations. To read the previous installments of this series please click here. A final analysis of the the One Project, including the Create Conference, will be provided in the 5th and final article of this series.”

Leading up to the Create Conference

The Create Conference was held the day after the main Gathering ended. The speakers for the Create Conference were selected several months prior to the event, but due to unforeseen circumstances all of the original speakers were unable to participate. Consequently, the One Project Board members stepped in to fill the void. The speakers were Pastors Alex Bryan, Tim Gillespie, Japhet De Oliveira, Sam Leonor, Paddy McCoy, and Dr. Lisa Clark Diller. As the new cast of speakers spent time in prayer leading up to the Create conference, they considered covering various topics including: hermeneutics, women’s ordination, eschatology, etc. At the conclusion of the groups reflection and much prayer, Pastor Bryan claims that, they felt the Spirit pushing them towards the priority of the local church. He stated, “If Christ died for our sins is the main thing, then the application of the main thing is incarnational, it is the body of Christ in the local environment.”


The Format of the Conference

Each speaker spoke for approximately 20-25 minutes on a specific area of ecclesiology. Time (approx. 2 minutes per person) was also set-aside after each presentation for the audience to comment and ask questions before the next speaker began. The line-up consisted of three presentations in the morning, a lunch break, and then three presentations in the afternoon.[i]


All of the speakers were well prepared and had many ideas to offer. But by far, Pastor Alex Bryan’s presentation was the most detailed, regarding cited sources, wide-ranging in its application, and deep in its complexity. I cover his talk in greater detail here than those of the others however that is not to say that the other presentations were of no consequence. It seemed clear to me, upon reflection, that Bryan’s talk, was the foundation upon which the others built their presentations. For these other presentations, I’ve included some of their salient points below. However, since this series is specifically focuses on the founders of the One Project, I will not address the presentations of Dr. Lisa Clark Diller and Pastor Paddy McCoy. We’ll start with Alex Bryan’s presentation.


Pastor Alex Bryan: The Local Church

Pastor Alex Bryan set the tone for his presentation and the rest of the Create Conference by saying, “If we are going to whine and moan about the Church all day, it helps no one.”

After pledging not to do it himself he said, “Deconstruction, goes nowhere, when it’s just deconstruction.”


However, Bryan tempered his former statement by stating,


“Being an apologist for the status quo is equally a waste of time. To just say ‘everything is fine let’s not critique anything’ is like a couple that goes to a counselor and refuses to acknowledge that there’s any problems. That’s not particularly healthy either, so there is [a need for] that constructive, restorative, create (This is where the word ‘Create’ in Create Conference comes from) [aspect] where we are not just deconstructing things but we are telling the truth in an attempt to build something better.”


Bryan described and invited discussion on what he saw were brutal realities in the Church that needed to be confronted in order to create solutions. He justified his approach by citing the Stockdale Paradox.


The Stockdale Paradox was coined by business book author Jim Collins based on a conversation he had with Vice Admiral and Vice-Presidential Candidate, James Stockdale. Stockdale was a prisoner of war (POW) for eight years during the Vietnam war and is credited with maintaining the morale of the POWs during his imprisonment. He told Collins how he helped himself and the other POWs survive by embracing the facts of their brutal reality. Collins later wrote a business book, Good to Great, from which Pastor Bryan cited an excerpt of the exchange between Collins and Stockdale.[ii]


“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”


It was this philosophy of duality, articulated by Stockdale, that led Collins to later describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.[iii]


With those preliminary remarks, Pastor Alex Bryan began his presentation.


A ‘Know-Nothing’ Speaks from the 90’s

Bryan began his presentation with a lengthy quote from an article that he wrote when he was twenty-seven-year-old. The article, which was published, March 19, 1998, made the cover of the Adventist Review. In it, he repeated the phrase, “I’m listening, but I don’t like what I hear” to emphasize some of the conversations that were occurring around him in North American Adventism, specifically about the local church. He cited, in his article, conversations in which administrators, educators, and even pastors expressed desperation regarding the local churchs’ state of decline in Adventism.[iv]


Looking back Bryan perceives himself as perhaps a “know-nothing” twenty something year-old expressing what he was feeling long ago. But now as the senior pastor at Walla Walla University Church, he finds that, over-and-over, he and his pastoral staff hear from former students who say that they cannot find a spiritual home in their local churches. “They can’t get involved. They can’t find a welcoming church.” Many gathering attendees come to the One Project team and have state that “This [the Gathering] is my ‘life-boat. These are the two days that keep me in the Adventist game for the rest of the year.’


