Origin of the terms “Emerging” and “Emergent” church – Part 1

April 20, 2006 — 11 Comments

I was inspired to take a few moments from reading Marko’s post this morning called "This is Emergent" which is great as it expresses some of the metaphor of the meaning of the actual word emergent.

However – since I get asked this so incredibly often "Where did the term ‘emerging church’ start?" or what is the difference of "Emerging" or "Emergent" that I thought I would continue Marko’s wondering of where the terms originated and also have a post I can then refer people to who ask me this a lot. To some you may not care at all about things like this, but for me it will help putting it here and then referring people to it who ask me.

The origin of the term "Emerging Church"

I first heard the term "emerging church" around 1997 when Leadership Network was using it as their tagline which said "advance scouts for the emerging church". Below is the actual logo and tagline on their web site from April 2000.


                    I personally thought it sounded cool and somewhat Indiana Jones-like saying you were "advanced scouts for the emerging church". Kind of like we were were explorers out there looking to the horizons to see what the Spirit of God was doing missionally in new forms of churches and ministries. Leadership Network also hosted several conferences which were focused on what at that time was called "Gen X" ministry in 1996 in Colorado Springs and another in 1997 at Mt. Hermon, CA. These conferences were even called "Gen X 1.0" and Gen X 2.0". They hosted another large event in Santa Fe in 1999 as well as several regional gatherings and forums focusing on emerging culture and generations. At these events were where I met so many people and began "networking" and building friendships, as the hope of Leadership Network was for people. David Crowder who at that time was beardless, had long straight hair and always was wearing a baseball cap when he led worship, was at many of these early events.

From "baby buster" to "Gen X" to "postmodern" to "emerging"

Since Leadership Network was hosting these events specifically focused on younger generations and their tag line was (advance scouts for the emerging church), it slowly began being used as as substitute word for what was once "Baby Busters" then became "Gen X"  then "postmodern" then became "emerging". When we realized that the "Gen X" thing was not just an age-group but a cultural change, it shifted to "postmodern" which soon became totally misunderstood and equated with a "style" of music or ministry or worship service rather than a philosophical response to modernism – and most of us were not philosophers and realized we were over our heads trying to even explain it. So the word "emerging church" seemed safer and more non-age specific and began being used more and more, not only for churches and ministries focused on younger generations, but for churches focusing on the fact the culture was really changing and shifting. So the term moved past a generational focus to more of a cultural focus.

However, a lot of the discussion at that time was still mainly about launching new alternative worship gatherings within a church, for younger people or planting new churches for younger generations. The term was mainly being used at that time around 1997-2001 (for the most part among the average church leader who began adopting the term), to describe churches focusing on ministry methodology for emerging generations and what was different than the Boomer church, the seeker church and traditional churches. That would change later to some degree, but that to my remembrance was the primary focus during those years.

When I was discussing book titles with Zondervan for the book I wrote which ended up being called "The Emerging Church" and was published in 2003, it was from Leadership Network where I first heard the term and was inspired to use it for the book title. I even got the domain name "emergingchurch.net" in 2001 to use for the book (which I never actually used but still own the domain from 2001). During the time of 2001 to 2003 the term "emerging church" became more and more popular, other web sites started using it to describe churches etc. So by the time the book was released, the term ‘the emerging church’ was already established in the circles that were talking about all the Gen X and postmodern things. My book did not start the name (as many have asked me about when they talk to me). I think possibly the book popularized it more in circles that hadn’t heard about it before then. But the name was well in usage before the book I wrote came out.

"Emerging Church" simply meant churches who were missional and "being the church" in our emerging culture

For me, the term "the emerging church" simply meant churches who were focusing on the mission of Jesus and thinking about the Kingdom in our emerging culture. It meant churches who were rethinking what it means to be the church in our emerging culture. It meant churches who were "being the church" instead of "going to church" in our emerging culture. Most of the emerging churches initially were focused on younger generations by default of the lack of seeing them in churches and increasing number leaving the church. So it did start more with a mission of specifically seeing emerging generations become part of the church again. There were some distinct values about leadership and community and evangelism approaches that were being established among the churches – but overall at that time it meant missional churches passionate about seeing the gospel of Jesus communicated and lived out to emerging generations. That is at least what I was thinking as I used the term and still do think as I use the term "emerging church". The word "emerging" simply means ‘what is coming to the surface’. So I use the term for what is the Spirit of God bringing to the surface in terms of the church that He has since the birth of the church.

