The story of a breathtaking assignment and an incredible God
Published on: 05-06-2023
The interview with Bill Johnsson was done on February 2, 2023, a few weeks before his unexpected death on March 11. The text remains as it was originally written.—Editors.
He had the date written in his calendar—February 18, 2004. William (Bill) Johnsson, then editor of Adventist Review, had scheduled an appointment with his boss, General Conference president Jan Paulsen, to discuss a problem. But when he walked into Paulsen’s office that day, the president quickly brushed aside Johnsson’s issue and raised one of his own.
“We need a magazine, a common vehicle, to help keep Adventists united throughout the world church,” Paulsen said. “And I would like the Adventist Review staff to explore ways to do that.”
The specific assignment? To send the church paper to approximately 1 million homes worldwide at no cost to the members, and to focus first on those world regions in which English is used. If funds later became available, the publication could be translated into additional languages.
Paulsen then added: “There is currently no budget available for this plan, and we can provide you with no extra staff. So after you’ve done all the work, it could come to nothing, because the money might not be there.”
Embracing the Impossible1
The task was daunting, but “Bill was immediately very enthusiastic about it,” Paulsen says. “What a wonderful idea—if we can pull it off,” he recalls Johnsson as saying.
Johnsson’s recollection is similar. “I was totally surprised,” he says, “but, frankly, very pleased.”
Describing the core mission of the publication as helping to “bind the church together to enhance the unity of our wonderfully diverse church,” Johnsson says he “personally felt it was a great need. A million thoughts went racing through my mind. I was only a couple months from my seventieth birthday, with plans to retire in the next year or two, but I let Elder Paulsen know that yes, I would be behind it; and I would try to get my staff to come on board as well.”
The idea for a global church paper wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment one for Paulsen, who served as General Conference president from 1999 to 2010. He’d felt a burden for many years to develop ways to strengthen unity among Seventh-day Adventists throughout the church’s 13 divisions and field offices.
“When I came to the General Conference as a vice president in 1995, I had already lived in several countries and was kind of an internationalist. I was always very concerned about how this Adventist family was going to hold together,” he says. “It weighed heavily on my mind. How are we going to hold together as an international family, being as diverse as we are? The differences between cultures are not marginal—they are huge.”
Paulsen notes that a sense of curiosity exists among church members about what the international Adventist family “looks like” outside their own region. And, he says, they wonder how those differences impact the church.
The questions in the minds of church leaders as they considered the feasibility of a global church magazine, Paulsen says, were: What are the core values that define us as Seventh-day Adventists? Do these values change as they are transferred elsewhere? In my culture do some values hold greater weight than in your culture? “These are difficult issues,” he says.
“This was to be a paper that would nurture, inform, stimulate, and affirm our shared values,” Paulsen explains. “It was to tell our members that we are together as one family around the world.”
“As the church grows and expands quickly, we need to be sure there is something that reaches out and embraces the new community of Adventists. In that sense, it was also to be an evangelistic tool,” he adds.
Johnsson then took the challenge to his staff.
“I called the staff together almost immediately and laid out what the chief had told me; but I also shared with them that currently there was no budget for this, and no additional help would be provided. There was just the vision, which might come to nothing,” says Johnsson, Adventist Review editor from 1982 to 2006. “At the time, we went to press every week, so we already had plenty to do. So, understandably, one or two of the staff were a bit reluctant to take on the project; but they quickly came around. The staff did wonderfully well with it.”
Roy Adams, an associate editor, was one of those who was hesitant to take on such a huge additional responsibility.
“We were already putting through four editions of Adventist Review each month: North American Division, World, Cutting Edge, and AnchorPoints,” says Adams. “And lurking in the background of the relentless deadlines those editions entailed was the fact that a General Conference Session was coming, an event that entailed months and months of exhaustive preparation, not to mention the “rat race” to cover the event itself. And the fact that the directive came with no promise of additional staff brought thoughts of Egyptian taskmasters demanding Israelite slaves produce bricks without straw.
“But once I got over those initial emotions, my sentiments fell in sync with the aim and purpose of the new venture,” Adams adds. “I’ve always felt that if ours is a global enterprise, then our principal leaders ought to have an organ for ongoing direct communication with the entire Adventist community worldwide. That conviction led me to put my shoulders to the wheel, joining the rest of the staff in pulling off the difficult assignment.”