From these past experiences in his 20s and in his current role now, Bryan states, “It seems to me that the local church is in trouble in the Seventh-day Adventist Church” and he expressed that he is “horribly worried about the state of the local congregation, particularly in North American Adventism.”


“So why is the local church in trouble?” Bryan asks. To understand how we got into such a perceived sorry state, Bryan offered his analysis with the help of some diagrams. I was able to discern three categories: Purpose, Purse, and Profession. We will explore his analysis for each area in some detail here.


(1) Purpose: ‘This World is not My Home, I’m Just a Passing Through’

For Bryan, to understand the underlying causes that brought about the dismal state of the local churches, we need to first understand the ‘historic purpose’ of Adventism. He cited an article by Adventist Today executive editor and local church pastor, Dr. Loren Seibold, who himself listed several reasons as to why the local church is in its current state: the most significant being our ‘unique message’ and our ‘fear of Roman Catholicism’ which led us to ‘identify’ more with the denomination than with the congregation. Seibold writes:

“I’d suggest another reason: as a denomination, we’ve not made developing congregations our priority. Rather than making the local congregation the center of our life together, we’ve moved our members’ focus up the church ladder in the direction of the ministries we share collectively. We’ve worked hard on schools, colleges, hospitals, publishing houses, media ministries, administrative offices, missions and soul-winning events, but creating strong, healthy congregations hasn’t seemed like the most important thing that we do—even for those of us in congregations.

A number of factors, beginning with our development as a new religious movement in 19th century America, have made us more denominationally-centered than other Protestant churches. Perhaps the most significant is our unique message. We grew out of conservative Protestantism, but like several other American-born sects (Christian Science, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses) with some unconventional features. The Saturday Sabbath set us apart, as did our dietary restrictions and our belief in the imminent arrival of Jesus.

Yet the key feature of our sociological development, it seems to me, was neither the Sabbath nor the Second Advent, but our fear of Roman Catholicism. By extending that antipathy to all the other Protestant churches that followed the Catholic church’s lead in worshiping on Sunday, we effectively segregated ourselves from other Christians. As a result, we came to identify more with the denomination than with a congregation: we were Seventh-day Adventists first, and then members of a particular Seventh-day Adventist congregation.

So, the sense of ourselves as a movement that is preparing for Jesus’ soon return has made congregations seem temporary and unimportant in comparison with the big tasks we have to do, the world we have to win.”[v]

“You’ve heard of escapist dreams, in the church?” Bryan continued as he quoted the lines from the old hymn, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,’ to drive home the point that local projects with plans that go beyond a few years in length receive pushback because it ‘betrays the very sense of what it means to be an Adventist.’

Bryan continued:

“I’m not trying to be sarcastic here, my hope is that we are truly out of here soon. But in a sense, is the local church with its sense of permanence a betrayal of what it means to be an Adventist? Because to pour one’s self into a real community, with real people, with real soil, and [an] actual locality in a fervent way, is to suggest, we’ve got something to do here, and it may take a while. So in a sense is the local church an affront to this other sense that we have [the nearness of the Second Coming] that we don’t want to be here.”

“Adventism works great as a concept but it wars against a sense of community.”

He drew our attention to a figure with three concentric circles encapsulating three key words. Highlighting each of the three keywords, he stated, “Because we are the protestors of the protestors [protestants], this has made [or caused] any reflection on being a part of, or reading the books of, or any involvement in global Christianity, [to be] immediately shut down with the word, ‘ecumenical.’ “[If] you have one non-Adventist speaker at the One Project, its [perceived as] an ecumenical movement” said Bryan, echoing the concerns some have raised regarding this ministry. [vi]

“But what I’m trying to say is that we come by honestly but on the other hand, the local church makes us nervous. And the word we use there is ‘congregationalism.’” He said that many pastors and other leaders in the North American Division have gotten into trouble just based on those two keywords, ecumenism, and/or congregationalism.

‘Where we are comfortable’ he continued, is right here in the middle: ‘The SDA Denomination Incorporated.’ According to him, “when using the word ‘church’ that’s what we most often think about, ‘denomination,’ the middle category. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s where it sits.” This ‘three-word’ concept: (1) ecumenism, (2) congregationalism, and (3) denomination, he considers to be foundational to understanding the local church.

So, putting all the concepts together to understand the tensions that underlie our historic purpose, for Bryan, we are most comfortable with ‘denomination Inc.’ he said, and least comfortable with ecumenism and congregationalism. He stated that we do not have any connections to the people around us. Most glaring is our lack of connections to other protestant churches. Thus, we are isolated from other Protestants and consequently, the vast number of Christians we hope to reach with our message.

