Pastor Swenson and I go back as far as 2007, when I was the President for Restoration Ministry, a student-led evangelism ministry on the campus of Loma Linda University (LLU). He was a faculty sponsor for our ministry and was responsible for guiding the approval process at the University for the speakers we wanted to bring on campus for our events during the year. We once asked him to share his testimony at an annual event for our ministry. Some of that past familiarity comes through in our interview. After the interview was over, we continued to talk for over an hour. I discuss some of that conversation at the end of this article.
Please note that in this interview he brings up Restoration in contrast to the One Project. Restoration Ministry started out in 2002 as an evangelism ministry that was part of the LLU student association. A year or so later it became its own ministry on the campus. Restoration creates a space where Adventist students can share their faith in positive and winsome ways with their fellow students. It does this through various events. The event that Swenson is most familiar with and brings up in this interview is the annual event, usually held in February, when the ministry brings in a speaker who presents a “traditional” style evangelistic exposition of our doctrines. During my time, this event was attended by 350-400+ students for the lunch meeting, where we provided free lunch, and 1500+ community members for the weekend meetings. Speakers for the annual event have been Peter Gregory, David Asscherick, Randy Skeete, Ron Du Preez, Matt Parra, Ivor Myers, Jeffrey Rosario, among others. We averaged about 30-45 bible study and baptism/re-baptism requests each year. Swenson views Restoration as a “reaping” ministry and in contrast he views the One Project as a “Gospel 101” ministry in this interview.
Edits to this Interview
I’ve condensed his answers without materially changing his answers and edited out where I cut into his replies. There are one or two lines that I redacted from the interview because of the sensitive nature of what he was mentioning that didn’t have immediate bearing on the conversation at hand. Other minor edits and clarifications in parenthesis are added by The Compass Magazine staff to aid the reader’s comprehension.
A Note About Citing This Interview
A word to those who may want to use this interview for their own purposes: If you are going use material from this interview please include in your citation, a link to the original series here on The Compass Magazine as we are covering the One Project and on Intelligent Adventist where we are simultaneously covering the issues related to the Emergent Church, so that your audience can get the full context.
The Interview (February 15, 2016 – Seattle, WA)
Adrian: Can you give me a little bit of a background of your life, a synopsis of how you became a Christian and an Adventist?
Pr. Terry Swenson: That could be a long interview in itself, but the condensed version would be, as we like to say in Adventism, I’m a third-generation Adventist. My grandfather Swenson became an Adventist when he came from Sweden. He actually started several of the Swedish churches and was a prominent evangelist for Swedish churches in America, which nobody remembers any more. So, I come from a line of Adventists. I was raised in an Adventist home; [I] went through all the Sabbath schools, from cradle roll on up. Went to [Adventist] school from kindergarten on up. Had a time with certain things that had happened in my life that I left God and the church because of some things that happened to me. And you know when you’re young, you don’t differentiate between people and what you believe, and some pretty hard things that have happened. I was gone from God for 11 years, started living a very hard life. I was in some pretty interesting places in Los Angeles and being anywhere from South Central LA to Beverly Hills. I was shot and almost killed, police think it was an attempted hit on my life, and the thing I couldn’t shake is even though I never became an atheist—perhaps I was agnostic—I couldn’t get over the fact that I was miraculously saved. Even my atheist doctor said that. And I couldn’t get away from the fact that although I had cursed God, because I was so angry with Him and the church and Christianity and all that stuff, that I… That he came and saved me, in no… Unequivocal terms. And that started me saying, “Well, if there is a God, let me find Him.” So, I studied other things, but I came back to the Adventist church, because the Adventist church follows the Bible most closely. I was a student of history, prophecy could be anchored in history. And then what we believe in, all the pieces fit, that’s why I came back to Adventism, to become an Adventist.
Adrian: In terms of your education, where did you go?
Pr. Terry Swenson: I went to grade school at Bellflower, Seventh-Day Adventist Union School in Bellflower, California. Linwood Academy, which is no more, it got taken over by eminent domain. I have done time… I’ve done time, that sounds bad. I’ve spent educational time at La Sierra, and then when I was married, I finished up two degrees at Pacific Union College. I went for a couple of years to Long Beach State, well, about a year and a half. I went to seminary, Andrews University, and got my graduate degree at George Fox University.
Adrian: A lot of the criticism has been generated about you going to George Fox and getting your degree. What led you to consider that over Andrews or Fuller?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Good question. Because I’ve worked this last part of my ministry—for, well, now, 20 years in the Loma Linda area, specifically with young adults—I could see a transitioning happening, that more and more our young people… That research by the North American division has borne out that 80% of our young people come to college and leave church and everything else. I was concerned. But as a pastor for years—solo Senior Pastor—before I became a chaplain, and I said, “What’s happening?” I could see things were happening, but I wanted to understand them. So, when Loma Linda wanted me to get my doctorate, I said, “Well, let me go back and get it.” I approached Andrews University, the seminary, doctoral department and I said, “Look… ” I wanted to do a DMin, not a PhD, I wanted a practical doctorate. And I approached them and they said, “Sure, we’d love to have you. What do you want to study?” And I said, “I want to understand how the church has worked, what modernism and postmodernism is, and how the church has worked in both, and how we can effectively reach the postmodern mind.”
