It's Time to Talk about Power
Andy is no less powerful a pastor than his father. Indeed, you could well make the case that even at the height of his influence, Charles did not command as wide recognition, as much access to political and business leaders, and such great influence over an entire generation of church leaders as his son. (Some 12,000 people gather at the Catalyst conference in Atlanta every October, in no small part to hear from Andy and pastors he has mentored and trained.)
But in a low power distance culture, it is especially easy for the powerful to forget their power. A friend of mine was speaking with the senior pastor of a megachurch. "How do you handle the power that comes with your role?" my friend asked. "Oh, power is not a problem at our church," was the reply. "We are all servant leaders here."
It was a sincere answer; this leader's commitment to servant leadership is genuine. His church, like many megachurches, assiduously cultivates an informal, low power distance mindset—the daily wardrobe in its corridors runs a narrow gamut from ripped jeans (on the youth workers) to khakis (on the senior pastor). But I have felt the change in atmosphere when this leader walks into a room. It's as if someone had abruptly turned down the thermostat and shut off the background music. He is a servant leader. But he is also a person with power.
And this is the problem with low power distance, with the wireless headset and the informality of contemporary offices and dress codes: It can deceive us into thinking that power is not an issue that requires our attention, let alone a matter for discipleship. And the ones most likely to be deceived are the ones with the most power.
The Gift of Power
I believe we need a new conversation about power in the church. I say a new conversation, because it will be a genuinely new topic for many pastors and laypeople. The three perennial areas of ethics for Christians, Richard Foster reminded us a generation ago, are money, sex, and power. There are volumes of Christian writing on sexuality, and annual stewardship campaigns provide a natural time for sermons and teaching on the stewardship of money. By contrast, there are surprisingly few times when pastors and people directly address power. And this is especially true in churches that participate in the culture of middle- and upper-middle-class America, where we can easily take power for granted.
I also say a "new conversation" because when we do talk about power, we often talk about it strictly as something negative—something dangerous to be avoided—rather than as a gift to be stewarded. This is surely why a pastor would say, "We don't have power in our church." His preference for the language of "servant leadership" reflects a discomfort with the bare word power, with its echoes of force, coercion, and even violence.
But from beginning to end—that is, from creation to consummation—the Bible is full of references to power. You will often hear pastors say that Jesus "gave up power." And indeed, the climax of salvation is the cross, on which Jesus is stretched out, suffers, and dies, having refused to grasp the power within his reach. But as the early Christians reflected on his life, death, and resurrection, they came to a different conclusion. Precisely because they were witnesses to Jesus' resurrection after a violent death, the New Testament writers could no longer acquiesce to the idolatrous fiction that violence is the truest form of power. Instead, they had seen with their eyes, and touched with their hands, evidence of a much greater power at work in the world than Rome could muster.