Power, Authority and Influence in the New Church

Today is my decadal birthday and I plan to celebrate every wrinkle. In some cultures, age is a source of power, authority and influence, but where I live and work, it is usually not. However, there are many sources of authority out of which people lead.  Many years ago I heard a wise teacher declare that Christians are willing to talk about the power of God’s Spirit, and about the rampant abuse of power, but that it was rare for us to consider appropriate uses of power and influence. He suggested that ministers learn to recognize these and lead well out of them. Topping the list is spiritual authority. It comes from walking humbly and obediently with Christ. The next best is the informal relational authority that comes from pouring one’s life into others. It is about serving, listening and caring.

There are other sources of power and authority too. They include the influence that comes from education, expertise, knowledge (information), vision and the gift of generating great ideas. More superficial sources are money, clothing, and appearance, or cultural biases like ethnicity, stage of assimilation or gender. The most rapidly declining power source is formal hierarchical roles. At one time this kind of positional authority meant everything, but now it is best mediated through good relationships and dependency on God, as well as through leadership capacities like expertise, vision and knowledge.

Church planting leaders both intentionally and inadvertently choose the sources of authority on which they rely. Relational and spiritual sources of authority are freely available, but they take time, discipline and wisdom to cultivate. Since every member of the family of God is able to access them, these things are clearly supposed to be shared. Knowledge and expertise are also best when widely distributed among the body. In a truly great church, many members are empowered to lead and influence others, not just formal leaders. It makes little sense to train people to use their spiritual gifts without also empowering them to lead. Go for shared influence. Start churches by multiplying whole communities of spiritual, relational leaders.

  • cat

    linda, I liked what you said about relational authority. It has been my experience that too many of our churches have leaders who lack this, and unfortunately in the asian churches, where age is still very much a source of power, the power can often be given to one who lacks the spiritual and relational authority that you define. I am fortunate to be in a church that has a leader who I believe has both. This generation is looking for authentic humble relational leaders. I heard a sermon recently about how fathers need to command respect (by living lives worthy of people respecting them) rather than demanding respect. I pray our leaders of the next generation will do the same thing.

  • Linda Bergquist

    Thanks for this observation, Cat. I do understand what you are saying about Asian culture. I also agree with you about a younger generation who yearns for relational and spiritual leadership. Much appreciation for posting!

  • Sveta

    Linda, thank you for making me think. I like the concept of “sources of authority,” and it was very interesting and eye-opening for me to examine my familiar churches with that in mind. It is encouraging to hear that, ”
    The most rapidly declining power source is formal hierarchical roles,” and as far as I am concerned, this decline can’t happen fast enough. However, I do agree with you and the previous poster that in some cultures, including Russian, perhaps,it still definitely has a stronghold. I also think that conflict arises in immigrant churches in the West then traditiona sources of authority clash with developing new ones, such as relational, that the younger generation would prefer. I think that in that setting, the differences between sources of power are magnified and amplified, because the congregation is not homogeneous in its values and principles. Just some thoughts…

    • Linda Bergquist

      Good thoughts, Sveta. Really interesting that the two comments on this blog are both from people who reference different cultures than the one from which I think and write. Makes me thing that even blogs would be served through collaboration. There are for certain generational values at work here. Interesting comment from you that, ” In that setting, the differences between sources of power are magnified and amplified, because the congregation is not homogeneous in its values and principles. Thank you for stopping by!

  • Linda,

    Great article. I’d like to kick the tires a bit on a comment you made because it is something I’ve been processing as well. You wrote, “… it was rare for us to consider appropriate uses of power and influence.” One of the things that I’m attempting to get my mind around is this notion of stewarding power and influence. I think for most of us in the evangelical church “power” and “influence” tend to have been viewed negatively or worldly as we feared abusing power of any sorts. On the other hand we read of such figures as Nehemiah, Daniel, or Joseph wielding much power. I remember reading “Transforming Power” by Robert Linthicum where he articulated and urged Christian leaders to use and steward power for those less fortunate. Since then I’ve been mulling that over in my mind.

    In regards to church planting and new churches … how are leaders to “wield power” regardless of how it is allotted to them whether through relationships, position, etc? I know we all fear the authoritarian autocratic leader but then again we roll our eyes at the leader who’s been deemed “spineless” or “weak.” Where’s the balance and how does one emulate the humility of Jesus in the process?

  • Linda Bergquist

    Hi Sean, Thanks for the comment. Your questions are exactly what I was addressing here- we never talk about these kinds of things in healthy way. Here’s a story: I have met Dallas Willard a few time, and have read all of his books. When I attended a conference and he remembered my name, I blushed with pleasure because i respect him so very much.What an honor- and then I thought, “the living god knows my name- how amazing!”

    I remember a few week later I was in the position of being in a space with a woman who had just received groceries from the food bank. She could have used a ride, but I was tired and it took every ounce of my remaining energy to offer that to her. The Spirit prompted, “what if she were Dallas Willard?” and the rest is history. Dallas Willard, because of His walk with Christ, commands spiritual authority in my life without even knowing it. When people walk in a Micah 6:8 way- they carry both spiritual and relational authority (What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God).But again, this is a matter of spiritual discipline, obedience and steadfastness in the Lord. And it is God’s free gift to each who accept his yoke.