Adventist local pastors and administrators are reluctant to make healthy inter-denominational connections for fear that they might be labeled as ‘ecumenical’ by some in our denomination. On the flip side, they fear putting too much of a focus on the local church or making solid plans that may take years or decades to come to fruition because their actions might be perceived as denying the “soon-ness” of our Christ’s return. Bryan asserts that our focus is so much on getting to Heaven that we forget that we have a work on earth to do Thus, we are unable to intellectually or personally commit to long term or sustained local projects at the local church level, which inevitably cripples the purpose of the local church.

Purse: ‘My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue’

The next issue affecting the local church is the matter of the “purse.” Bryan mentioned a section of historian Dr. George Knight’s “If I were the devil” speech delivered at the 2000 General Conference.[vii] In that speech, Knight quoted noted religion scholar, David O. Moberg’s five stages in the life cycle of a church: 1) Incipient organization, 2) Formal Organization, 3) Maximum Efficiency, 4) Institutionalism, and finally 5) Disintegration.[viii] Knight continued to comment on the levels of administration above the local church. Knight also stated that there were four levels of administration above the local Adventist church, more levels than any other Christian church, in an article for the Adventist Review. The editor, at the time, of the Adventist Review wanted to insert the qualifier ‘except the Catholic Church’, to which Knight forcefully replied, “Including the Catholic Church!” which according to Knight only has two levels above the local parish. Knight wrote that the ‘The greatest challenge of 21st century Adventism will be to reorganize.’ In addition, Bryan cited an undated General Conference statistical report for the NAD in which there are ‘5783 administrators and 4498 evangelistic and pastoral employees’ for the North American Division. The point Bryan highlighted is that there is a a growing consensus among some in the NAD, that the Adventist Church has become ‘top-heavy’ with more ‘administrators’ than local pastors. According to Bryan, ‘this makes perfect sense for how we ought to invest in resources if our principle foundational mission is the denomination [as opposed to the local church].’


He then showed us another figure in which he had a chart with budgets of three local churches which showed the amount of money, two-thirds or more, goes ‘away’ from the local church to support education and other initiatives of the Church. He recognized that he himself serves on an educational campus but emphasized that it is a ‘reality’ and issue for the sustainability and mission of the local church.


Profession: Attracting the Best and the Brightest

Addressing the “Profession” issue facing the effectiveness and mission of the local church, Bryan discussed the brain-drain in which highly-trained professional Adventist clergy are flowing from the local church to administration, healthcare, education and wherever. Quoting again from his own article, The End of American Adventism? published in Adventist Today, he noted the shift of pastors to better funded areas of the work. Quoting from Seeking a Sanctuary by Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart:


“that if Adventist pastors have not been elected to the conference office or become noted evangelists, they may grow increasingly restless. Promotions are almost always viewed as calls to big Adventist centers and thus local churches are starved of visionary leadership.”


Bryan then asked, “If the priority of what it means is not the Adventist church. It’s not where the ‘action’ is. And it’s not where we ‘invest’ our money and resources, how on earth are we going to attract the best and the brightest to the local church?” How do we get some of our best young people to work in the local church instead of leaving for a better paycheck or better acclaim elsewhere? Bryan then asserts, that professionally trained Adventist pastors ‘start going to pastors meetings with people who have six weeks of education at a pastor’s institute.[typically a short-term evangelistic training school instead of an accredited Adventist religion program at an Adventist college/university ]’ “They [pastor’s institute graduates] are the treasured sons and daughters of God, beautiful people, but my God what does it do to the profession? What does that do to our sense of being meaningfully involved in a local church environment?” Bryan asked these questions and received a chorus of agreement from the audience in the room.



After enumerating the obstacles (errors in purpose, purse, and profession) that have prevented the local church from growing he then presented his four proposed solutions.


(1) We Need a Decade of the Local Church

Speaking to the theologians in the room, he said:


“We need a decade of the local church. We need to do rich deep theology of what [it] means to be a local church. Because if there is no local church, friends, bye bye Adventist hospital’s being Adventist, bye bye Adventist school. [In fact] We don’t have an Adventist school problem, we have an Adventist local church problem. If the local church is kaput, then everything is done (finished) in Adventism. [We need to answer the question of] What does it mean to be Adventist while we are waiting for Jesus to come back?”


(2) We need to ‘Keep it Local’

Drawing an analogy from the grow-local food movement he went on to say that we don’t need Sabbath School lessons from a central source. We should celebrate people who are writing Sabbath school lessons locally. We can come up with materials locally. “I’m not knocking the Sabbath lesson, but we need to localize.”


