The Danger of Low Power Distance in the Church and in the Classroom

The current trend towards low power distance relationships in the American workplace, classroom, and even in the home is certainly reflective of the egalitarian and democratic spirit that remains a pillar of our culture. Many of the benefits of this trend are obvious and experienced by most of you reading this blog: more opportunities available to more people, less formality, and a stronger voice in most rooms you step into. The church has benefited from this change as well. However, the disadvantages to this trend are not as obvious and deserve some attention.

In Christianity Today's current cover article entitled "It's Time to Talk About Power", Andy Crouch discusses how the current trend of low power distance relationships is shaping the church. Three simple changes illustrate his points well; the less formal dress of the pastors, the skin-toned and near invisible wireless microphone, and the round coffee table. Each of these represent a shift (formal dress to casual dress, the microphone to the invisible wireless mic, the pulpit to the round coffee table) from symbols that projected a stronger sense of power to symbols that attempt to hide power. Casual dress and invisible microphones make the pastor appear simply as one among many, and a round coffee table looks less like a lecture and more like an invitation to a conversation.

Andy Stanley perfectly embodies the shift to low power distance

These are good changes right? I think they are. Most people do. However, without saying that these changes are negative, Andy Crouch does helpfully point us to the hidden danger in these kind of changes, " a low power distance culture, it is especially easy for the powerful to forget their power." Because our pastors are casually dressed, our small group leaders invite copious amounts of discussion, and our mentors keep reminding us of their faults and equal standing, it can be easy to forget that their positions of leadership carry with it inherent power. As Crouch explains, "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."  

After an examination of power as demonstrated by Jesus during the footwashing of his disciples, Andy Crouch writes, "He [Jesus] 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 prerequisites that preoccupy powerful people who have forgotten what power is." In light of this discussion, Crouch asks that a new dialogue about power take place within the church. What follows is Crouch's central argument about power that deserves to be read in full:

"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 us 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...If power is irredeemably negative, none of us would want to admit we have it - which means none of us would 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." (Italics mine)

When we try to downplay the power inherent in our positions we can deceive ourselves into not protecting ourselves against the dangers of power. Whether we project low or high power, we must all deal with the temptations that come with having power. I think the key insight is that we must understand power as a gift and not a negative thing in and of itself. Pastors, small group leaders, and mentors (to just name a few positions of power in church relationships must) must acknowledge that their position will inherently give them some power. That is not a negative thing. That power is given so that they may serve others with it. I have seen this concept appear in the education field and in a conversation I am currently having in my 'Teaching for Transformation' class.

I am currently learning an entirely new teaching philosophy known as 'Dialogue Education' (known as DE here out) here at Wheaton College that prefers the teacher in the classroom take on a low power distance relationship with the students. The emphasis is that the teacher becomes "a learner among learners" and becomes more of a facilitator than an instructor. Students spend most of their time in small groups where they are given open questions and resources as part of learning tasks they must accomplish together. This isn't a strict rule, the teacher's role will adapt depending on the course content and more importantly, the students. However, the ideal is for the teacher to facilitate and for the learning to be done among the students and not simply dictated by the teacher through lecture. Like the pastor-congregant relationship power shift I mentioned earlier, DE signifies a power shift between teacher-student from high power distance to low power distance.

A small group learning task taking place in 'Teaching for Transformation'

I think Crouch's article provides a strong theological corrective in how a teacher should view the power that comes with the position of instruction. The issue is not of having power, for the position alone will grant that.The issue is what one does with the power. To paraphrase Crouch, having power as a teacher is not the opposite of servanthood. Rather, servanthood, ensuring the flourishing of others, is the very reason you have been given power as a teacher.

To sum everything up, I think that Crouch calls due attention to a legitimate danger of low power distance cultures. In our desire to appear less powerful, we cannot deceive ourselves into thinking we do not have it, or forget that power was first given as a gift. Until fathers, mothers, pastors, small group leaders, mentors, and teachers first openly acknowledge their power as a gift from God, they cannot properly "be accountable for its proper use - to its Giver and to one another." Power is given so that we may serve others, that they may flourish. May all those who hold any kind of power, and we all do to some extent, strive to honor the Giver with the proper use of what was given.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Great post. I can appreciate the warning of the seemingly ever-shortening power distance from a perspective that doesn't seem to be cowering in fear of the future or clamoring for the 'good ol' days'.

    My questions would stem from: how, then, does this play out? I'd say of course Jesus was at home with power-- he could refer to himself as the Son of Man and the "I Am" because that's who he was/is. Sociologically, part of the pull away from HPD was the 'every man' feel so many want from someone who can't cling to a Messiah status (or sadly, sometimes does). Somehow, we think that the person behind the pulpit or lectern isn't like us. But it sounds like Crouch is saying that lacking 'every man' sense was/is not stemming from HPD but rather from a misuse of power-- one that was used to teach more than to serve, when Christ modeled both.

    So now, it sounds like Crouch is warning us of the misuse of power by the denial of its existence-- a product of our LPD. But is he advocating for a return to HPD style? Eschewing the LPD tactics of post-modernity? Doesn't embracing power so that we may serve others look more LPD when lived out? Is that not the essence of Philippians 2-- regardless of whether that is preached from a tabletop or a pulpit?

    And on another note, it made me think of Ephesians 5-- Paul's famous marriage passage-- and the husband's call to use his authority as head of the household to sacrifice and serve. You mentioned fathers, mothers, and church leaders... but then does this get murkier when it's applied to marriage? What does HPD/LPD look like there? Which is healthier? How do we acknowledge our cultural framework while also be driven by the model Christ gave us?

  2. Thanks for the insightful comments and questions Itamar. How then does this whole thing play out? That's a great question to pose to this article because Crouch only suggests at what a way forward looks like in a general way: a new conversation where LPD pastors acknowledge their power and set up ways in which they can be held accountable to it. What does that look like though?

    Having just read the CT article and not Crouch's full book on power, I could only comment on what I think he would say. I don't think Crouch is advocating a return to HPD for churches who prefer LPD model. It seems to me that he has tried hard NOT to criticize the symbols of LPD, but a possible disposition behind it that loses sight of dangers of power. Thus, within the argument of the article, I think that Crouch limits his cautionary aim to the loss of perspective and does not comment on the actual merits of using HPD or LPD models within the church. In other words, I don't think Crouch makes any claim whether the pulpit or the coffee table is better.

    "Doesn't embracing power so that we may serve others look more LPD when lived out?"
    I think this will depend on your definition of HPD and LPD and whether we consider those simply cultural expressions that achieve a common goal, or whether they are not only cultural expressions but they also have their own goals. For instance, I personally think that HPD and LPD can both have as their central goal serving others (the flourishing of others to use Crouch's term). Can that goal be served in both models?

    This gets all the more complicated when you factor in that no one seems to be fully HPD or fully LPD. Some pastors just adopt the symbols of LPD (clothes, dress, language, etc.) but could care less about the flourishing of others and remain just as distant in their offices. Whereas some pastors are stocked up on the symbols of HPD (clothes, dress, language, etc.) and couldn't be more accessible, approachable, and humble. What does that mean?

    Ultimately, I think most of the HPD and LPD stuff when set within the Christian bounds of appropriate use of power, becomes a matter of culture. Can a pastor help his congregation flourish better through a HPD model or a LPD model?


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