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Brian McLaren reflects on 25 years of emergence

Brian McLaren once led one of the most talked about movements within American Christianity. A quarter-century after its beginning, he reflects back on what it was really about.
Brian McLaren once led one of the most talked about movements within American Christianity. A quarter-century after its beginning, he reflects back on what it was really about.

Brian McLaren once led one of the most talked about movements within American Christianity. A quarter-century after its beginning, he reflects back on what it was really about.

In 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?

BM: The only people who would say that are those who would be happy with theological conservatism. [tweetable]Many of us have found theological conservatism a bit inhospitable and theological liberalism a bit passé.[/tweetable] We’ve borrowed from both theological conservatism and liberalism. But it is important to note that these categories themselves have been defined in modernist terms. [tweetable]As we move beyond the categories, “liberal” and “conservative” are two ways of being irrelevant.[/tweetable]

Image courtesy of Jericho Books

Image courtesy of Jericho Books

RNS: Where has your theological trajectory taken you? Your newest book has a chapter on “Jesus and Hell,” for example. How do you understand hell?

BM: It is important to note that nowhere in the Old Testament is hell ever imagined. So when Jesus talks about hell, we have to know where that idea entered the Jewish vocabulary. When you explore the development of the idea of hell you discover something: [tweetable] The traditional idea of hell is not rooted in Scripture even though people who defend it often quote Scripture.[/tweetable]

RNS: The title of your book is We Make the Road by Walking. Explain.

A: It comes from a Brazillian educator and activist who got it from a Spanish poem. I thought it was fitting because if we look at our tradition as a road, we have to ask what it means to walk that road. Do we stop where our tradition has brought us until this point or continue to extend this tradition into the future?

RNS: In 2012, you officiated the wedding of your gay son. How do you see the issue of homosexuality in light of your Christian faith?

BM: I think the Christian faith has a deep struggle that it shares with Judaism and Islam. That is, how do we remain faithful to our ancient texts? Many religions inherited a simplistic and literalistic way of interpreting our texts. This is a dead end, forcing us to harm other people in order to be faithful to our interpretations. We need a fresh way of reading our texts that allows us to engage with others in a more humane way.

RNS: You mention other religions and have written extensively on what it means to be Christian in a multi-faith world. Is every religion as valid as another? Can you have just as vibrant a relationship with God whether you are Buddhist or Christian or Muslim?

BM: Every religious tradition is based on different assumptions. [tweetable]I’m not among those who say that all religions are the same and it doesn’t matter what you believe.[/tweetable] Every religion that is older than a day or two has a history and probably a history of serious failures. [tweetable]Every religion has to either be arrogant or honest about its own failures.[/tweetable] I think the Christian faith has great treasures and also a lot to learn. When people from different traditions approach each other humbly and bring their unique treasures as well as unique failures, they can meet one another around a table of respect.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Stand for everything = stand for nothing. Its a grand idea to welcome all, be all, judge no one, judge nothing. But its short sighted. It just means you believe in the noise of society that surrounds you, and nothing more.

    When people seek meaning, when they seek escape from the noise, what is it you offer when you accept all the noise already?

  • The interview doesn’t define what Mr. McLaren means by “emergent”. While I can always find a definition on the internet, I’m interested in his definition so I can understand his answers better.

    And speaking of answers, he doesn’t really answer your last question. Does he think all religions are equally valid?


  • I really respect Brian M and the work he is doing. The Emergent movement has inspired me to start a blog called Homeless Christians. ..Evangelical and Liberal Christians Falling Through the Cracks…larrymeza.

    There entire movement as I understand it is about the humility of love and I hope that is enough to sustain it and move I forward. Humility is the virtue that never demands its own way. and it is the virtue that listens first before speaking. The Emergent movement seeks to engage others in fruitful dialogue because it recognizes in humility that it does not hold all the answers. And yes…it us very possible to believe that Christ is the saviour of the world and still seek truth from others. I have lived and breathed from both sides of the theological spectrum and neither was very satisfying all by itself. The third way of the Emergent movement offers offers hope.

  • BM is a good example of a man falling in love with his own thoughts. It just all sounds like non sense when it is actually parsed out. I am sure he is a lovable man but my greatest fear is that I someday will be like him and enjoy sitting around and talking.

  • I agree with you Tim. I’d assume these answers are some-what condensed to fit the article but to me Brian doesn’t really answer most of the questions posed to him, and that itself is a common critique of the emergent movement. Has it moved past the message that we need to ask questions and started to find some answers?

  • I appreciate McLaren’s desire to be compassionate and humane, and to be open about historical failures in the church. I respect that he wants to engage others around a table of respect, rather than peering down at them from behind a desk of superiority. Or a DMV counter of hostility.

    Still, it’s hard not to see his squishy approach to truth as one such failure. His response to the final question about the uniqueness of the Way of Christ is disappointing. If he doesn’t draw a line even there — knowing how clearly the meek and humble Lord announced His own identity — then there’s a problem. Respect and humaneness are wonderful, but true versions of respect and humaneness are absent when someone gets evasive about the identity of Jesus. Is anything more important than a robust affirmation of King Jesus’s uniqueness? What could be more compassionate than to point people to Him?

  • Good job Larry M. I always think people admirable who focus on selflessness. I takes a lot of effort and self discipline to do so…so I have high regard for anyone who can live a life of such high ideal.

