Hofstede's Power Distance index measures the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. It measures how accepting and respectful subordinates are of hierarchy. Societies with greater levels of power distance concentrate larger proportions of power and authority at the top of the social pyramid while societies with lower levels of power distance allow greater contribution from subordinates in decision making processes. It isn’t surprising that at 104 out of 120, Malaysia ranks first on this index. Our country has a keen inclination towards respect for those in authority at all layers of society. From a very young age, we are taught to respect our elders and not to undermine the authority of those above us.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we outrank other nations on Hofstede’s Index. From observation of youth both in Malaysia and abroad I can attest to the politeness and respect Malaysian teens have for adults. I have worked with American teenagers, very many of whom are outspoken, confident and assertive. However, they lack the graciousness and courtesy Malaysian teens have for those older than them.
It isn’t necessarily a good thing that we outrank every other country on the index either. The power distance inculcated within our culture is reflected in our education system. An overemphasis on obedience to authority has created a young Malaysian generation that lacks creativity, self confidence, critical thinking and assertive opinion. Malaysian teenagers don’t speak out for themselves like their international counterparts and critics of our local education system lament this point endlessly.
My point is this: one of the reasons why youth ministry continues to struggle in many Malaysian churches today is that it is difficult for adults in the church to relate to youth amidst a culture of strong power distance between young and old. God has called Christians to invest in the lives of young people. Jesus said “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14) Malaysia's number one ranking on Hofstede’s index suggests that there are ways that the church can better fulfill that call, by a force of counter culture to current ways.
How does Hofstede’s Power Distance Index help us in our responsibilities as a church toward young people? First, we have to remember that teenagers have been culturally programmed to be closed and reserved toward adults. Respect and fear are confused, leading to the detachment of youth culture from much of regular society. It may take hard work to get teenagers to be comfortable with an equal relationship with an adult but when they see a genuine heart, they will open up. If we are truly invested in attaining this, we will see it happen.
Secondly, we have to remember that Malaysian teenagers lack the cultural voice they have in other societies. Youth in many countries possess social and political entities that express their views and sentiments. Malaysian youth have few of such avenues. The church can fill that void. It starts with being aware of their rights and needs, and creating an environment where they are treated as equals. Many are brought up to think of themselves as lesser but the church can demonstrate the contrary. It is easy in our society to ignore youth because they don’t speak up for themselves and are unaware of their entitlements but 1 Timothy 4:12 says “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” The church needs to facilitate youth activity to achieve these words that Paul wrote. Malaysian teenagers are capable of being an example of Godly conduct to the church and society, they can be leaders even in their youth but the silence imposed upon them by local culture is their greatest obstacle.
Thirdly, the church needs to provide for Malaysian teenagers what society has failed to do for them. We can complain about the deteriorating scene of our local education system and do no more, or we can transform our youth ministries to reflect the ideals we seek in the educating of our younger generations. While schools emphasize memorization and test taking, the church can and should provide avenues for emphasis on sports, music, art and communication. We should encourage and provide teenagers with the opportunities and facilities to engage in creative expression. God calls us to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. Teenagers cannot provide for themselves a wholesome upbringing but the church can play its part in making that possible.
I look forward to the day when Malaysian churches are known as the champion of the voice and rights of youth; where, as Christians we will fulfill the duty Jesus set for us to bring children up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4)