There was silence, and the person—I won’t say who it was—said, “Well, we don’t have anything in that, but would you like to do a doctorate in Family Ministries?” I’m like—yeah, I see you chuckling—I’m like, “Well, no, that’s not what I want.” So I started looking around, I found a program at Fuller. And I was working with Fuller because they had a degree that was dealing with that. And I thought, “Well, good. Great, I’ll go to Fuller.” But as I researched Fuller and the books that they suggested, I found that what they were taking class material from was from George Fox University – which is a Quaker university, actually—and in their department, the professors that were up there were the ones that people writing the books that Fuller was using to teach from, and I thought, “Well, why not go to the primary source?” And also, due to my professional life and where I am at life at my age, Fuller was a five-to-seven year program and George Fox, you could finish your Doctor of Ministry in three years. They had a process you could do that, if you did it and you did your work, and it was hard. So those are the reasons why I went to George Fox.
Adrian: Tell me a little bit about Dr. [Leonard] Sweet.
Pr. Terry Swenson: He was one of the main professors. I know that people have levelled criticism against the One Project, because four of us have gotten degrees [from George Fox University]. At the time, when I went, I went there and I met Alex Bryan. Alex Bryan and Michael were in there for a while, but he [Michael] changed and didn’t finish his DMin. And we met there in the… Our cohort was called, “Leading in the Emerging Culture,” in other words, “How do you lead as a Christian in a postmodern world?” There’s a lot of fear and misconstruing [of] what “emerging” means.
Adrian: What does “emerging” mean?
Pr. Terry Swenson: There’s a difference between “emergent” and “emerging,” and then “emerging” is morphed into something else. So, emergent, the way most people define “emerging” is what emergent was. Those guys, like—come on, too much conference—Pagitt and Brian McLaren and those people, that just went off the deep end and went to… Those guys are off the wall. They were the ones that say, “We’ll jump church, go meet in a bar,” or… Brian McLaren has gotten very… The criticisms levelled against Leonard Sweet are, justly, in my opinion—my opinion—leveled against those guys, Doug Pagitt, Rollins, Brian McLaren. Emerging… So that’s emergent and that’s their concept. The things that I totally disagree with, and that I think what people are writing about is that.
Adrian : And that is Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, and Pagitt?
Pr. Terry Swenson: And Doug Pagitt, and others, but… And McLaren is probably the most prominent. I don’t know where that guy went. His early stuff, if you read his first books, they were very good. He was a pastor, but then all of a sudden, something happened to him and he went somewhere. “Emerging” at that time, was just a phrase saying… It was applied to postmodernism and the emerging culture of postmodernism— secular, I guess you would say— it had nothing to do with any religious connotations. And so, in the sense of leading in the emerging culture was, “How do we lead in a postmodern time?” I think “emerging” – the term “emerging”—has kind of merged with “emergent” and they’re lumped together. So I think that’s where people get a difference.
So, Leonard Sweet. Leonard Sweet is one that’s in the conversation, he says he’s a futurist in all this. And so sometimes, Leonard says some stuff that’s off the wall, but if you look at his books, “Jesus: A Theography,” – I’ll use that one right there, I am a follower of those—is always Christ—centered, biblical-centered. He comes from the Methodist church. In fact, he sent his son to Adventist schools up there on Orcas Island and over to Walla Walla. People don’t know that, very supportive of Adventist and understand what we believe. But what happens is people look at some earlier books with all these conversations these guys were talking about—which he doesn’t even go with now—and they lump him together with that. So, there’s been a concern, like the people who said, “Oh. Wait, Swenson, Brian, Gillespie,… Oh, they all went emerging, Leonard Sweet has now infiltrated the church.” Which is not the case.
Adrian: What was the focus of your dissertation?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Somebody’s asking me about this? [Swenson chuckles]. It’s actually been published. You can read it if you go to Logos, the Logos Bible Software, logos.com, and put in my name or the…I would give you the title on my dissertation, but it’s so long, George Fox joked with me and said, “You know, normally, we put the dissertation inside the cover, not on it.” But I chose to do… You could either write a dissertation—typical one—or you could do what they called a “written project,” and then do another project with it. The written statement is basically a dissertation, it’s like 65 pages that I did. But the project that I wrote on, I wanted to write a book for popular consumption. In other words, for pastors like me, for Bible teachers, for Christians, for Adventists – people who say, “What in the world is going on? Everything just went crazy,”—and try to talk about, “How can the church… What is Christ calling us to do? How can we take truth?” Like Ellen White says, “The Gospel is truth and verity,” in other words, it never changes. But how do we speak present truth which Adventists have? Nobody else has had that out there, our concept of present truth.