  • “King Jesus’s uniqueness”

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and execute them in front of me.” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

  • Hey, post it again cause it never gets old. Hey post it again cause it never gets old. Hey…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..gets old.

  • Once again, vagueness and generalizations triumph. There is nothing here. Where is the article? Nothing is explained and no insight given. Unless you read about McLaren and emergent theology somewhere else you would learn nothing from this piece.

  • Wow, Max. Way to pull quotes out of context. The first is a parable for crying out loud. Christians have been quoting scripture out of context for centuries to justify wrong ideas and here you are, stooping to their level. I’d expect better even if you’re trolling.

  • Emergent movement has done it’s job. It infiltrated evangelical churches sowed the doubt and introduced spiritual formation. Some of the leaders themselves lost the faith like Ryan Bell. Now it can fade into oblivion.

  • How eminently reasonable! How tolerant of error! Our Lord was not so.

    Woe to them who preach “peace, peace” when there is no peace.

  • @Jon,

    Ah. The ‘context’ argument.
    Explain this for me.

    Under what context would it be good, AND RIGHT and joyful to kill innocent children?

    What would be a context where that would be good?

  • @Jon,

    Regarding context, further:
    Under what circumstances would YOU consider rape to be ‘proper’?

    Rape would be any situation where the victim has no choice but to be the receiver of your sexual aggression. When would such an act be proper?

    When would such an act be GOOD?

    Please explain.

  • ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ ” – Jesus (Matthew 15:3).

    I’ll explain the context:

    In this situation Jesus is explaining to the Pharisees that they are being hypocrites. Because the Pharisees claim to be righteous in their faith.

    But Jesus yells at them and says (I’m paraphrasing) :

    ‘look at you! You claim to be righteous but you do NOT FOLLOW GOD”S LAWS! You don’t even know what righteousness is!
    The law states that you must kill unruly children YET YOU DO NOT!’

    NOW read again
    what Jesus tells the hypocrites who he is scolding:

    Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? …. ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’(Matthew 15:3).


    Which LAW are the Pharisees being accused of NOT following?


    “All who curse their father or mother must be put to death. They are guilty of a capital offense.” (Leviticus 20:9)

    It also appears elsewhere in The Law:
    Exodus 21:5 “Kill unruly children”
    Exodus 21:15 “Kill unruly children”
    and Deuteronomy 21:18-21…each calls for death to unruly children.


  • No incoherence at all. God will sent unbelievers to hell; nothing peaceful about that. But He calls his disciples to be peacemakers; it is not for them to take vengeance.

  • Larry – you seem to be searching for “Ways” that best suit you,which is the problem with the emergent or any other movement within Christianity that seeks to fulfill ones own personal quest or desires for satisfaction. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” We are to follow Him – and he will mold our desires to His, which brings that ultimate peace, joy and satisfaction that only He can provide. Blessings To You, Brother.

  • I know you know the Pharisees were convincing parents to leave their estates to “God” and “the church” at the expense of their children and that they were convincing children to give to “the church” (them) at the expense of taking care of their elderly parents.

  • What shall we do with sinners who are confused ?

    “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    Don’t call it love.

  • @Theophilus,

    “it is not for them to take vengeance.”

    Is that so?

    In the name of Jesus

    – “have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonian 3:14)

    – “For whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” (2 John 1:11)

    – “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)

    – “Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:33)

    – “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting” (2 John 1:10)

    – “Avoid Them” (Romans 16:17)

    – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15 – what happens if he doesn’t listen and he remains homosexual?)

    – “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:9-11)

    – “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1 Corinthians 1:13)

    – “Now we command you, brothers, IN THE NAME OF OUR LORD JESUS Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is ….not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”
    (2 Thessalonians 3:6)

    This is a cold way to treat someone who is:
    is Gay
    is Divorced
    is caught Masturbating
    is caught having sex before marriage
    is using contraception
    rejects certain ceremonies
    rejects certain beliefs



    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their KING and Execute them in front of me.” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Nothing has caused more misery in history than Religion.

    Religion is a blunder. A complete fiasco.

  • @ – AM – Religious erring mortals will have to pay for what they did to you. But you don’t have to live it! Abandon them and ask God to help you get a grip on why and who He is! You are only a few degrees from understanding!

  • @Art,

    You are a puzzle.
    I’m not angry at Christians. I don’t know what you are getting at.
    I’m angry at a list of commands which are
    claimed to be based on a god who appears to
    not exist.

  • You call it vengeance, I call it church discipline.

    As far as Luke 19.27 goes, other Christians may be embarrassed by that; I am not. Yes, Jesus will do worse than execute unbelievers.

  • McLaren seems hesitant to give definitive answers because, although he believes in absolute moral values and absolute truth, he has bought into the paradigm that objective truth claims are mostly (always)?) a weapon of oppression.

    At least that was what I understood when I read several of his major books a couple years ago.

  • Very True “Cold Industry.” All of us have a subjective view even on the objective. The only one to hold the objective truths are God with a perfect viewpoint. If we can’t even prove our consciousness then we should be sparing with using objective truths to “Lord” over people. I theoretically believe in objective truth, but I know I can never prove it. I only have evidence that I subjectively observe, and subjectively test, and then I (and everyone in the world) subjectively make a faith-claim.

  • Very interesting “Atheist Max.” I believe that scripture verse is Matthew 15:4, but still, very interesting. So apparently Jesus says that “God said” that if a child curses their father or mother they are to be put to death. Well that not very loving.

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