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By Adventist Today News Team, September 12, 2013

The weekend of September 6-8 brought together 170 Adventist academics from across North America to discuss how dialog with other religions might help the Adventist movement overcome "the liberal/conservative divide" and strengthen Adventist identity. Speakers included Brian McLaren, the well-known evangelical author; Dr. William Johnsson, retired editor of the Adventist Review and special assistant to Pastor Ted Wilson, president of the denomination's General Conference; and Dr. Samir Selmanovic, an Adventist minister who founded Faith House in New York City, a nonprofit that hosts multi-faith conversations. The meeting was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
 
McLaren's books have helped young Adventists find a renewed commitment to their faith. Brenton Reading, one of the organizers of the meeting, shared with Adventist Today his own journey. He had a strong Adventist identity, went through Adventist schools, graduating from Southern Adventist University, then encountered ideas he had not been exposed to before and found his faith deconstructed. He started with a more conservative faith, hostile to outside influences but when it was deconstructed, he moved away from Adventism, until he discovered McLaren's writing.
 
McLaren's critique of his evangelical background was supportive of Adventist beliefs in the wholistic nature of humanity, the danger of the doctrine of eternal burning hell, and the importance of health. "Reading Brian McLaren actually brought me back to the Adventist Church," said Reading. "And I'm an active member of my local Adventist church today because of him."
 
Both the conservative/hostile Christianity and the liberal/benign Christianity fall short in McLaren's view. Instead he advocates "a strong faith rooted in clear identity that interacts with others in loving and benevolent ways, a strong/benevolent faith." Reading said, "I think that is taking the best from our conservative and liberal traditions. It's been described as a third way because it's a new approach to how we live our faith."
 
McLaren's books have attempted to deal with the increasing discomfort in new generations of believers with the conventional conservative and liberal versions of Christian faith, a trend widely expressed among younger Adventists. Selmanovic and Dr. Ryan Bell, a community organizer and religion professor from California, are two Adventists who have discussed these themes with McLaren in prior events. "This was a reunion," Bell said, recalling that they were all three involved in a conference on urban ministry in 2002 and have continued to exchange ideas.
 
Johnsson's Sabbath morning sermon was the highlight of the weekend, according to a number of participants. He talked about his career in the Adventist ministry and broke down in tears when he revealed that after 15 years as a missionary in India, he had not made a single friend outside of the Adventist community. He told how he later became close to a Muslim sheik in Australia. “He ended the sermon by encouraging us all to go out and make friends outside of our immediate community and let those friendships impact us,” one participant told Adventist Today. He received a standing ovation.
 
Representatives of other faiths were invited to respond to the major presentations and share their perspectives. These included Amin Issa, a Muslim leader, and Deborah Levine, a Jewish worship specialist. The crowd also seemed significantly younger than past years to several observers. Bonnie Dwyer, an executive with the Association of Adventist Forums (AAF), the sponsor of the event, told Adventist Today that 26 students were present, most from Southern Adventist University.
 
Books by all three of the key speakers can be purchased through major online booksellers. AAF may distribute audio recordings of the presentations.