Adrian: Could you define what “present truth” means for you?
Pr. Terry Swenson: “Present truth” means to me the message, the understanding that God has given the Seventh-day Adventist Church to speak in these times and the last days, and to share. That’s how I would generally say it. But Ellen White also said that the Gospel is the truth and verity, but she also says, “How has God told us to speak it into the world that’s around us today,” present truth. And so I took that—in fact, George Fox encouraged me—and said, “Well, Ellen White says that, and you’re an Adventist, so speak from that level.” I said, “Okay.” So my book is called “Interplace: The Circle of Belonging.” And so, in that book—which is not a New York best seller, [chuckle] but anyway— you can go in there and see the steps of what I did to understand how God worked through the church and Christianity in a pre-modern, postmodern world. I mean, pre-modern modern world era, which our Church grew up in strong, but what is God asking us, how to speak that truth into the world today. So, if you want to know all that, please go and read it.
Adrian: I will. So, a lot of focus has been at the conference, I’m talking about other references as well, on 1844. On 1844, 1888 etc. How does the One Project view the Adventist Doctrine of the Investigative Judgment?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Well, I guess I would answer this. For the One Project, we have all kinds of people come and speak here. And so to say, “Here’s the One Project official view on Investigative Judgment,” that hasn’t been sat down and developed. That’s really not the purpose of the One Project. If you’re asking me, I can speak for me, I believe in the Investigative Judgment. I think it’s one of the things that talks about what’s happening in the world today and I understand it. A lot of people will reject the Investigative Judgment. I’m sorry, you can’t. It starts from Genesis. “Adam? Eve? Where are you?”, God says. Didn’t He know they were hiding? “Oh, we’re hiding.” “Oh. Why are you hiding?” “Well, we’re naked.” “Oh, who told you, you were naked?” See, didn’t God know those things? Cain, Abel. “Cain, where’s your brother?” “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?” “Well, yes, you are, and his blood cries out.” See, pre-incarnate Jesus coming with the two angels. Then Abraham, “Where are you going?” “Oh, we’re going down to Sodom.” God’s saying, “Let’s go down and look at the town.” The function of how God works is exhibited in that He comes to us. So, judgment is a part of Scripture. You can’t walk away from that.
Adrian: What does the Adventist church offer to the world that is unique, and what is its primary role in the last days?
Pr. Terry Swenson: What I think the Adventist church offers… Well, let me couch it in this and flesh it out. So I’ve been at Loma Linda University as a campus Chaplain—as you were saying— for about, well, 19 years, it’ll be 19 years in July. Loma Linda University’s demographics is approximately 50% of the students are Adventists. The rest are a mix of predominantly Christian groups, but Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, a large number of Muslims. And as I’ve been at Loma Linda, it’s been interesting to see those interactions. I get to see a microcosm of worldwide. The Hindus… The Muslim students love us. And they’ve come and they’ve talked to me, and they’ve said,
[Muslim Students:] “Look, you Adventists. We thought you were Christians, so we were afraid to come here.”
I remember them saying this to me,
[Muslim Students:] “But you Adventists, you’re not Christian.”
[Pastor Swenson:] “What do you mean, we’re not Christian?”
[Muslim Students:] “You’re Muslim.”
[Pastor Swenson:] “Muslim? What do you mean, we’re Muslim?”
[Muslim Students:] “You don’t drink, don’t smoke. Your morality. People of prayer, people of the Old Testament.”
And they love us. Another time, I’ve had a group of Hindu students come to me. And they said,
[Hindu Students:] “Well, as Hindus, we were nervous coming here, we stay with our culture or our family, but when we come to know what Loma Linda [Adventism] is all about…You Adventists, you’re not Christian.”
So they think of Christians as smoking, drinking, all the other stuff that some of the other Christians do. They go,
[Hindu Students:] “You Adventists are Hindu. You’re vegetarian…”
They list all these things, and I think, Jon Paulien—who works at Loma Linda—said it best. “God has positioned the Adventist church to speak and interrelate, to speak to… “—I want to say it right— “to speak to and into the three great monotheistic religions of the world today.” Christianity, cause of our linkage, Judaism, because of the Sabbath, Old Testament saying how we live and eat, and Islam, because of the ties I mentioned.
I don’t think that’s an accident. I think… And you ask, “What do I think is the role of the Adventist church today?” I do not think that the Adventist church… If I was to say that the church is a gift—like a Christmas gift or a birthday gift that God gave to the world—I do not believe that we as a church are the only box, like He didn’t give anything else now, He gives it there. But what we are as Adventism is the bow, the ribbon, that finishes off the gift. That takes the strands that were started here or there of some reformer, starter, whatever, and God in the last days gave us the message that ties it all together: The importance of the Sabbath, the importance of living a right life, the importance of the balance of the Commandments, and also of creation. All these different things that we have, God says, “Here it is in its fullness.” And that’s what He has for us to share.
