Power is a gift.
As I first began to read Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power I thought there was something wrong with Andy Crouch. Here he was writing so positively about a topic I had experienced so negatively. It was as if I didn’t have categories for how he was describing power. Surely one of us is off our rocker, living in a fantasy world as it relates to how people use and abuse power. But since Andy Crouch had managed to write a book and get it published, I started to wonder if maybe the problem was with me. As a result, it forced me to rethink the experiences I’ve had in 10 years of ministry and what caused my experience with power to be so negative.
If that’s what he set out to do when he wrote the book, it worked.
Why is power a gift? Because power is for flourishing. – Andy Crouch
Playing God is written for people like me to believe that there is hope for power in the world, especially the church. Jaded by the displays of false image bearing (a term Crouch fleshes out further in the book), I had all but turned my back on power as something that could be used by followers of God. For me, power was to be avoided. But for Crouch, power is a gift. And we don’t avoid gifts, we accept them and use them for the benefit of others.
Synopsis of the Book
Crouch organizes his manifesto on a Christian ethic of power into four sections. First, he opens the book trying to convince cynical readers like myself that power is a gift. He relates power to image bearing, both in our role as representatives of a Creator God to a watching universe and to our creation of idols.
In the second part of the book, Crouch explores the way power can be used for idolatry and injustice. Just as power can be used as a gift for flourishing, so we can “play god” in the lives of others to disastrous consequences.
Thirdly, Crouch explores how power is used in our institutions. Just as we tend to view institutions as necessary evils (similarly to how we view power itself), institutions can serve for good.
Finally, Crouch ends with an exploration of some of the pracitices that form and shape us into people who can use power for the flourishing of others. He relates how practices like keeping the Sabbath are in direct relation to our use of power as image bearers.
What I liked
Playing God serves as a hopeful beacon on a dreary night that power can be used for good. Made in the image of God, we can use power to help others flourish, just like He does. We are not limited to the World’s definition and use of power. The gift of power can be redeemed.
As I reflected on a decade in professional ministry, the pain I experienced from those with power most often came from those who didn’t recognize the gift they possessed. Most of the time, not only did they fail to recognize their power, but they actively refused to acknowledge it. When others would point out their power, they would respond with language from Changes that Heal by Henry Cloud that the person needed to stop view the relationship as being “one-up/one-down”. There was active denial of power.
Invariably, the leader would go back to acting how they had always acted, not lording their power over others as overlords do, but failing to use their gift for the flourishing of those they are serving or the institution of which they are a part. I believe this came from a false view they held that power is always bad. As a result, it is to be ignored, never spoken of.
And therein lies the potential for such neagative uses of power in our lives and our institutions. If we constantly avoid even a conversation about our use of it, there is little hope we can ever become people and organizations who steward our power for the flourishing of ourselves and our world. In the end, our view of power becomes self-fulfilling. We view its only possible use as negative and unintentionally create an environment where that is the only possible outcome.
Many of the large parachurch ministries I have interacted with are unable to even have a conversation about power. It’s a non-starter. What I loved most about Playing God was that it opens the door for these conversations to happen. And if, on my better days, I have hope like Andy Crouch, a true use of power in our institutions for flourishing will flow out of these conversations. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. The Biblical story says that flourishing is in our future. Can we begin to bring that future into our present?
What I thought could improve/Questions that remain
Overally, Playing God is a fantastic book and serves as a wonderful intro to the world of power. For those in ministry or the church who do not have a sociology background, the book is a good first read.
One area that I wish Andy Crouch would have explored more was the way that cultural dynamics affect the use and experience of power. As America becomes more and more multi-cultural every day, the need for ministers of every ethnicity to wield power for flourshing across cultural boundaries grows increasingly important. For those interested in learning more in this vein, I recommend The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb by Eric Law.
Another area that could have been improved were more of the practical ways that power plays out in specific settings. Exploring things like body posture, how meetings are run, and other specific contexts would help readers begin to take practical steps to use their power for flourishing. An excellent book on this topic is Making Room for Leadership by MaryKate Morse, I recommend it for anyone who wants to takepractical next steps after reading Playing God.
I recommend Playing God to anyone in the church or serving in ministry, especially if they are unfamiliar with language about power or power dynamics. Perhaps if more people with power understood their potential we would see more institutions and the people involved in them flourishing. I encourage you to add it to your reading list, and maybe buy a copy to secretly leave on your boss’s desk.