|The Idolatry of Solomon, by Franz Francken II, 1622|
Influence is a powerful force—both the influence that we have on other people and the influence that others have on us. This is by no means a new or ground-breaking statement, but it is an idea that was hammered home to me last night in an unusual way.
I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror after taking a shower, when I realized that the way my hair was laying pretty closely resembled a faux hawk. And here’s the shocking part: I caught myself thinking, “You know, that really doesn’t look too bad.” This completely blew me away, because when faux hawks first became popular a couple of years ago, I thought they were irredeemably stupid. I don’t ever remember consciously changing my opinion on the matter, but apparently, seeing one faux hawk after another for the last couple of years gradually influenced me to think of it as a normal and acceptable haircut (Don’t worry, I have since returned to my senses and there is no danger that you will see me sporting a faux hawk—ever.).
This shocking event illustrates an important point about influence—you can gradually, subtly be influenced to completely change the way you think about a certain behavior, practice, or way of life, and it can happen without you even realizing it. Sometimes you might change your mind about something relatively innocent or unimportant (like a hairstyle), but influence can also change us in much more significant (and sometimes negative) ways.
I’m currently reading a book called Sticky Faith, which addresses the alarming rate at which Christian teenagers tend to drop out of the church about the time they graduate from high school. There are a lot of reasons why this happens, but a major one is influence—when teens leave home and move off to college, they are largely freed from the greatest influence in their lives (parents), and are especially susceptible to new influences that they encounter. Often, these new and different influences push them to places where they never thought they would end up—most faithful Christian teenagers don’t plan to go to college, drop out of church, and become involved in a lifestyle of binge-drinking and sexual promiscuity, but it happens as they are influenced to change the way they look at things and to fit in with their surroundings.
Although this phenomenon always seems to be surprising to youth ministers and parents when they witness it in individual cases, it’s really shouldn’t surprise us at all, because the Bible explicitly teaches us that the influences of others can lead us to sin:
- King Solomon was influenced by his foreign wives and concubines to turn away from following God and build places of worship to idols instead (1 Kings 11.1-13).
- Herod’s stepdaughter was influenced by her mother to ask that John the Baptist be beheaded (Matthew 14.1-12).
- In Galatians 2.11-21, Paul describes how certain men had influenced Peter and Barnabas to withdraw from fellowshipping with Gentiles.
- In 1 Corinthians 15.33, Paul comes right out and says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’”
The good news is that influence works both ways—good influences have a lot of power as well:
- “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5.13-16)
- “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4.12)
- “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2.12)
Ultimately, when talking about influence, I think it all boils down to a couple of important points:
(1) All of us are susceptible to outside influences, so it is important that we monitor those influences closely. What kind of people do you surround yourself with? What music do you listen to? What movies or TV shows do you watch? If you are a parent, answer those same questions about your children. Don’t be naive—if you surround yourself with bad influences, no matter who you are, they are affecting you negatively.
(2) All of us influence others as well, so it is important that we are aware of the kind of example we are setting. You never know who might be watching you and who might be influenced by what you do. As a youth minister I do a lot of things, but I have long thought that the most important thing I can do is to be a good example of Christian living for the young people I minister to. Certainly I don’t always succeed, but I always try to be aware that I am broadcasting an influence—for good or bad— at all times.