It’s Time to Talk About Power
How to recognize and use the gift that most eludes the church.
This Sunday, thousands of pastors will prepare for worship. Some of them will wear distinctive clothing—the albs and stoles of liturgical churches echo ancient priestly garments. But many more pastors will wear nothing that marks them out as different from their congregations.
Walk into many of our churches today, especially the ones that are growing fastest and spreading their influence widest, and you could never pick the pastors out of the crowd.
Except, perhaps, for one difference.
Power is not the opposite of servanthood. Rather, servanthood is the very purpose of power.
Backstage, the pastors have stood quietly while assistants invest them with one single marker of spiritual authority. Looped over their ear is a wireless microphone, mounted with a flexible boom that comes in four different colors to match the range of human skin tones. The microphone itself is 2.5 millimeters in diameter. It is so small you can easily miss it at a distance of more than a few feet. It is, in fact, so small because it is designed to be hidden.
Not every preacher, to be sure, uses this kind of earpiece. In many Pentecostal churches, the microphone itself becomes a valuable prop, held aloft or pulled close to the lips or, at moments of maximum intensity, held a foot away from the mouth to avoid overdriving the speakers. In these settings the microphone is used to deliver sonic force, to tangibly amplify the voice of the preacher. It becomes an instrument in its own right, part of the preacher's panoply of rhetorical power.
But in many churches, the wireless headset sets a very different tone. Its goal is not volume—it is intimacy. An audience of thousands hears not the thundering strains of a dramatically amplified voice; instead, they are able to hear a single person speaking as if that person was talking directly to them, face to face, friend to friend.
A top-quality wireless headset requires both electric power (fresh batteries, hundreds of watts of amplification) and technological power (meticulously designed circuits, expertly equalized sound). And it delivers extraordinary social power—the ability to address thousands with one-to-one familiarity. But once all that power is switched on, a good wireless headset is meant to disappear.
As a frequent speaker, I am grateful for wireless headsets' natural sound, ease, and informality. As a Protestant Christian, I am grateful for the trajectory from the unapproachable altar to the torn veil, the priestly caste to the priesthood of all believers.
But as one who frequently wears what I have come to call the Wireless Headset of Authority, I have begun to worry that it is not just our microphones that are becoming invisible. What is also becoming invisible, especially to those with the most to gain and to lose, is power.
High Power, Low Power
Anthropologist Geert Hofstede coined the phrase "power distance" to describe the ways that some cultures prefer that the powerful look and act powerful. In high power distance cultures, power is made visible and tangible, and dramatic differences in power are seen as a natural, indeed crucial, part of a healthy society.
In low power distance cultures, on the other hand, visible hierarchy and signs of power are discouraged. Those with power are expected to treat others as equals, not as subordinates. Charles Tidwell, who has taught Hofstede's power distance concepts, summarizes it nicely: In high power distance societies, "powerful people try to look as powerful as possible." But in low power distance societies, "powerful people try to look less powerful than they are."
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.
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.
We remember the story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet in the Upper Room as a story of humility and servanthood, which is entirely true. We often retell that story as if it involves Jesus "giving up power," as if power were the opposite of humility and servanthood.
But the footwashing, like John's whole gospel, is shot through with signs of power. "Do you know what I have done to you?" Jesus asks. "You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am" (John 13:12–13, nrsv). There are no more powerful roles in the disciples' world than rabbi and Kyrios—the titles given to Jewish leaders and the lordship ascribed to Caesar himself. Jesus claims them both. He has "come from God and is going to God." He is, John wants us to see, completely at home with power. What he is entirely indifferent to, indeed averse to, are the privilege, status, and perquisites that preoccupy powerful people who have forgotten what power is for.
What would a new conversation about power include?
It would acknowledge, indeed insist, that power is a gift—the gift of a Giver who is the supreme model of power used to bless and serve. Power is not given to benefit those who hold it. It is given for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself. Power's right use is especially important for the flourishing of the vulnerable, the members of the human family who most need others to use power well to survive and thrive: the young, the aged, the sick, and the dispossessed. Power is not the opposite of servanthood. Rather, servanthood, ensuring the flourishing of others, is the very purpose of power.
Being this honest, and positive, about power would help us grapple with its dangers. If power is irredeemably negative, none of us would want to admit we have it—which means none of us will be accountable for the power we have. We would conceal our power like a flesh-toned microphone, pretending that power's dangers, and responsibilities, don't apply to us.
But if power is a gift, then we can be accountable for its proper use—to its Giver, and to one another.
Clothed in Power
On the day when priests were commissioned to serve in the tabernacle, according to the eighth chapter of Leviticus, the people gathered in solemn assembly.
Moses himself washed Aaron and his sons with water in front of the entire community. Upon Aaron he placed a linen tunic, fastened with a sash, a robe, and a richly embroidered ephod with its own sash. On top of these garments Moses placed the breastpiece with its Urim and Thummim. "And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden ornament, the holy crown" (Lev. 8:9, NRSV). Over Aaron's head Moses poured the oil of consecration. Then, after each of the sons were similarly clothed, the smoke of sacrifices rose up before the Lord—a bull, two rams, cakes of bread—and the priests were marked with blood on their right ear, right thumb, and right big toe.