Adrian: How do you use and view Ellen White and her writings?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Just like she taught me, and I was taught the Bible. Greater light, Ellen light, illuminating light on scripture. And that’s how I would say it. I believe that… Yeah. That’s how I’d say it. That’s probably the easiest way, without getting too long for your interview.
Adrian: What does effective evangelism look like, Adventist evangelism, look like?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Read my book. As a pastor, my last church I had before coming to Loma Linda was in San Jose, in the middle of the Silicon Valley. And typical… And like I said, I came back, part of coming back to Christianity… Coming back to Adventism was prophecy, because I’ve had trouble with faith, trust. Trust. But I can look at that, and I was a student of history. So I know prophecy. But I was noting that the things that we use and the techniques is like BBs bouncing off a steel plate. It had no effect. You get no one from Silicon Valley secular area, and I’m saying, “Alright. I know the message is strong. I know God’s spirit is into this. I know God wants us to share with other people, but what is needed for this day?”
And I think, when we look at typical evangelism, we are part and parcel of the world we’re living in now. And when I was growing up, and I came in the tail-end of the modern era, so, we have to get handles on things, let’s use “modern” just for… The Adventist church, logistically, exploded in growth in the modern era. Why? Because how we developed, how we organize church, how we fund pastors, how we do evangelism, it spoke to the modern era, where people didn’t believe in a God any more, they believed that science is their God. And so, we… And basically, we could take truth with a capital “T” as a principle, as a thought. And we could say, “Oh, you want to go that route? Look, we have prophecy. We have archaeology. We have this,” our whole system, and our evangelism was trained to do that in an unfolding way. And it was wonderfully effective. Why? ‘Cause the Gospel’s in there, but the modality that we used conveyed it in a way that struck people where they’re at.
Alright. Well, it’s not doing that now so well as we see it. Let’s be honest, it’s not, at least in Western cultures. They’re fast becoming secularized. Europe, North America, et cetera. So, how do you portray what’s needed now? And I think that’s the change. It’s just a… What’s the new delivery system for the truths and things that we hold? And I think that’s where the difference lies.
Adrian: How authoritative… We’re talking now about the member and the secular world, in today’s world. Someone who doesn’t… Who is a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church doesn’t go to GYC, but doesn’t go to the One Project either, it just is. How authoritative is the Bible on that believer’s lifestyle when it conflicts with the culture around that person?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Well, I think, much less goes to One Project or GYC, the Bible is the word. Jesus said, “I am the Way. I am the Truth. I am the Light.” And I came back to Christianity and I became a member of the Adventist church because I said, “I will follow the Bible. That is my word.” And so, it isn’t that I tried to “culturate” the Bible to fit how I live now. I don’t think you need to. People try to do that and I go, “You don’t need to do that.”
Adrian: Going off of that, for example, the recent passing of gay marriage in the Supreme Court. So how does that translate for an Adventist gay couple that wants to get married but then there are people in the church who are saying the Bible says “no?”
Pr. Terry Swenson: I’ll tell you… Now, this is me. Once again, put that in there, we all look at that in different ways. So you asked me, Terry, how I look at that. I think it’s something that I learned as a young pastor, and it’s from the Church Manual. Now, I haven’t read the Church Manual recently, if there’s a new edition, but the edition I had that I used to work with, and it’s this…
Before I get that, let me ask you a question. And it’s no trick question, it’s just a simple question. How do you become a member of the Adventist church?
Adrian: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Study his word. Find out your place in history. Accept Him. And then accept His role in the Church, and you find the true Church. If you think it is a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, join. Apply for baptism.
Pr. Terry Swenson: Okay. Now, that’s a point. That’s wrong in the sense that most of us will say… Because I asked you, “How do you become a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church?” You’re baptized into Christ, but you’re voted into membership.
And I did the same thing when I realized that, because… But I would have said all you said and then you’re baptized and you’re in the church. But it’s important—and our church leaders and founders put that in there—because I’m always baptized into Christ, in a salvation relationship, but I live in membership of the church. Why is that so important? Well, this is how it helps me address what you just said. And we wrestle with that issue. Everyone of our institutions—church, educational, medical, whatever—we wrestle with this because now that US government has said, “That’s legal,” so, there’s a bunch of issues that impact us especially with health and medical about… But we could go on an on about that. But there’s a salvific relationship, and there’s a communal relationship. That’s what it’s saying. So that on one hand, I can— in a salvific way—work with people, LGBTQ and all the other alphabets that are out there now.
And I can have them and be in relationship with them, but to be a part of a body is a different thing. I, as a pastor, if you’re asking me to come and marry you, I won’t do it. I won’t do it. Why? Because if you were asking [for] a sacred marriage, the Bible is very clear on what it is, I’m sorry, the Bible is very clear on what it is. They can go, and I’ll recognize your civil marriage, because, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God’s what is God’s.” But now, how I relate to that couple, see, that’s where we need to have the conversations.
