Welcome back to our series about the future of Christian leadership. This is an extended version of a conference talk I gave at the recent Acts29 National Conference. For this series, I am leaning on 1 Corinthians 16:13–14, which says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” I think this short passage captures several important themes that are in tension with one another. Those themes are the five verbs in the passage, four of which form two pairs of ideas that work in tension with one another.
The first tension is between the twin commands to “Be Watchful” and “Stand firm in the faith.” For a couple of weeks, we are looking at what it is we are supposed to be watching for. Last week, we talked about the need to watch for language, not words. This week, we are talking about the need to watch for Influence, not Power.
What is the difference between influence and power and why would we want to watch for the former, more than the latter?
First, power is obvious because it is positional and institutional. Power flows from a position, be it CEO, President, or Pastor. Power comes with a title and it’s always part of a system. In that sense, it is obvious how to attain it and to understand who has it. Influence is more subtle, and more difficult, both to acquire and to identify. Influence doesn’t require a position or a title and therefore cannot be lost if a job is lost. Power requires a position in order to make things change, influence can change the world without a position.
Is there an overlap between these ideas? Certainly, lots of people in power also have great influence in addition to their positional power. And lots of very influential people enjoy the benefits and even multiplication of influence that can come from holding an important position. So why is it important to look for influence, not power?
In most institutions and systems, the influencers are the ones who make change and the powerful simply codify it. Why is this? Because people in power want to protect their power, which makes them less likely to push for change. The status quo has given them the power they have, and a different future may take that power away. This makes them change-averse and far less likely to think progressively. People without power - or simply less power to lose - are far more likely to initiate change and bring new ideas. It’s only once these new ideas gain acceptance and the Powerful see that there is no risk to them, that they will adopt the ideas and codify them in the institution.
Put simply, influencers are dictating the future, the powerful codify the past. As pastors, we need to keep our eyes on those that are doing the influencing, because by the time Joe Biden says something about gender equity, the game is done. He is the last one in that conversation, he isn’t breaking any ground. We will learn a lot more about the direction of the culture by paying close attention to those with influence.
Similarly, we will have a lot more impact on our cities if we strive for influence, rather than power. There have been a lot of talks recently about the need for Christians to rise to positions of political power or to influence those who have. The motivation, as I understand it, is to change laws and norms to more fully reflect Christian values and ethics. I heartily endorse the motivation, but I think the process is deeply flawed.
People need to be influenced towards Christianity by means of compelling arguments and relational connections. Pulling legal and political levers to create a more Kingdom-reflecting country is not only a fool’s errand, I fear it will backfire in significant ways. Put simply, no one likes to be told what to do and when they are told, most adults regress to their teenage years and throw tantrums. People do what they want to do, not what they are told to do. Influencers don’t tell people what to do, they move their affections toward new desires. Wielding power will only engender bitterness and rebellion.
Just think of all the cultural changes that have happened in the last 20 years. The LGBTQ community has made enormous strides with its agenda to normalize the modern vision of sexuality and gender. They have not done this primarily through political and legal means, but through cultural influence via media, entertainment, and a lot of public shaming. Proposition 8 in California legalized gay marriage and the Obergefell Supreme Court decision simply codified what the cultural consensus had been for nearly a decade.
As pastors, we need to understand the future as best we can and the best way to do that is to pay more attention to those with influence and less attention to those with power. In the same way, if we want to change our city or our country, we are far better off seeking to gain influence than we are trying to reach for the levers of power.