Permission to lead in the emerging church

It was a real pleasure being with the Diocese of Chicago in January – experiencing a vibrant faith community focused on God, spiritual vitality, worship, relationships, and mission. The whole experience was inspiring and energizing – but the permission slip exercise was especially powerful. It was great to receive my own permission slip in the mail recently and then to read over other slips on the website.

Two permission slips especially stood out to me. First, I kept coming back to, “Permission to think I can lead in the emerging church.”

A lot of people, when they hear that term “emerging church,” think it means a particular style of church – distorted electric guitars, subdued lighting, lots of tattoos and piercings, anti-liturgical, extremely hip. Or they think it’s about structure – dismantling denominations or something similar.

Those folks don’t get it.

Focusing on “style” is part of what the emerging church is emerging from. The emerging church represents a turn from preoccupation with structure and style towards content, towards the primary and primal meaning of the gospel in our world today.  If we “get” that meaning of the gospel – that God’s kingdom (or dream, or commonwealth, or kin-dom, or beloved community) is available now, within reach, inviting all to participate – then we realize that style (whether traditional “smells and bells” or hipster tattoos and piercings) isn’t the point. It’s relative, not absolute; a means, not an end.

The same with structure. In the modern/colonial era, colonial structures competed for “religious market share” and each claimed greater legitimacy than the others. As we emerge from that “my structure is better than yours” mindset, we realize that any structure can become problematic … and that any structure (including episcopal ones!) can serve our essential message, meaning, and mission.

That’s why an Episcopal Church that uses organ, incense, and vestments can be more of an emerging church than one that uses a rock and roll band, blue jeans, and uber-casual style. If it’s focused on a missional understanding of the church derived from a Kingdom-of-God understanding of the gospel, it’s emerging from the old paradigms.

If we take those understandings as seriously as we should, we may see Episcopal Churches finding permission to experiment, explore, and evolve into new styles and structures. In that way, Episcopal identity may become more like the fair food or healthy eating movements (united by a common vision and values) and less like the old McDonald’s (united by the externals – the same menu, pricing, uniforms, and golden arches).

Wherever you are and whoever you are (clergy, lay leader; old, young; conservative, liberal), you do indeed have permission to help lead in the emerging church. In fact, you very possibly are doing so already and don’t even know it yet!

Which brings me to the second permission slip that struck me: “You are permitted, and strongly encouraged, to destroy the pretty box and neatly tied bow you have placed God, Religion, and Spirituality in.”

This permission slip brings to mind a moment in the Holy Week story that moves me year after year: the moment on Good Friday when the veil in the temple is torn from top to bottom. I used to think that signified God opening the door, so to speak, to let us into the holiest precinct of the temple. That’s certainly true. But now I see another dimension too: I think it signifies God making a jailbreak … breaking out of the boxes (whether architectural, theological, or cultural) we have built and moving out, like the wind and fire, like river and stream, across the world.

That’s the most exciting emergence of all … God emerging from the confines of our tight religious boxes, emerging to transform our world, emerging into the lives of “every heart” that will “prepare God room.” God is already emerging in this most important way, already giving us permission to join in God’s transforming mission. As the Christmas carol says, that’s enough to make heaven and nature sing!

–Brian McLaren

15 thoughts on “Permission to lead in the emerging church

  1. I keep trying to express to some of the people in my parish that emergent does not mean “style of worship” or structure. Thank you for expressing this so well.

  2. For me, more & more the challenge is this:

    If it’s focused on a missional understanding of the church derived from a Kingdom-of-God understanding of the gospel

    So much of what we are about is palliative ministry.

  3. Maybe emergence is not about managing decline but giving ourselves permission to take the next tiny step toward something more-toward the dream of God made real-for the church and the world we are called to imagine differently.

  4. What does Missional mean? Is there a church anywhere that isn’t doing mission in its community, or somewhere out in the world? Does it matter whether the church itself has a mission to its community, or if its members are individually doing God’s work in the world — tutoring kids, working at a local soup kitchen, etc.

  5. Pingback: Some recent thoughts on "emergin - Brian McLaren

  6. Pingback: Children, Youth, and a (not so) New Kind of Christianity

  7. I love the idea of the torn veil was symbolic of God breaking out rather than allowing us in. A sure sign of “emerging” spirituality to me is the fact that such an obvious insight has been “veiled” to me until now. Feel free to visit my blog “Pushing Back”. (

  8. The church may be in decline in ‘numbers’ in the UK but that doesn’t mean it is across the number. Christianity is spreading like wild fire. God is pouring His Spirit out on all flesh. The idea of the emerging church is a good one, but the negativity around numbers declining taints it for me. There is only 1 church, the living breathing organic Body of Christ – and it’s the fast growing movement on Earth,

  9. Pingback: Highlights of the Week – 5/30/12 | | Jericho Books

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