(3) We need to study and act on radical reorganization plans of the NAD

He referred to the NAD reorganization document that had come out a few months before in 2015. “We need to study and act on them [the suggestions] on radical reorganization.”


(4) We need to Invest Locally

If theologically we believe in the local church, and we invest resources, (and not just money), and if we politically allow for innovation to happen at the local level, then it will be easy for college church pastors like him to recruit the best and brightest to serve in the local churches.



Pastor Tim Gillespie: Why Good Theology Requires a Place

Opening Remarks

Gillespie began his session by mentioning a conversation he had with a non-Adventist co-worker. He asked this individual if they had ever considered becoming an Adventist. The individual replied, “No. You are all liars.” Gillespie asked, “what do you mean?” The individual replied, “You talk publicly about these standards you have, but no one is keeping them. And you never talk about it in public.” Gillespie took that to heart and at the beginning of his presentation he emphasized that if we aren’t being real about our church and its issues then ‘all we are is some group standing around and pretending.’ Next, Gillespie shared his suggestions on how to create meaning and purpose for the local church.


Creating Meaning in Community through the Local Church

“Where you believe affects how you believe and how you practice that belief. It also affects what you believe.” Speaking to the differences in generations within Adventism, Gillespie said, upcoming generations do not believe the same way previous generations believed.


“The land is all local. The gospel is always a conversation between two people. Orthodoxy requires orthopraxy. What you believe has to be acted out incarnationally in the world. Otherwise, who cares? I couldn’t care less about what you believe but I care very deeply about how you love the people around you. How you love the people around you will explain to me very clearly what you believe.”


He then gave a short exposition about the land citing Genesis 1-11 as an description of how people ‘lost the land’ and Genesis 12-50 as living in expectation of the land. He then explained, Deuteronomy 6 in which the land is given as a gift to God’s people, and that we are supposed to inhabit the land for it to be a blessing to the nations.


The problem, Gillespie asserts, is that the Adventist churches do not exist in time or space. To explain his point, he asked fellow One Project cofounder, Pastor Japhet Oliveira, to conduct an analysis of the member’s addresses at his church and chart their locations via zip code. The results were astounding. Most members were passing 7-8 Adventist churches on the way, to attend Pastor Olivera’s church! From this data, Gillespie asked the audience a question: How do you create meaning to a community when your members no longer live there?


He drew several reasons for this absence ‘from the land’ and the reality that the pastor doesn’t work for the churches, but instead they work for the conference.


Gillespie mentioned the need for the church to recalibrate its finances so that the pastors can live in the churches where they serve. He mentioned the disadvantages of not maintaining a parish model. Furthermore, administrators currently make to many decisions for the local church. He stated that the institution sucks everything from the local church. Then speaking directly to administrators he said, I want to remind you that the only place money comes from is the local church.


Gillespie then went on to describe what his local church, Crosswalk Seventh-day Adventist Church was doing for its community. Using a local geospatial company’s ESRI’s software, Gillespie and his team mapped out a one mile radius around their church. According to the data, 8000 people live in that radius and it is this ‘community’ that his church assumes ‘life risk’ for. They mapped out the congregants and found that most people came from seven neighborhoods around their church. They are working towards having community organizers in each of the neighborhoods. They walked through the neighborhoods taking pictures of assets and liabilities in the neighborhood and helped clean up some of the refuse they found there.


He then made an observation about how the Adventist Church is big on health and temperance but we don’t have any Alcoholics Anonymous classes or smoking cessation classes for the community to attend. “It’s as if we say to the community, stop smoking, and stop drinking, and THEN we will take you.” He continued, “We spend all our time on who we are as Adventists and very little time on what the world needs.” To combat this, his church has started a mid-week yoga class for the community and church members.


He mentioned a conversation with an Adventist administrator who was contemplating whether or not to shut down a local church where there were no Adventists in the immediate area and few attending there. His response was to shut it down for a few months and then reopen it with a young pastor who is innovative, who still believes, that God can work through this denomination, put them in there, resource them and let them grow a church.


The administrator seemed confused. “It seems like a lot of work.”


To which Gillespie replied, “yes, it is a lot of sacred work! I believe that’s what we are hired to do.”


The administrator asked, “Why open a church in a place where there are no Adventists?”


Gillespie replied, “Precisely because there aren’t any Adventists. Close the place down, and let the land lie fallow for a while, and then reopen it. What does it say about our belief in God when we sell places? What does it say about our belief in God to draw people to Him? I believe we are preaching the wrong gospel. We are preaching the gospel of buildings and paper, and not the gospel of Jesus Christ! We are preaching the empire of man, and not the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God grows while the empires of men crumble. The Church of God is not concrete and desks, it is grass and weeds, it is trees and flowers, it is farmers. It is a place that God has given us to water, and plant and pull weeds.”


