n the late 20th century, the conspicuous absence of young people in American churches became painfully clear. Some religious leaders asserted that Christian churches needed to change if they wanted to reach a new generation. Disillusioned with conventional Christianity, they dreamed together about the future and formed a collective called the “Emergent Church.” It gained credibility, spawning a glut of books by major Christian publishers, and earning the attention of news outlets. Christianity Today even proclaimed that “Emergent” was one of the fastest growing movements within Christianity.
Many trace the Emergent movement’s beginning to 1989, which makes it 25 years old this year. In nearly three decades, it has lost much of its steam. Emergent’s critics argue that this is proof the leaders’ visions for Christianity were unsustainable. I decided to sit down with Brian McLaren–once considered to be something of a pope for the Emergent Church–to reflect back on the last 25 years and what it was really about.
RNS: For unfamiliar readers, explain how the Emergent conversation began.
BM: A couple of decades ago, a lot of megachurch pastors started realizing they were losing the younger generation and not attracting people under 40 years of age. They began talking about the difference between Gen-X and Baby Boomers. They soon realized this was not just a difference between generations but between a modern colonial world and a postmodern post-colonial world. This conversation quickly spread from evangelicals to mainline folks to some Catholics, which birthed the conversation.
RNS: In 2010, Anthony Bradley wrote something of an obituary for the movement in WORLD Magazine. Was he right? Has the conversation’s pulse flat-lined?
BM: I vaguely remember the article, so I can’t respond directly. But I think there’s a sense that evangelical gatekeepers have vilified “Emergent” so that people within evangelicalism no longer use the term. I was never all that infatuated with the term myself, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. [tweetable]Anyone who thinks the status quo has triumphed over the need for change is probably a victim of wishful thinking.[/tweetable]
RNS: What about those who claim the movement could not be sustained because it lacked a strong theological center or strayed into theological liberalism?