William G. Johnsson, longtime editor of the Adventist Review and well-respected author and speaker, may be well over 80 years of age, but his influence and popularity show no signs of diminishing. The publication of his most recent book Where Are We Headed? Adventism After San Antonio, an examination of the bitter conflicts that have arisen in the church in the wake of the vote against women’s ordination, has placed him in even greater demand than usual, taking him regularly away from his home in Loma Linda, California.
Boulder Adventist Church was fortunate to secure him for three presentations comprising its Fall 2017 Sanitas Lectureship on Saturday, Sept. 23. Dr. Johnsson’s lecture content, while critical of some of the actions of the institutional hierarchy of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, also demonstrated respect, compassion and hope—exactly the balance that the international and diverse physical and online audience seems to have been craving.
His opening talk, which took place during the divine worship service, was titled “It’s All About Jesus” and focused on three stories in the book of Luke that reveal what Johnsson calls “the real Jesus.” This real Jesus appears in contrast to the virtual Jesus who “lets you do whatever makes you feel good.” This version of Jesus is one who is radical, compassionate and just—more concerned about people than about “pretentious nonsense” that is done to show piety.
Challenges and opportunities
During Bible study time, Johnsson presented “Will the Women’s Issue Split the Church?” He expressed concern at the way the women’s ordination vote was conducted at the San Antonio General Conference Session in 2015, noting that an extensive report that had cost a great deal of money to make was never presented. Similarly left out was a report on female pastors in China—a country in which the Adventist Church is led entirely by women.
As to the question of whether the church will split, Johnsson concluded reluctantly that as an optimist he has only recently begun to consider the possibility that it might. “There are stormy waters ahead for our church,” he said. He also maintained that the real issue is that of authority. “It should come from the ground up, not the other way around.”
After lunch, the Sanitas Lectureship concluded with a final message of hope—“The Promise of Adventism.” Johnsson asked rhetorically, “What do we have to offer?” noting that by several measures our church is not doing particularly well. Big campaigns are no longer effective; young people are leaving.
He also argued that many good things are happening and that there is reason for hope. Our message produces wonderful people with a “specialness” that gives them great power to do good in the world. Our medical institutions, world class efforts toward disaster relief, grace-oriented theology, and focus on the beauty of the Sabbath are all things of which to be proud.
Johnsson predicts that there is a “new church struggling to be born.” This will be painful, but there is reason for optimism. Jesus will not let His mission fail; we have something to offer to the world so long as we remain open to His leading. Johnsson revealed that he would like his next book to be about authentic Adventism and solicited ideas from the audience of what that might entail. All kinds of suggestions came in, including,“Authentic Adventism is ethical, showing congruency between behavior and beliefs;” “Authentic Adventism is characterized by unconditional love for God, one another, and the lost;” and “Authentic Adventism is a spirit of humility and willingness to learn from others.”
More than 250 people attended the Sanitas Lectureship in person. Another 150 individuals or groups watched via online streaming—many of them from as far away as Washington state, Michigan, and Australia. David Crooker, of Redmond, Washington, watched the series from home. “William Johnsson is an inspiration!” Crooker said. “He confronts the issues in the church that many of us have struggled with over the years. And he does it in such a positive and Christlike way that it resonates deep down. Far from creating additional dissent, his approach is positive and uplifting. As Jesus famously said, ‘. . . the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). We need the truth more than ever before and William Johnsson gives it to us—unvarnished!”
Leland and Danni Sherwood, of Boyne City Seventh-day Adventist Church in Michigan, arranged for their entire congregation to watch the series. They report that this was a “high day” for the small congregation and that not one person left in spite of the time difference which made church end much later than it usually does. “Bill Johnsson speaks from his heart and you sense that you are in the presence of someone who is totally in love with Jesus,” they write. The presentations stirred so much discussion that some were still talking at 2:00 am Sunday morning! The Sherwoods add that “While we continue to pray for unity, we were reminded that whatever happens Jesus is still our center, still our foundation, and the focus of our lives.”
The Sanitas Lectureship was established at Boulder Adventist Church in 2016 to stimulate inquiry into God’s Word and create a safe space for people to connect with God as presented through the lens of the Bible. The annual event invites presentations from scholars, theologians, educators and pastors designed to demonstrate how the God of the Bible continues to work on the shared story of humanity.
Former speakers have been Old Testament scholar Laurence Turner and author Karl Haffner. Dr. Gordy Gates, a faithful lay leader at Boulder Adventist Church, has been instrumental in making the Sanitas Lectureship a reality. It fulfills his longtime dream of creating a challenging and mission-driven environment for the church community. Dr. Gates notes that Johnsson’s presentations “brought fresh insight, perspective, and a redemptive spirit to the many divisive issues currently plaguing our world church. By providing an open and respectful dialogue about these topics, Dr. Johnsson encouraged members to stay with the church rather than lose hope and abandon this community.”
Becky De Oliveira is director of communication for Boulder Adventist Church. She also teaches writing classes at Andrews University and Front Range Community College.