Gillespie continued his presentation by positing a challenge. He said: I don’t believe change comes from the top down. We have an economy that we live in. We have an economy that is built around preaching and programs in Christianity, [which] is not sustainable. We have to say this is our land. We need take it inch by inch meter by meter. No one is going to define what Adventism is for you in your local community. They can say whatever they want. But I know the reality when I walk into my church. If you are an administrator, and you no longer have a ministry in a local church, shame on you. Because God has called you to minister locally through the loving gospel of Jesus Christ, not through legislation.


Pastor Japhet De Oliveira: Creating A Culture of Change in the Local Church

Opening Remarks

Pastor Olivera began his session by telling the story of a man who was observing the rain fall on the glass and came up with the idea of windshield wipers. Henry Ford stole his idea initially but the courts gave it back to him, and he used the illustration to say that creative ideas are inside all of us. God created us to be creative. Creative people sometimes get into problems with others because you have to be able to try, and be willing to fail.


He then quoted from an article, he read on Spectrum Magazine about Desmond Ford, in which Ford described his latest thoughts using a quotation from Ellen White. The quote was as follows:


“There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation” Counsels to Writers, 35.


Olivera said, I’m glad we will do that. And the audience laughed. He then said we need to ask the hard questions about our faith and about how we do things in the local church.


Creating a Vision through Change

Olivera went on to describe a tension that exists within the denomination with this question: “Is the local church the tail or is the local church the dog?” Olivera believes the local church used to be the dog and the system used to be tail. But now the system is the dog and the tail is wagging hard, but the ‘dog’ wants everything to be calm.


Olivera described his philosophy of the leadership in the local church using the metaphor of a wine maker. Wine makers put wine into a bottle and then let it settle, they then pour out the top and let the sediments settle again, repeating this process over and over again until the wine concentrates and only then is it ready to be stored or presented for consumption. In the same way, he described how he creates the vision for his local church with his team. He continually asks, three questions: “Where are we going?” His vision is that he is dissatisfied with the present.


“You can’t create vision without visiting people and getting to know them. Vision requires us to have urgency, resiliency like Noah who preached for 120 years with bad sermon reviews, and always be hungry for God, hungry for better things. To have vision is to trust that God has all the answers.”


When do we create change? Like wine, he likes to shake things up a bit when people get comfortable in his church. Change is the standard operating procedure of his local church. He likened change to his children growing from babies into adulthood. He talked about how he meets with people who are dissatisfied with their marriage because their partner has changed. You have to embrace change in marriage as well as in the local church.


“Why do we have a church manual?” he asked.


“It’s the dummy’s guide on how to do church.”


“The church manual is not the Bible.”



We sometimes think that when we do nominating committee we have to follow everything the church manual says and nominate people to all these positions regardless of the size and fit of those positions for the church. You end up with people having multiple positions that are really not needed in the church.


Speaking about the past, he described how some members come up to him and say that the church was better in the long distant past. To him the present and future is what invigorates him.


“The past, unless we go back to Adam and Eve in the Garden before they ate of the fruit, is not as great as we think it was. There are so many that want to go back to 1940’s Adventism when supposedly everything was black and white, and everyone looked the same and somehow that was a good thing.”


And finally, he asked if the metrics we are using to define success are the right ones? He described his inability to get funds from the conference for activities for evangelism because the conference determined that those activities were not ‘reaping’ events.


He then mentioned the famous “ABC” metrics that conferences use to measure the effectiveness of a pastor’s ministry: Attendance, Baptism, and Cash [tithes and offerings]. He mentioned that unfortunately, retention stats don’t get the greatest attention from administrators but they are significant. Too often we focus on those who have left, and forget about those who are still here. If you know the people, and they are people to you and not just numbers, the fact that they stayed is huge. And yet there is no bonus for that.


He mentioned how in other divisions where ‘bonuses’ are handed out to pastors who baptize the most members into the church, in several countries in Africa and Peru for example.


“You sail down the river, and find four hundred people and baptize them, you can’t find them, but you say you did. And for that you get a new suit, and salary bonus, and a paid vacation. You go to Hawaii, and come back and then go back up the river and baptize the same four hundred people, because you didn’t keep any records the first time.”


Olivera’s main point was that pastors are constantly pressured to report that everything is going fine. Olivera also mentioned that as a pastor he tried doing a survey every week and having members fill it out. However, after a while that just became too depressing. He described the pressure that pastors feel when preparing sermons, especially for those who are not especially gifted in this area.