The church is always "emerging"

The church has always been emerging since it was birthed and we have seen all types of various expressions of church ‘emerge’ throughout church history. If anyone disagrees that the church has not been emerging, then simply look at what you are doing now in worship. Mostly everything we do has "emerged" as culture changes. If you sing with an organ, that ‘emerged’ at a certain time. If you are in a denomination, what that denomination started from ‘emerged’ at a certain time. For those that say nothing ever changes, then ask if you are giving each other holy kisses when you meet. As that was a part of early Christian worship. But eventually culture changed that and most of us do not go around kissing each other on Sunday mornings in the sanctuary but instead the handshake ‘emerged’ or however else we may greet one another. We shouldn’t be afraid of emerging, as the church has always been emerging in various ways.

That is also why you see diversity among emerging churches that are Baptist or Lutheran etc. as the common link among emerging churches is a missional mindset. That is also why there is no "model" for the "emerging church" but it is more of a mindset than a model as local contexts make a tremendous difference in it all. I have heard lately that it might have been better to say "church who are emerging" (plural) than "the emerging church" (singular) as that sounds exclusive, and I fully agree – although it was never meant to be as the word "church" is plural really in how at least I thought of it when I used the word "emerging church".

The Emerging Church circa 1970

Emerging_church_1970_2 Now, the irony is that about 2 years ago someone bought me a copy of a book called "The Emerging Church" that was published in 1970 written by Bruce Larson and Ralph Osbourn. It actually is a great book and I have been in contact with one of the authors who now is in his 80′s. So in 1970 the church was "emerging" and someone even wrote a book about what was emerging then. They actually have a great quote in this book which says:

"If the church be true to its Lord, it may never properly say it has emerged."

I believe that is true and as I have said before, there is someone who is 6 years old right now who in the year 2040 will probably write another book called "The Emerging Church" about what is emerging at that time period.

To my best understanding, this is the origin of the term ‘the emerging church’ as used in most settings today. I am not sure when it began being used in England, or how it began being used there to describe the alternative worship scene that was also developing – but at least from a USA perspective, that I what I believe is the origin of where we started using the term. I may have some things missing in there, and feel free to comment and add or clarify anything, but to my best remembrance it is Leadership Network back in the late 1990′s who first began using the term and it spread from there to be used as a replacement word for the whole "Gen X" then "postmodern" then "emerging church" words of expressing a term for missionally minded churches wanting to engage culture for the gospel.

Today, many people use the term in all sorts of ways – but that is how I personally began using it and why.

The origin of the term "emergent" and "emergent church"

The term "emergent" and "emergent church" began being used as we use it mainly today after the term "emerging church" was being used. But it is late and tomorrow or the next day I will write "Part 2" about where the term "emergent" originated, and from who and why to the best of my understanding. Also, I will discuss a little about the differences of "emerging" and "emergent" from my perspective at least. There are many thoughts on this, but I am asked a lot about this too, so I will post it here. In light of all the problems and evils in the world, discussing origins of terms seems trite. But it is something as I said, I get asked a lot, so hope it isn’t totally wasted words.

Dan Kimball

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author of "Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus In The Mess of Organized Religion" and "They Like Jesus But Not The Church" . On staff at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA.
  • http://fixedandconsidering.typepad.com/a_worthy_message Dan

    I appreciate your explanation very much. I did not know that history and other friends of mine will benefit from this as well because they wonder about some of the controversies swirling about this topic.
    Btw, much of this “emerging” stuff reminds me of when I was in college in ’70s and was a post-hippie Jesus Freakish saint who met in house churches and did other radical (for its day) stuff. So much of this conversation resonates with me and fits with where the Lord has been leading me in ministry.
    Thanks much.

  • http://markjberry.blogs.com/way_out_west/2006/04/emerging_church.html way out west

    “Emerging Church”?

    Really interesting post from Dan Kimball on the origins of the phrase “Emerging Church” I personally thought it sounded cool and somewhat Indiana Jones-like saying you were “advanced scouts for the emerging church”. Kind of like we were were explorers

  • http://blindbeggar.org/?p=210 The Blind Beggar

    Origin of the Term Emerging Church

    Dan Kimball over at Vintage Faith has an interesting post titled “Origin of the Terms Emerging and Emergent Church.”
    Since Leadership Network was hosting these events specifically focused on younger generations and their…