Johnsson describes the plan to develop the global church paper as multidimensional. The various aspects included editorial, design, production, distribution, finances, and its impact on the weekly Adventist Review. The more he and the staff thought about it, the bigger and more complicated the task became, he says. “It was a breathtaking assignment, comprehensive, global in its dimensions.”2 Printing possibilities needed to be explored, not only in North America but in other world regions as well. Johnsson also had to consider the shipping options and how to get the magazine to the people reasonably quickly. He realized he needed someone to help with gathering all the data, so he presented the dilemma to his staff during a weekly staff meeting. Later that same day Merle Poirier, technical coordinator for Adventist Review at the time and who currently serves as operations manager for both magazines, offered her assistance.
“Merle gave invaluable aid,” Johnsson says. “She has a mind that is very strongly detailed, and she’s also very good with organization. It was a wonderful fit for us.”
“There were no models anywhere that we could look to,” Johnsson adds. “To have one magazine sent to the whole world—maybe only Adventists would come up with a plan like that,” he laughs.
The Review staff also needed a paradigm shift in their way of thinking. Instead of producing content for a largely North American audience, they now had to think globally.
“It needed to be a world magazine,” Johnsson notes. “I told the editors not to use American phrases and idioms, to avoid illustrations from America. We had to find content that would play for the world church. It was a very tough transition for us.”
The Question of Funding
Along with the hope and the dream, there was the practical question of funding. Where would the money come from? Johnsson believes the Holy Spirit provided the answer through Steve Rose, GC undertreasurer at the time, and now serving as treasurer for the Chinese Union Mission.
“Contrary to what some people think, the General Conference does not have any deep pockets or unlimited funds. It has a small contingency fund, but otherwise, all the funds are budgeted out. So there was no deep pocket to go to,” Johnsson says. “But Steve worked very closely with us, and his heart was in the project. He had this hope that the church in South Korea might provide the answer.”
Church funds that normally would be transferred to the General Conference had been building up in South Korea. Government regulations, however, didn’t allow the funds to be transferred in hard currency; only in won, the Korean currency. To convert to hard currency, the funds would be heavily taxed.
“Steve and I traveled to South Korea and met with a top tax lawyer,” Johnsson recalls. “He laid out the law, and the conditions seemed impossible. To unlock the funds, the publisher would have to be the church in South Korea. It could not be the General Conference. And so we came back from Korea thinking, What’s going to happen?”
P. D. Chun, recently retired as president of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division, then stepped to the fore. “Let me have a try,” Johnsson recalls Chun as saying.
Chun met privately with a high-ranking official, who—after he listened to the church’s dilemma—said, “Yes, that is the law. But exceptions can be made.”
Two South Korean publishers from the Adventist Korean Publishing House in Seoul were added to the editorial team, and the magazines for Korea were printed in the Adventist publishing house there. Chun became a member of the Adventist World board. So with those adjustments the General Conference could remain publisher of the magazine, and the money was legally unlocked and used to fund the project.
“I regard this as the biggest miracle with Adventist World—the way in which funds became available, and quite late in the process,” Johnsson says. “Only the Lord could have done this.”
“It was amazing how this task, which was almost unimaginable, all came together so quickly and worked—including the funding,” Paulsen says. “I believe it was a product inspired by heaven.”
The Crisis Point
The Review and Herald Publishing Association (RHPA), in Hagerstown, Maryland, played a large role in the planning and development of Adventist World. They didn’t, however, have sufficient technical staff to cover all aspects of the design. So Dever Designs, owned and operated by Seventh-day Adventist Jeff Dever, was hired to develop the initial template for the new 32-page magazine with a look that would work for regions such as Africa and Europe as well as North America. RHPA, though, was to handle the monthly design.
“As the launch date for the first issue of Adventist World loomed on the horizon and the deadline neared for the designed files to be sent electronically to all the presses [in addition to RHPA, the presses included a second one in the United States, Korean Publishing House in Seoul, and Signs Publishing Company in Australia],we realized we wouldn’t make it without help,” Johnsson says. “That was a crisis point. We were to launch the magazine at Annual Council at the GC headquarters in September , and this was early August. I was on vacation at the beach with my family that week when it became apparent that we had a big problem.”