He believes that ministry should always be done two-by-two. So, in his church he has four pastors. And he continually encourages his four elder boards to develop new plans and implement them in the church. He went on to describe various initiatives in his local church where he is one of four pastors: worship, youth, young adults, and himself. The young adult pastor will be starting up Generation One the version of the One Project geared towards a young adult audience. He additionally has four elders for administration, worship, teaching and community.


He went on to describe creative ways that his church uses to measure metrics including taking photos to measure attendance. He also mentioned some marketing efforts on search engines and social media activities they do online including the purchasing of .church links for their area. I smiled at this, because some of the ideas he mentioned for marketing, while ‘cutting edge’ for the church are actually antiquated in the business world. That being said I applaud the effort to be relevant and present online.


But despite all the systems that he has created at the church, Olivera stated that systems are not the answer. It is hard to quantify ‘healthy.’ We call our members partners not members. They are partners who are with us in accomplishing mission. He addressed the culture of ‘bunny hoppers’ where members drop in to church once a month or leave church when a big speaker comes into town. It is hard to build community when people don’t have an affinity for a local church. His main point in this part of the presentation was to highlight the fact that people need to commit to the local church in order for it to make a difference in their life and for them to impact the local church. He then stated that at his church they look for ways to engage the partners in various things. He is trying to create ‘tiny bubbles of community.’


He then mentioned the difficulty of choosing to leave Andrews where he and his wife were settled and go back to a local church. His wife was in a PhD program and made sacrifices so that they could move. Deciding to work in a local church requires personal sacrifice, not only for the pastor, but for the spouse and kids as well.


Why do we create churches? Some will say community, some will say friendship, good food etc.? We really need to sit down and hash out our theology for the local church.



Pastor Sam Leonor: Higher Education

Pastor Leonor began his session by acknowledging that we had a ‘blueprint’ for education and supposedly it is the thing has been done for the last 150 years. In 1974, we [the Adventist church] planted colleges at the rate of one every three or four years for the next thirty years. There are only twelve left in the North American Division.


Leonor started to list them humorously with ‘no special order’ but with La Sierra [his employer] at the top of the list. According to Leonor:


“our education system employs the largest sector of our workforce. It is the single-most biggest and most expensive enterprise. We are more invested in the buildings and institutions. Quite literally, we are about education even more so than church! Things were going well, until about twenty or twenty-five years ago. We had a 16,000 drop in enrollment. We closed 271 schools in the last 10 years in the NAD. There used to be a system where you went through the K-12 system and then went to your regional college for education and then were employed by the church and retired in some warm climate in South Florida. Recruiting Adventist young adults to go to college was easy too with a little bit of ‘poaching’ from each others. But now with the closures and the steep drop in enrollment at the K-12 system our universities are being forced to adapt.”

Leonor then went on to describe the extreme ‘survival’ measures that La Sierra University had to adopt in determining its recruitment pool. They made the deliberate decision to recruit students from local high schools, which were predominantly non-Adventist rather than compete with other Adventist colleges for an ever-shrinking pool of students from Adventist high schools. This practice was started about eleven years ago. He wishes it was as missional decision, but it was a survival decision. They went to one hundred and fifty non-Adventist high schools in San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and LA counties to recruit Adventist students who were attending there. However, “when you cast a wide net like that, you end up recruiting non-Adventist students as well.” And over the few years, La Sierra actually grew by a few thousand students. Seventy-five percent of enrollment was from less than hundred miles from the school. He requested that the precise ratio/percentage of Adventist to non-Adventists at his school be kept off the record because his administrators don’t want it to be published. But stated this his university board is constantly pressing its recruiters to find more Adventists. He added that the reason why that number is kept under wraps is because Adventist parents might fear that their child may end up marrying a non-Adventist. He then added that if your child attends Loma Linda University, the chances are greater there that they will not marry an Adventist to which an audience member said, that the Loma Linda student body is 49 percent Adventist.


He asked the administrators in the room to think about what those kinds of numbers mean for Adventist higher education especially when it comes to teaching our beliefs in religion classes. This was an unintended consequence of the change in recruitment strategies.


Leonor than asked, “What is higher Adventist education for?” He recommended a book by Arthur F. Holmes, “The Idea of the Christian College” in which Holmes gives four reasons for why kids should be educated in denominational institutions:


1) Thoroughly converted and indoctrinated the church’s beliefs,

2) Have a great education,

3) Find a spouse,

4) A continuous supply of qualified church employees.


