A minister desiring to preach to the power brokers should grab a mirror and get with it. No person has more power than that available to a preacher of the gospel of Christ.
Preaching, however, is not necessarily an exercise of power; it can be as easily an abdication or abuse of power. Preaching may be empowered, passive, or poison. Furthermore, targeting the power brokers for a sermon is difficult. It demands more insight and skill than simply bombarding unsuspecting politicians and bankers who wander into church.
All persons possess power. From the Latin, posse, meaning “to be able,” power is being expressing itself. It is the leverage of the living, the clout of life. Rollo May defines power succinctly as “the ability to cause or prevent change.”1 He insists, “Power is always interpersonal.”2
Power owns no life of its own. People possess power, although at times power seems to possess people. Power has no initial moral connotation; persons do. Power is amoral until imprinted by the persons who exercise it.
We speak of benevolent and malevolent power. The bottom line, however, is persons making what seem to be simple choices in what often become powerful webs of both good and evil.
The mixture of persons and power is complex. Are we good persons with the power to do evil or evil persons with the power to do good? Both? Neither?
Hannah Arendt has cogently exposed the riddle of our involvement with power: “Cain slew Abel, Romulus slew Remus; violence was the beginning …” Arendt concludes: “The conviction, In the beginning was a crime — for which the phrase ‘state of nature’ is only a theoretically purified paraphrase — has carried through the centuries no less self-evident plausibility for the state of human affairs than the first sentence of St. John: ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ has possessed for the affairs of salvation.”3
Erich Fromm poses the same riddle with different images. “There are many who believe that men are sheep; there are others who believe that men are wolves. Both sides can muster good arguments for their positions.”4
On a grander corporate scale, Robert Bellah observes a particular strand in our national history that “can never quite decide whether our society is Babylon or the New Israel.”5 Nor can some preachers.
We fall into the “suspicion trap” believing that power is probably evil until we get our hands on it. In our ambivalence about power — confusion about who are wearing the white hats and the black hats and how recently they have changed hats — we may be like the young preacher being interviewed by his first pulpit committee. To their difficult question, he said, “Frankly, I’m prepared to preach it either way.”
The difficulty of preaching to power brokers is compounded by naivete and even confusion about the kinds of power exercised by our listeners. Power may be overt or covert or both. It may represent a popular but rather superficial leverage or a more subtle and profound leavening in the lives of others. Furthermore, some of the more evident power brokers may effect great impact in a limited sector of society, while having almost no power in what people think, feel, and decide.
In contrast, some persons with apparently none of the typical trappings exercise tremendous power and often use it almost unconsciously. Such persons are usually disbelieving and sometimes embarrassed by mention of their power.
In preparing to write this article I looked at the congregation I serve from a different perspective. Who are the power brokers? The more stereotypical clusters of power persons were there — elected officials, including former U.S. senators, former governors of our state, and justices of the Texas Supreme Court; financial scions, represented by bankers, investors, business owners, and property developers.
There were lawyers, physicians, and other professional men and women. Also, I saw educators — administrators, professors and teachers — a psychiatrist, several psychologists and pastoral counselors.
I could not overlook others whose public credentials are less impressive, but whose covert power on large numbers of persons has been profound. Two women stood out. One has influenced scores of university students to begin and/or continue the Christian life. She has encouraged several in their choices of church-related vocations. The second woman seemingly has no power at all in the popular sense, yet she is the one to whom people go when seeking a person with a hot-line to God. Both women serve as deacons.
In a survey of about 100 persons within and outside our congregation I discovered the obvious: the public identified power as belonging to the high-visibility persons I saw in my congregation. Amounts of estimated power (control was the favorite synonym) credited to power brokers tends to decrease as one moves down the list from overt to covert power. Popular impressions about who has the power are instructive, but they are neither exhaustive nor fully accurate.
Preaching effectively to power brokers, it becomes apparent, requires perception of the nature of power, its complexities, and the diverse ways in which persons relate to power. “What you see is what you get.” Right? Wrong! Images of power may have form without substance. Furthermore, the substance of power assumes many forms, the most subtle of which is to appear powerless.
How shall a preacher address the power brokers?
Humbly. I confess to possessing more power than I know how to handle. Also, I abdicate power that I should exercise. I am convinced that most of us live in and preach to the middle.
Our congregations often contain few of the “big hitters” and perhaps even fewer of the social fringe who never come to bat. The absence of both groups suggests that we have nothing to say to them. We fire our missiles between the powerful and the powerless.
Furthermore, we tend to speak not only to the middle, but from the middle. We find ways to be courageously safe. I cannot support my suspicion that many pastors fear or abuse power. Baptists, like most well-intended people, have been more admirable in relationship to power when we did not have much.
It is no longer true, however, that we lack power. We have power and we are responsible for speaking to the powerful. Our pulpits should express more gratitude and less embarrassment over the reality of power; it is God’s gift. Also, we must be more repentant and less naive about the use of power; it is our responsibility. Gift plus responsibility equals trusteeship.
On the day of this writing the mail included a letter from my friend, John Claypool. We have discussed power, particularly the fear of power. He wrote:
I would think anybody who wields much power would really need to wed this with profound humility and a deep sense of forgiveness. As Marney used to say, it is too late to worry about innocence. Only those who are not overwhelmed with such guilt can effectively exercise potency I think.
Biblically. Several years ago a young Texas Baptist evangelist would shout in his sermons, “Billy Graham says that the Bible says …” Billy Graham is a fine preacher. When I am hot, however, I had just as soon hear me as anyone else, but this is not the issue. The crucial question is what does God say? A delicate, difficult, and decisive question.
In talking with powerful persons for this article, I was reminded that powerful people yield only to greater power. They listen for authority that is superior to their own. When asked what kind of sermons would be helpful, several suggested biblical stories, particularly from the Old Testament, that teach how to use power.
It is not enough to report well what Billy Graham, you at your best, the culture, a political party, liberated or unliberated theology, Spurgeon, Barclay, Strong, The Interpreter’s Bible or even Time magazine say. Preaching to the power brokers must resonate from the ultimate power in the room — God of the Word and all other words.
There is no secret or short-cut in preaching to power. Better techniques will lubricate things a bit. Also, we must become more insightful about the power within us and around us and less fearful of both.
On the occasions when I broker power, or when God empowers me, the secret seems to be that I have been radically honest about God’s gift — the power to live; my guilt — the abdication and abuse of this power; and God’s grace — His empowering to live and preach again.
“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

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