Adrian: I’ll ask it in a slightly different way. What if someone came to you or the One Project, and they said, “I’m gay, and I’m practicing, what does the Bible tell me to do? People are telling me in your church about Romans 1 and Romans 2 and that homosexuality is wrong from the Bible’s point of view.” So remember, my earlier question about the Bible being authoritative in a member’s life and you affirmed that, how would you respond to that person in that context?
Pr. Terry Swenson: I would respond… And I think, it’s going to be a real great conversation and I think it’s a very hot one right now. A hot topic that we’re wrestling with. Once again, there’s no official One Project thing about this. But I think what I could speak in from my perspective and hopefully be reflected… ‘Cause I’ve thought about this, I’ve thought about we have this categorizations of what’s right and wrong and, for example, “Oh, that’s really bad,” and “Eh, that’s not so bad.” So for example, the Bible says, “Don’t bear false witness.” Or let’s say the Bible says, “Don’t lie.” And we even have a phrase to excuse it, we call that a “little white lie,” and that’s not so bad. But if I say… If I lie on the income tax, “Eh, that’s not so bad.” If I lie to you… So we have these levels of lies. But for God, He said, “Don’t lie.” So if I was to liken it, like, here, we’re in this hallway and I said, “Okay, right where this line is here, if on the other side of that line, don’t cross it,” God says. And if I just got right on the side of that line—or whether I run way down that hall and down to the street—it doesn’t matter how far I go, it’s, “Did I cross that line?” See. So I think, when it comes to gay marriage, what about improper re-marriages after divorce? What about embezzlement in the church? What about… See, all these things… Right now, a flashpoint is same-sex marriage. But I think we need to develop an understanding. How do we deal with all of these levels of things? Once again, I go back to that thing, “Baptized in Christ, voted into membership.”
And let me say this one thing. When I was studying for ministry in Greek—my third year of Greek exegesis paper— we were to take the passage and mine was Matthew 18. And I studied it and you know that’s a famous passage, “If somebody has something… You should go talk to them, and if that doesn’t work, take friends, and if that doesn’t work, take elders.” And at the end, Jesus says, “And if they still won’t change, then treat them like sinners and tax collectors.” They’re outside of the community, right? But the thing that got me on that when I studied that, I asked this question. “Wait a minute, how did Jesus… He said that, how did he treat sinners and publicans?” He was always with them. He was always eating with them. He was always in there redeeming them, right? That’s what he got in trouble with. So what I understood from that is what I said, there is accountability. I have a marriage, let’s use that. The boundaries of my relationship, is my… [chuckle] What’s my word? Just my wife and I. There’s a word I’m not thinking there.
Pr. Terry Swenson: Monogamy. Monogamous, thank you. Monogamous relationship. Okay. I just don’t go out running around sleeping with all kinds of women, then come home to my wife and it’s all okay. In order to have relationships, you have to have boundaries, guidelines. Otherwise, it falls apart. Real quick. Loma Linda, I went there, I was talking to the doctors once about, they asked me this question, they said, “Terry, do you know what cancer is?” I said, “Yeah, it’s like a cell gone bad that runs around eating up and devouring other cells.” And they go, “No. That’s wrong.” And they said—they dumbed it down for me—but what they said was, “Cancer cells are healthy cells.” I’m going, “What are you talking about?”, and they said, “They’re healthy cells, but the mechanism inside the cell that tells it to differentiate and just stay, say, a skin cell at this level and don’t grow more, is gone. It’s growth gone wild. No guidelines or boundaries.”
And when they said that, man, Adrian, it hit me right between the eyes. Bam! That’s so on a molecular level that God created, so on us as the body of Christ, or a body, or in our relationships. The postmodern, post-Christian—whatever they’re calling it now—people have relationships with no boundaries or guidelines. And so it’s cancerous. It’s destructive to relationships. And what God has in scripture for us is guidelines for those relationships. So, if I have someone, drug abuse, child pornography, same-sex marriage—you name it—gambling, workaholism, I have to look at all of those and say, “Listen, there has to be some guidelines for the relational boundary in life of the family and body of God.” You’re here, but that doesn’t mean kick you out and I’m done with you. It means, “No, I’m going to be in deeper connection with you to try to get you here.” Did that help?
Adrian: Very much. You mentioned earlier about finding God, that you found God. You looked for Him…
Pr. Terry Swenson: Well, actually, He found me, but yeah.
Adrian: Some people have levelled the criticism against the One Project, saying that they’re interested in looking for God but not finding Him.
Pr. Terry Swenson: Wow. I don’t even know what that means. What would that mean?
Adrian: Well, it means that you’re only interested in questions, but not the answers that God gives.