What happens, Leonor asks if [percentage redacted] the enrollment is non-Adventist? Do these goals still apply? Or is the goal to convert them? We at La Sierra University want the education experience for our Adventist students to be exactly what we advertised. We don’t want our students to be mere reflectors of other people’s thoughts (referencing Ellen White). We discovered that there is a significant tension between thinking independently and believing what we are taught to be true. We want our Adventist education to teach our kids to do critical thinking but then we get really uncomfortable when our kids begin to ask us questions.


An alum wrote him an email in which this person said:

“You are part of a system that manufactures students who are smart, talented and driven, yes but who are also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity, and a stunted sense of purpose, trapped in bubble of privilege, all going in the same direction, great at what they do but have no idea why they are doing it.”


Leonor continued:


“Adventist education has been about redemption. Maybe it is best that we start there. Our campus now reflects our geographical diversity which means most of our students are Hispanic. This has literal implications for example in the cafeteria where the students have insisted on their being rice and tortillas available every meal. We have to put together a sequence of classes that students have to move through if they have no background in religion. We have a person whose sole job is the explain the basic aspects of Christianity to students who have questions about Adventism every day. We have had to adapt. Our student missions program had to adapt as well. Southern maybe has sent hundred or hundred thousand…we sent eight. Because our students have been Adventists for less than a year or are not Adventist. So, we have created local mission opportunities here and around the world that is integrated into the curriculum. One of the school systems near us which is one of the most troubled school systems in the United States, now has every day in their classroom two or three hundred students there every day. Our students test water in some areas where clean water is not readily available as part of their mission experience. So, our chapel services are more ‘simple’ gospel in order to reach them. And every year, we have students who, usually seniors, who sign up every year to be baptized at the end of the year.”


He then gave a beautiful anecdote of a woman who came to their local church who had been beaten the night before. And one of the church members took her in. She had driven to Riverside thinking there was a ‘river’ where she could picnic with her kids. She happened to come to church and it was Saturday, and thinking it was a wedding, she thought she could get some food from the reception. These members took her in for the next four years until she graduated from college. She came up to Pastor Leonor, and said, “I want to be baptized.” For Leonor, this was the perfect example of education as “the work of redemption.”


Summary and Reflections

Local Church

We began the day with the focus on the local church and we ended it with a discussion about Adventist education and the role of young adults in the church. The discussions were candid, and the commenters were equally open and real. I think that when it comes to diagnosing some of the problems in our churches today, the One Project presenters hit the nail on the head. Less integration however was seen with our remnant identity (Bryan called it the denomination Inc.), the Great Commission, the Three Angel’s Messages, cost of discipleship, battles against self or sin and other personal aspects of our faith such as prayer and Bible study, etc. in their proposed solutions. This is due to the Evangelical Adventism’s inherent Christo-centric hermeneutic which informs their soteriology and the impact is seen here in their ecclesiology.


Also missing or less emphasized from their analysis was the role of the member. They focused primarily on what ministers should do, and how ministers should be recruited to serve in local parishes, etc. There were also some presuppositions that were baked into their analysis of the church-at-large and especially when it comes to the discussions on structure and organization as well as conversions and baptisms and/or the lack thereof in the church. Do you baptize people when they reach a mature understanding of their role as a disciple? Or do you baptize them when they profess a desire to know Christ or have a desire to be part of the community? What community-targeted activities are ‘evangelistic’ and what activities are at cross-purposes with our message and mission?



Leonor’s session on education was an excellent case study of how decades of erosion in theology, at the local church level and elsewhere, have begun to contribute to a generational loss of Adventist students in our institutions of higher learning. As more Adventists are educated outside our system, some of them will want their kids to attend Adventist systems of education however the majority of them will seek for their children the same sources of education they had. Ivy league schools reward ‘legacy’ students and state colleges offer sharp discounts for ‘resident tuition.’ These and other economic factors exert a significant effect on the Adventist system that in many ways is immeasurable.


Our own denominational schools were created for a purpose and that purpose sometimes may be at variance with the interests of non-Adventists who attend our institutions of higher learning. For example, how motivated do you think an atheist would be to learn about medical missionary work and God’s interaction with the physician as she endeavors to deliver evidence-based healthcare? Will Adventist teachers be able to discuss our distinctive purpose without offending those of other faiths? What percentage of non-Adventist students is tolerable for Adventist parents to still enroll their kids? Are they better off saving money and sending them closer to home at a state school? Should we still contribute tithe dollars to educational institutions that are heavily targeting students from outside the Church? Should those students take advantage of discounts available to Adventist students? What about LGBTQ issues for non-Adventist students who may expect accommodations to be made for them? Are our institutions still considered to be religious if the majority of students and some faculty are no longer Adventist? Needless to say, these questions and the ones raised in his presentation, are not easy to answer, but must be answered.


