It's Time to Talk about Power
Not long ago I was with a member of Congress, a man who in many ways embodied traditional power—imposingly tall, possessing a confident and deep voice inflected with a proudly retained regional accent. A group of visitors filled every seat at the small table in his office, so the congressman sat in his leather high-backed chair, separated from us by several feet of expansive wooden desk. It was a tableau of power familiar to generations of political and business leaders.
But less than five minutes into the meeting, the congressman became visibly uncomfortable. Suddenly he interrupted. "Wait, this isn't working," he announced. He stood up, lifted his desk chair nearly over his head, and manhandled it over the desk. He set it down on our side of the room, joining the circle at the table. "That's better," he said.
And it was. It was also an astonishing reminder of how the norms of power have shifted. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill or Dan Rostenkowski, to name two powerful legislators when I was coming of age, would never have rearranged their offices to be closer to strangers. For all their bonhomie, they never would have thought to close the distance in the way that congressman felt necessary.
Our culture's attitudes toward power, or at least toward power's display, have shifted dramatically in a few generations. In the business world, the dress code of corporate leaders slid down a slippery slope from IBM's coat and tie, to Steve Jobs's turtlenecks, to Mark Zuckerberg's hoodie. America, today, is about as low power distance as it has ever been—and so is the American church.
Two Generations of Power
This shift in power distance in the church is perfectly illustrated by a father and son.
Dr. Charles Stanley, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta and a pioneer in television distribution through his organization, In Touch Ministries, preaches to this day in a suit and tie, a substantial Bible resting before him on a wooden reading desk. Born in 1932 in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, he came of age in a high power distance society, and a high power distance church.
His son, Andy, is the founding pastor of North Point Community Church, now a multisite church. In lieu of a sermon from the "campus pastor," most North Point affiliates project his weekly messages in high-definition video. Andy is universally referred to by his first name, has no doctoral degree, and usually wears an open-collared polo. He stands in a pool of light on a darkened stage cluttered with worship band gear, occasionally consulting notes on a café table.
Andy was born in Atlanta in 1958, just as that city began decades of growth that made it the center of a "New South." He came of age in a low power distance culture. And so it is not surprising that he helped create a low power distance church.
But this leads to a crucial insight from Hofstede. The difference between low power distance and high power distance is not whether some people are more powerful than others. That is true every time human beings gather, whether we like it or not. The difference is whether the powerful want to be seen as powerful.