Pr. Terry Swenson: Okay. Now, this… I know where that comes from, and I’ve had a lot of people talk to me. Or a corollary question is, “You only talk about Jesus, what about the rest of the Godhead?” Or others have been, “Well, you guys only talk about Jesus, what about prophecy? What about things that are happening here?” And I think it should be understood that… Alright. Let me go back to Loma Linda as an example. So I have this wide diversity of beliefs and lack thereof, and whatever. And so, I’ll have groups come on campus, like every year, we have Restoration, which is some people go, “Well, that’s conservative Adventism.” I’d say “traditional,” and it’s kind of an evangelistic outreach, right? And they’ve come to me and say, “Look. Why aren’t you preaching the distinctives—the Adventist Distinctives, the pillars— during university worship, or at chapel?” And when they’ve talked with me, I said, “Well, here’s the reason why. When I was a pastor, I was trained… ” And we use this terminology—I don’t even know if they use it anymore—but you have entry events that lead to harvesting events. So, when someone’s just getting to know God, they might be relational things, they might be health clinics, they might be… You’ve heard this.
And I told them, for Restoration, I said, “You guys are a harvesting event. But me, at chapel, it’s required. They have to come. To you, it’s voluntary. But to me, they have to.” [Redacted Section] See, so, I’m thinking of those people, and so I’m doing Gospel 101 with these people. That’s what university worship is. But Bible studies and other things, that’s the harvesting.
So, in saying that university of worship is Gospel and Jesus 101, and that’s what it’s intended for… Like, if we have some of our vespers on Friday night, we can go deeper into stuff, or restoration. We work as a team together, or I try to encourage them to go to area churches. And when they hear that they go, “Oh, we’re a team.” And I think with The One Project, that’s a good illustration of what we are. Some people have been called specifically to preach prophecy. I’m a believer. Like I told you, I came back to God and the church, prophecy was a major thing that brought me back. And in my own ministry, I’ve asked God. I can preach prophecy, but the Spirit has led me to say, “No, you’re the Jesus 101 guy.” And so, The One Project, I would say is like that. Our calling is to try to take Christ and put Him back and His relationship with us back. That’s what we focus on. When Jesus met people, He drew them to Himself, you know, and when He talks about this, met their needs, and then they say, “Hey, who are you? What are you about?” And they follow Him. And it’s when you become a follower that you can bring the deeper things in, as you disciple them. So we’re kind of the Gospel Jesus 101 people.
Adrian: What criteria, just briefly, do you use when you bring in speakers like Leonard Sweet or other Christian speakers? Have you brought in Brian McLaren?
Pr. Terry Swenson: I would not bring Brian McLaren. We wouldn’t. Leonard Sweet has spoken and John Ortberg. But we realized that what we’re trying to say with that is, to open up areas of people out there, like… Have you ever heard of John Stott? He’s passed away, but…
Pr. Terry Swenson: So, these people who have written and delved into a certain area, to speak on those things. But we realized, people come now and they’re like… If you’re not understanding what we’re talking about, then people look at that with fear right now. So it’s not a good thing. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do it, I’m saying people live in fear.
When you think, if you ever look at a list of Ellen White’s library, she had a lot of non-Adventist writers that she drew from. Because she might have quoted one of those does not mean she adheres to Calvinism or something like that. Be that as it may, yeah, that’s how I would answer that one. So, The One Project is Jesus 101, if that’s a way to put a handle on it. Putting Christ in there, and the relational part, versus just understanding the segments of what we believe. Christ being the center, like Ellen White says, the focus.
Adrian: Are Christian mysticism, labyrinth prayers, centered prayers, compatible with Adventism, in your opinion?
Pr. Terry Swenson: People and family members, different people have come and talked to me and said, “Are you guys like into mysticism? Are you… ” These type of prayers. Well, I would just say to you, Adrian, you were here at the One Project, did you see any?
Pr. Terry Swenson: We don’t even talk about that. I don’t know where that came from, actually. And I will go on the record and say, I wish we actually had more times of prayer than we even do in The One Project. But no, I don’t think… To empty your mind? The Bible says if you empty your mind, and you don’t fill it with Christ, what comes in? Devils, more of them. Seven times. But Ellen White talks about meditating every day on the scenes of the cross, an hour a day. Or meditating on Scripture, or… When I pray, I’m not just going, “Om, Om” anything like that. I’m like “Christ,” focusing on Him, God, or a passage of Scripture, that’s the stuff we support. I don’t know where all that came from, actually.
Adrian: You mentioned Matthew 18 and your study of it?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Yes.
Adrian: I wanted to ask you, have your detractors reached out to you with their concerns?
Pr. Terry Swenson: The answer to that mostly is no. We’ve invited people to come to The One Project. Some at GC [General Conference 2015] went around talking at people at Booths. Steven Wohlberg has talked, and been in conversation, I think, with Sam Leonor.
Adrian: Yeah, he mentioned it.
