Where does the term “emergent” come from and what does it mean? It was first coined by Karen Ward—now pastor of Church of the Apostles in Seattle—back in 2000. Working at the ELCA Headquarters, she read an article on reaching Gen-Xers that resonated with her, and she began a website—emergingchurch.org—designed for mainliners who were interested in ministering to Gen-Xers. Of course, she had no idea that the term would catch on to describe a burgeoning movement.
Doug Pagitt explains more about the meaning of the term:
Five years ago or so when numbers of us started using this phrase “emergent,” there were a number of reasons why we thought this word worked well. The reason I was most excited about it is the use in a forestry term or an agriculture term. Emergent growth is the growth in a forest that is growing below the surface, that if you were to knock away the dead pine needles and leaves and branches, you would see the growth that’s happening there. The health of a forest is determined by the health of the emergent growth, the growth that’s about to come up. In farming, people talk a lot about applying pre-emergent herbicides and so on, which they probably ought not do but. The idea is there’s something that’s about to come to the surface, and it’s growing in the environment of the rest of the forest or the rest of the field. So it’s not against, it’s not over in another field, it’s not something that wants to destroy the forest; in fact, it’s going to grow because of the protection of it—the idea that there was this emergent growth that was happening in Christianity, that was protected and that was going to have the chance to survive because of the environment. We wanted to talk about what is the nature of that emergent growth of Christianity in the world: Is it healthy, is it good, does it seem that it’s going to be able to take root and to stay and what would we need to do if not? People who care for forests go around, and they find out what is the growth right down close to the ground. And, you know, most of us who don’t know anything about forests, we look at the tree tops and we think it’s a beautiful forest. But you can have a dead forest with a lot of trees in it. Our thought was how could we turn our attention, our concentration, to that which is growing? So our idea was let’s switch the conversation from being just a cultural conversation to saying what is the nature of Christianity as it’s growing from its organic roots, and what’s going to be the nature of that which is going to come? That’s how we wanted to use the language.