Systems-wide Change and Metrics

It was eye-opening to see how the One Project cares about the church and has it at the core of its interests, the best intentions for it. Even if my final analysis of their solutions shows that their solutions likely fall short, their concern for the church is genuine and heartfelt. This is true for all the factions in the church and not just Evangelical Adventism. What is missing from each faction is an understanding of how when combined together, the sum of all the antagonist and/or protagonist forces that each factions bring to the mix, have a detrimental effect on the local church and every other aspect of the work. Each faction chooses the metrics that they feel will be best for the church and sometimes those metrics coincide with their own interests or strong points.


In the final article of this series, I will propose on the basis of the Great Commission and the Three Angels’ Messages, the New Testament model of ecclesiology. I will describe in some level of detail its principles and show how even a small application of those principles can produce long-lasting effects in any church, regardless of theology, or even religion for that matter. I will show how the local church and other facets of the work can combine their energies in synergistic ways to create long-lasting results and employ biblical metrics for success. If those changes are implemented, it may result in the North American Division leading again in the famous “ABC” metrics but this time, it will be for the right reasons.

Click here to read the rest of this series on the One Project



[i] Note: The organizers of the Create Conference requested that any attribution made be restricted to the presenters up front so that the audience could engage in a free-flowing confidential back and forth with the One Project presenters. So, I will mention the responses, without mentioning the names of the individuals. Some of the responders were inaudible from where I was sitting in the room, so they are not included in this article. The Create Conference was recorded and the organizers pledged to release the recordings once they raised donations for the editing, production, etc. I myself, had at times during the talks, several things to add or say, but held back in order to accurately record the ideas and responses at the Conference. My analysis of these ideas presented at the Conference and the comments from the audience is in the final article of this series.


[ii] Stockdale, Jim. Excerpt from Wikiepedia.

Stockdale on the secret behind his successful coping strategy said,

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

Stockdale then added:

This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.

[iii] Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. The Stockdale Paradox. Pgs. 83-86. “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. AND at the same time. Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

[iv] Bryan, Alex. Create Conference Talk: Local Church.

He quoted a Seventh-day Adventist religion professor commenting on the local churches in his area, “To tell you the truth, there isn’t a single vibrant healthy church in the area. As for as local Adventist Churches go, this region is dying. ‘I’m listening but I don’t like what I hear.’ In a Net ’98 satellite evangelism planning committee, the discussion turns to the number of meetings the series should include. One committee members wonders if we can have fewer meetings and encourage local churches to continue the Bible studies with new converts. A seasoned administrator replies, “We tried that. We can’t depend on the local churches to follow through on Bible Studies. It’s been tried before and it hasn’t worked.” ‘I’m listening but I don’t like what I hear.’ In a conversation with a local conference president, he asked, how many of the 100+ local churches in his conference have a strong vision for ministry. Oh about 3 he replied, maybe 4. ‘I’m listening but I don’t like what I hear.’ A lay person explains her predicament about inviting her unchurched friends to her local church. “I can’t invite them to my church,” she says, “there’s no telling what might happen. But then again, I don’t know an Adventist Church in my area that I know of where I would feel comfortable taking them to.” ‘I’m listening but I don’t like what I hear.’ Do I find myself in the wrong conversations? Am I simply hearing the negative voices. Is this just pessimism? He asks in the article. Over the last several months, Bryan continues, I’ve listened to dozens of card-carrying Seventh-day Adventist Church administrators, pastors and members describe the desperate situation of many Adventist local churches. This local church is in critical condition they say, it has become the ‘weak link’ in Adventism. Exciting stories are told about the growth of the hospital and new research of Loma Linda University, the latest book at the Pacific Press, and the new global initiative at the General Conference. By contrast, the local church stories are basically stagnant. It isn’t that there aren’t any bright spots, or a few voices here and there but it’s not like full-fledged ‘choir.’


[v] Seibold, Loren. “Why So few Large Congregations.”


[vi] Zahid, Adrian. “What others have said about the One Project.”


[vii] Knight George R. “If I were the Devil”


[viii] Knight, George R. “If I were the Devil: Seeing through the Enemy’s Smokescreen.”

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About the author


Adrian Zahid is a recent survivor of advanced-stage cancer, he is trying to make the most of the second lease on life that God has given him. He is the co-founder of Intelligent Adventist and in his free time enjoys helping nonprofits be sustainable and the Seventh-day Adventist Church succeed in fulfilling the Great Commission.