Pr. Terry Swenson: So in that sense, we’ve reached out. But for the most part, no, people haven’t come, and people haven’t been in dialogue. What I tell people too is… Except for some where there’s glitches in technology, every one of our talks that we’ve given at The One Project are online. You can hear them, there’s nothing hidden. But we wish we would have dialogue. Now, we’ve invited people… When was it? I get them confused. It was either Chicago or Seattle, David Asscherick came. Ty Gibson, and others came. And they talked, and we had conversations. And so, we open up conversations with anybody. “Please, let’s talk.” Like, I’m glad you’re talking to me.
Adrian: So, what would you say to a member who is watching their [One Project Detractor’s] stuff and now listening to your interview?
Pr. Terry Swenson: I would say kind of what I started this thing with. If you have a question, ask it. Truth is truth and it’ll reveal itself. Gamaliel said, “Look, if they’re of God, don’t go against them. But if they’re not, God’s going to shut things down.” If you have questions, go and ask, like what you’re doing, And then that way, at least we have open dialogue to understand where each other is. And so, at the One Project, I’ve had people come… I remember in San Diego, I was standing up at the side because at that time, we had table facilitators we trained… This is the first one we just let the table talk among themselves. And at that time, I was just making sure everything was going fine. He comes up to me and he goes, “Hey, you’re one of the guys that run this, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, this is my first time here.” And I said, “Oh, well, how’s it going?” He said, “Well, I was told by a pastor of my church, ‘Don’t come here. This is a bad place because the mysticism.'” All the things you’re talking about. He even added the one they channel spirits… Adrian, I have no idea what that means or where it’s come from… But we channel spirits. I said, “Well, what have you thought of it so far?” He goes, “Well, I’m actually kind of disappointed.” I said, “Oh, why?” He goes, “Well, all you guys are talking about the Bible and Jesus and using Ellen White, and I haven’t even seen anybody channel a spirit yet.” And I said, “Well, I’m happy we disappointed you, man, ’cause, you know, come and see.” So, that’s what I would say.
Adrian: Where would you, in terms of the impact of The One Project on the church, where would you want it to be in 10 years? Like where do you think this group should grow to? It seems like this group is primarily in the Western hemisphere, so what do you think about growing?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Well, it’s… Actually, we have One Projects in Europe and South Pacific too, and Australia, New Zealand. There’s been other countries in the past, but logistics and different issues… Because what we do is when we go in, we just don’t land somewhere. We are all employees, current employees with credentials in the Adventist Church. We go to a division and a conference and talk with them. We’ve usually always had it on a Sunday-Monday or a Monday-Tuesday. And the reason we did that is we didn’t want a conflict with church programs; and I’ve been a pastor, I know how that is. You’re trying to build up your church, some big gun comes into town, all the people leave. We didn’t want that. There’s been a couple that we have had on the weekend, but only if the local churches said, “Would you please do that for travel time,” or whatever.
So in 10 years, in all reality, in 10 years, I wish there was no One Project. I wish that it just is mainstream and the focus is just a part of everything. There’s a life cycle to things. And for the church, I think what you asked me about the One Project… I would wish that the One Project would say, “Hey, look, what we’re trying to say is, we worship God. We’re members of the Adventist Church. That’s a big umbrella. Let’s not try to push each other out from under the umbrella, but let’s have conversations and talk and grow and do study of Scripture together and what God’s leading and have open conversation.” Because I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about anything anywhere, because there seems polarization in different things and most of the people in the church, it feels like, “What’s going on? I don’t understand all this.” And unfortunately, I see too many people, instead of being willing to talk and question and dialogue, they just say, “Eh, I’m gone,” and they walk with their feet.
Adrian: So, if you were to have a dialogue and still not completely agree, like Paul and Barnabas didn’t agree, is there room in the Adventist Church for alternative view of Adventism?
Pr. Terry Swenson: Oh, I pray deeply and I do, that there is, because I think there is. The way I look at it, Adrian, this is, for me, for my brain, is that like a high… What do they call those guys?
Adrian: Tightrope walkers.
Pr. Terry Swenson: Tightrope walkers. Okay. You have a pole and it’s weighted on both ends. But if you only have one weight, you’re going to fall that way… You’re going to fall off either way, it’s the two together that brings in harmonious balance to keep you walking down the road. On one side is people saying, “Listen, just don’t jump into things willy-nilly, and don’t forget the past.” And, “Hey, let’s look at these things carefully.” And the other side is saying, “But there’s room for growth, expansion and present truth kind of things.” And really, although I think some people on one side would put us and what we’re saying way on the other side, I don’t think it’s really true. I think what the One Project is, is trying to harmonize and be in the middle to say, just what I said, “How do we take the truth we’ve be given, present truth and to speak it into the present world in words and things that people understand?”
Adrian: Thank you very much.