This narrative comes to us from the almost inconceivably distant world of a high power distance culture. In every way, Israel's ordination service was meant to mark and set apart those with religious power, the power to represent the people before God and vice versa.
But notice a remarkable feature of this story of high power distance. Before Aaron and his sons were dressed, they were washed. The whole assembly saw them naked, or at least underdressed. Their power, soon to be so directly and richly displayed, came only after their vulnerability and their cleansing. The priests—the ones set apart to be closest to God—were the ones who first came closest to the original vulnerability of human beings before one another and before God. They, like the great High Priest who fulfilled their commission in his life, suffering, and resurrection, took off their outer robes in the presence of the people.
One prescription for power's right use in high power distance communities is vulnerability and accountability. If your church is one where the pastor dwells in unapproachable, sanctified splendor, it becomes all the more crucial that known elders and friends hold your pastor accountable. The Catholic Church, the largest high power distance Christian communion, has been gravely damaged in our time by the unwillingness of its elites to accept internal and external accountability for the abuses of power that were concealed under priestly robes.
But the converse is also true. Low power distance cultures urgently need clarity on power, a willingness to name its reality. Indeed, Andy Stanley is one of the few megachurch pastors I know who has forthrightly preached about power—his own and others'. He preached a sermon on John 13 that began with the question, "What do you do when you are the most powerful person in the room?" Pastors like Andy are not likely to give up their café tables for imposing wooden pulpits, but they can open up a conversation about power by simply acknowledging what everyone already knows is true. And I have met enough men and women who have worked under Andy's leadership to believe that he largely uses his power in ways that lead to others' thriving and flourishing, rather than simply to bolster his notoriety.
Naming and owning power is the first step toward being accountable for power. This is why, paradoxically, high power distance organizations can sometimes be the least biased in how they distribute power. The most racially integrated large-scale institution in the United States today is probably the American military. Colin Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before Clarence Thomas ascended to the Supreme Court or Barack Obama was elected President. Almost by definition, the military is a high power distance culture. But that very clarity about power meant that when the institution chose the path toward racial equality, it knew how to assess whether it was making progress.
The least racially integrated institutions in the United States, meanwhile, are probably country clubs, even though few still have racially exclusionary policies. Country clubs, with their carefully casual golf-course dress codes, are quite low power distance. They are so low power distance, indeed, that it is very hard to say how one acquires power in them, or enters them. Those of us who grew up outside their enclaves are likely to have not the slightest idea of how to become a member. And in turn, this is why even after racial exclusion is no longer policy, it continues to be reality—the very informality of country clubs makes it impossible for them to change long-standing dynamics of power. Power is not healthier when it is invisible—it is just harder to make accountable and fruitful.
Washed and Waiting
One pattern seems to recur through the pages of Scripture, just as it does in our daily lives: the pattern of undressing and dressing, washing and clothing. It is a pattern of vulnerability and power, and the two go together. We see it in the washing and vesting of Aaron and his sons. We see it in the Upper Room, when Jesus takes off his outer robe to serve, then puts it back on as he sits down to give a new commandment. We hear an echo of it in his remonstration to Peter: "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me" (John 13:8). We see it the next day, when Jesus is stripped of his ordinary clothing and clothed, mockingly but accurately, in the robes and crown of a king. It reaches its climax when Jesus gives up his life, then receives it back again—embracing our uttermost vulnerability, then being raised to the ultimate power.
The pattern continues when the first disciples, once laid low by the death of their Rabbi and Lord, are commanded by him to "stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." Clothed with power—invested, like Aaron's sons, with signs of a power beyond their own. Paul writes of Christians' resurrection hope: "While we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Cor. 5:4, NRSV).
Paul's imagery of nakedness and clothing would have made visceral sense to early Christians, some of whom were baptized naked—naked as the day they were born, and as the day of their death, since baptism was both a death and a birth. Upon emerging from the water, they were vested with a white robe upon emerging from the water. The Resurrection will not return us to the Garden's nakedness. Instead, it will usher us into the fuller life of the City's martyrs, clothed according to Revelation in robes of white and vested with the symbols of reign and power.
Indeed, the church began to believe that more power was available to God's redeemed people than they had ever dreamed. "Do you not know," Paul asks the Corinthians, using a formula that strongly suggests they had heard these ideas many times before, "that we are going to judge angels?" Elsewhere, again using a phrase that marks a familiar tradition, Paul writes: "The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him" (2 Tim. 2:11–12, NRSV).
Like clothing, our signs and symbols of power, whether dramatic or subtle, point to a real destiny. We take up microphones because we are meant to speak with more than merely mortal voices. The wireless headset, with its combination of power and intimacy, is at its best a foretaste of the real power we will know in the City ruled by the Lamb.
All our uses of power, ultimately, will either reflect or distort the image of the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We are meant to imitate the one who became naked so that we might be clothed. He rose from the utter dependence of death with an imperishable body, "more fully clothed"—so that we, too, clothed in his merciful robe, might be fully knowing and fully knowing in love's embrace. There we will find more vulnerability, and more power, than we ever feared or dreamed.