  • Matt Self

    Dan, I was just a face in the LN crowd in the mid-90s, and I remember the constant confusion. I thought I joined to learn new ways to do church in a missional context, and there were many bitter souls who just wanted to reinvent the whole Church. I am not at all surprised to see that tension continue today.
    I joined because, as a member of the Vineyard — one of the church-planting groups at the early forefront of “GenX” ministry — I wanted to plant a GenX church myself. I was constantly encouraged to do just that, I just didn’t know exactly what it was supposed to be. When the LN invited me into their fray, I thought I might find some assistance.
    It was strange in the Leadership Network that so many only knew of the term in the context of marketing. Few had read Douglas Coupland’s book(s), ever heard of Jane Deverson or Charles Hamblett, or even knew Billy Idol was in a band before his solo career. Of course, that wasn’t important except I came to view many of the rank-and-file as people inspired by media hype and not a missional understanding. You know, because it was so much “hey, this is next great thing.” The irony was not lost on me when GenX — an apt term to describe the target audience if there ever was one — was ultimately deemed derogatory because it was believed to be a mass media invention.
    I appreciated the LN to the extent that someone understood a a clean-cut seminary grad in a pair of Dockers holding an acoustic guitar wasn’t going to address the growing unchurched counter-culture. I’m very hip to the missional aspect of Emerging, it just seems like no progress has been made since it first started. People are terrified of making normative statements — not only to each other, but now in their churches. That saddens me, because the whole initial missional push seems downgraded in favor of red-letter-only milquetoast theology.
    I pray for what’s grown out of those early days because my heart still hurts for my generation, particularly since we are now raising our own new generation. By and large, people my age were given credit cards, not parenting skills. As the Church, we need to address that in a hurry.

  • http://www.swimminginthedeepend.blogspot.com David

    Andrew Jones said this a while back
    The term Emerging Church has been around for decades. One of the books on my shelf is “The Emerging Church” (1970) by Bruce Larson and Ralph Osbourne. Another is “The Emerging Church in Ephesians” (1980) by A. John Carr. Dan Kimball’s book “The Emerging Church” (2003) helped to jump-start the word in USA.
    But I feel it was around 2001 when the word exploded onto the radar screens of the church. Young Leaders in USA had changed their name to Emergent, A number of European networks from UK, Spain and Germany gathered in Frankfurt for an event called “Emerge”, Karen Ward started a web site called emergingchurch.org (2002?) and in Austin the Boaz Project hosted the Epicenter roundtable for leaders of emerging church networks.

  • http://www.submergence.org karen ward

    actually, i started emergingchurch.org (website) in the year 2001, it seemed a good name for what was starting to be in my thoughts at the time.

  • http://freedompastor.blogspot.com Frank Emanuel

    The theologian Johann Baptist Metz also wrote about the Emergent Church, likely in the 60′s. I ran across the title when doing some research and have always meant to go back and read it.

  • Teresa Blosser

    I think you are being deceived like Jesus himself warned would happen in the last days. I think the Emerging church is the early formation of the eventual prostitute bride of the Fake Christ to come, who is severely punished after refusal to submit to the one True God. Take a stroll through Revelation with great focus on the 17th chapter please.
    It’s time to think through your actions and test it up against the bible and make a better choice, then to stand in the place of god. (For which you are not) Excellent resources for study are: understandthetimes.org with Oakland is informative and so is the book A Time of Departing and For Many Shall Come in My Name by Yungen available at lighthousetrails.com. Also, a great free e book read by Warren Smith at reinventingjesuschrist.com is something to check out. We know where all this insanity is headed…
    Last book for consideration is The Truth War by MacArthur from gty.org or bookstores anywhere. And please take a listen to olivetreeviews.org with Markel and then anything that lamblion.com (or org) with Dave Reagan, but particularly the TV series of the letters to the 7 Revelation churches with great emphasis to the pagan and worldly and compromised churches in that series. It’s all very enlightening, friends.
    Remember, the most loving thing you can do is to tell people the truth, even when they don’t like it.

  • Randy

    The Emerging church is nothing but an attempt to appeal to the desires and felt needs of a culture who refuses to hear the clear preaching of the Word of God. Pastors and church members who try to conform to the music, dress and desires of the rest of the world in their so-called evangelism are simply saying to the church and to the world that they are ashamed of the truths that Jesus and the Apostles taught. I truly believe that many of those who use the methods of men like Rick Warren and Bill Hybles are terribly deceived. Warren and Hybels are self-professed followers of Robert Schuller’s methods and messages of self esteem and prosperity mentalities. Schuller cannot possibly be a true believer because he refuses to teach the plain facts of scripture that say that all men are inherently evil and eternally lost by their very nature. Schuller teaches that every man is by nature a “person of possibilities and potentials. The Bible is profoundly opposed to men like Schuller, Warren and Hybels. No one can possibly be saved by such a false gospel. The church buildings are bulging at the seams, but most of these people are on a path to hell that is paved with “good intentions.”
    The entire emerging church system is intent upon teaching that no one can really know any truth of scripture for sure. In other words, they teach spiritual anarchy – every man for himself in whatever makes him feel good. Rick Warren has even stated that the term Lord is negotiable. In saying that, I believe he has condemned himself already because he has denied who Jesus actually is.

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