Swenson’s Main Point
His main point is that Modern methods don’t reach the postmodern audience. Up to the 1970’s, the Church focused on a rational, propositional, presentation of its beliefs and found great success because the audience was oriented to such methods. These days, such methods need to be reevaluated and refined to meet the needs of the Postmodern audience. This for him doesn’t mean a reinterpretation of the Gospel or the doctrines but an emphasis on relationships so that postmodern prospects can feel that they “belong” and then they can eventually believe as well.
The One Project is Gospel 101
Pastor Swenson’s view is that the One Project is a basic Adventism. I agree with him partially in that it is impossible to do full justice to any topic in the allotted 18 minutes on stage. However, I disagree partially because many of the topics covered on stage imply some knowledge of Adventist history, culture, and even the inner workings of Church processes when issues like race relations and women’s ordination are discussed. I have seen ministries that do a very basic presentation of Adventism, to me the One Project isn’t one of them.
In Swenson’s view, there is room for many different expressions of Adventism. However, polarization is one thing that causes people to leave the Church.
The Supreme Court had just ruled on this issue the week before. I found his answer to be significant which will be addressed later in the series.
After the Interview
We continued to talk extensively about his views on evangelism. Because he serves on a campus that has students from all over the world and that represent many different religions and cultures, it was interesting to see how he dealt with sharing Adventist beliefs with them. Much of our discussion was over his book Interplace: The Circle of Belonging where he develops the idea that people should have spaces where they feel safe to share. These spaces represent for him different spheres of relationships from the general to the intimate.[i]
Swenson’s dissertation abstract shows that his research has concluded that:
The traditional propositional and proclamational forms of evangelism implemented during the modern era are diminishing in their effectiveness to share the Gospel and bring people into God’s Kingdom community. The attractional paradigm is out of harmony with the current trends exhibited in emerging culture. There are possible solutions to this problem, such as modifying traditional methodologies and incorporating contemporary media, music, and technology; developing ministries that meet postmodern needs but on an attractional basis; or ignoring emerging concerns and maintaining modern era techniques. Any of these solutions have marginal or no impact as reported by research that reveals the minimal impact Christianity has on Western, postmodern cultures. This paper’ s thesis is that Christians can effectively embody the Gospel in the emerging culture through a missional approach that creates safe spaces for sharing personal stories and developing organic relationships. The result is the birthing [of] the Kingdom Jesus proclaims in the Gospels.[ii]
Swenson’s wrote in his dissertation project that his proposed methods of creating safe spaces fell under Christ’s Method of reaching people as described by Ellen White where she describes Christ gaining the trust of the people first and then bidding them to follow Him.[iii] It is not clear from his dissertation, at least to me, how he intends to bridge the gap from relationship and trust-building to a knowledge that includes many of the Truths of Scripture that are inherently propositional in nature.
In our conversation after the interview, he gave me the example of an iPad used by a toddler. The toddler doesn’t understand the complex machinery behind the screen, she just enjoys and interacts with what is on the screen. The invitation to accept the Gospel must then be couched in a similar experience for the postmodern mind, where they get to experience it and later find out the intricacies of how it works. I agreed with him on this point. There is a growth process after we are born again, the Bible delineates a maturing process where Christians grow into the full stature and knowledge of Christ. We don’t need to know everything all at once but through a gradual unfolding of God’s will as revealed in His word, day by day, we can grow in grace and wisdom from above.
This is why, I felt that Swenson’s emphasis on relationship building and “belonging” works only to a point. Ultimately, biblically speaking, true fellowship with the Trinity and within the Church can only take place when a person is born again and abiding in Christ, the True Vine (John 3.1-31, 15:4). Judas, a disciple of Jesus, belonged to the group but ultimately, found himself out of it because he refused to let the Holy Spirit renew him from within. His persistent resistance to the wooing of the Holy Spirit and entreaties of Jesus prevented him from experiencing the kind of fellowship that the Bible promises every believer. True fellowship entails the embrace of both the overall narrative of the Bible and the propositions of Truth contained therein. The Bible calls us to experience, ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps. 34:8) but it also calls us to reason as well (Isaiah 1:18). A systematic view of both the narrative (Salvation) and the propositions (Doctrines) can be expressed in the Grand Narrative (The Great Controversy) is central to understanding God and the work of the Trinity, their Gospel which was foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. This entails both the experience of fellowship among the believers as well as a cognitive exercise where the mind under the influence of the Holy Spirit is brought to an understanding of the Truth in Jesus as expressed in His word, The Bible.
[i] Later when I read his dissertation, I took issue with some of his uncritical use of emergent authors such as Stanley Grenz, and Brian McLaren. Grenz’s deconstruction of systematic theology, doctrines and a de-emphasis on Scripture and a high emphasis on ‘community authority’ is in fact, anti-thetical to the Adventist view of Scripture.
[iii] Swenson, Terry R., “Interplace: Incarnating Christ’s Kingdom Community in the Emerging Culture by a Missional Approach that Creates Safe Spaces for Sharing Stories and Developing Organic Relationships” (2009). Doctor of Ministry. 153.