Jeff Dever, at short notice, agreed to help, and took on the responsibility to flow in the content and design the magazine.
“Dever Designs worked day and night, and we met the deadline for the presses,” Johnsson says.
Dever Designs continued as the designer for Adventist World through 2017.
The concept of Adventist World was voted at the church’s 2004 autumn business meeting, and a presentation of its design was made July 2 at the following fifty-eighth GC Session in St. Louis. The first issue was launched in September 2005; and according to the minutes of the Adventist World publishing board of October 3, 2005, the first printing comprised 1.1 million copies. An estimate for the annual cost was $2.5 million. The minutes also noted five editions: Korea, South Pacific, North America, Inter-America, and Trans-Europe. The cover story for the first issue was titled “The Underground Church.” With the magazine’s potential use as a sharing tool, Johnsson estimated a possible 5 million readers of each issue. The magazines were shipped directly to the divisions, and the divisions then took the responsibility to transport them to the various unions, conferences, and churches.
“At the launch some people said, ‘This is an idea that will be gone once you retire, and they’ll move on to something else,’ ” Johnsson recalls. “But here it is, 18 years later. Praise God!”
When considering the fast-paced development of Adventist World—from its conception in February 2004 to its birth in September 2005—Johnsson says, “The Lord made it happen.
“Those months were very intense and involved. The magazine took over my life. I would go to bed with some challenge, not knowing where we were going, and the next morning I would have the answer. That happened over and over and over. This was of the Lord.”
Paulsen agrees. “I was convinced from the very beginning that the Holy Spirit was helping us to pull this together,” he says.
Extending the Reach
Although the first issue of Adventist World was printed in English, church leaders were determined to extend its reach by increasing the number of languages. Bill Knott, who was elected editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines following Bill Johnsson’s retirement at the end of 2006, invited Claude Richli in 2007 to join the staff. Richli was associate executive secretary of the East-Central Africa Division at the time. He had traveled extensively, was able to speak several languages, and felt at home on three continents. That background, he suggests, is the reason Knott tapped him for the job of associate publisher and marketing director.
“I believe he thought I would bring a lot of connections that would facilitate the expansion of the magazine,” Richli says.
“I saw the magazine as having great potential, particularly in Africa, because many members there didn’t have a lot of spiritual growth materials available to them. I also recognized its possible use as an evangelistic tool.”
During Richli’s eight years with the Adventist Review/Adventist World office, which later adopted the acronym ARMies, Adventist World reached a global distribution in 33 languages (in print and online) in more than 150 countries.3 The total number of print copies grew to about 1.5 million, using 19 printing and publishing partners around the world.4
Today about 1.6 million copies are distributed to 10 of the 13 world divisions 11 months of the year and published in nine languages.
In October 2020 the launch of a new WhatsApp channel made it possible for the more than 2 million Kiswahili-speaking and -reading Adventists to access Adventist World in their language.5 ARMies staff also now produce video and audio stories on how God changes people’s lives.6
Recognizing a need for a church paper reduced in length for some unions and smaller world regions, Richli initiated the production of Adventist World Digest. The Digest has 16 pages of adapted Adventist World material and is produced quarterly rather than monthly.
“The Adventist World Digest was customized to fit the needs and the financial feasibilities of local unions,” Richli explains. “It grew very rapidly.”
When he looks back on his experience with Adventist World and its rapid growth and world reach, Johnsson gives all the praise and glory to God.
“The biggest concern of my heart the whole time I was editor of Adventist Review was its declining circulation,” he says. “That was what troubled me, and we worked hard to try to bring it up. But the Internet was coming in, as well as online publications. It was a losing battle. When I took over the editorship, I used to tell people that I wouldn’t sleep well until we hit 100,000 in circulation. So we tried and tried, but the numbers kept falling. Eventually I became reconciled: It’s not going to happen. And then at almost the very last gasp of my work, here’s Adventist World. When I saw that first issue printed at the four different presses but the same magazine, I was overcome. The print run was 1.1 million, and I had dreamed of 100,000. “That’s the Lord we serve. He’s a God of abundance, beyond what we ask or imagine. Our God is truly a great God.”.
1 This subhead title is taken from William Johnsson’s book Embracing the Impossible (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2008) and used with permission.