Influence—the intangible force, exerted to varying extents by every human being, that sways the thoughts and actions of those within its sphere. There is not a person who does not possess its power. Whether an individual is ostentatious or unassuming, their presence exerts an influence. Your sheer existence changes the landscape.
This can be particularly distressing for those who would like to disappear into the drapes when they enter a room. For some, being present is desirable, but being noticed, in a large group, is a disaster. Telling someone who feels this way that they are exerting an influence even in their silence can sound mortifying.
Too often it is represented that someone must be loud or extroverted to share the gospel. Or that a preference for engaging the large crowds of people has the greatest impact in sharing one’s faith. In this age of social media connectivity, an individual’s potential to impact the world is often judged by how many followers they have amassed.
When Jesus saves us, however, He saves us individually. A personal preference for smaller, more intimate gatherings, having a handful of followers on social media, or no social media account at all is not wholly incompatible with sharing your faith. In fact, as this article explores, personal contact is a necessary ingredient in harnessing our influence for the gospel. Ellen White states, “Salt must be mingled with the substance to which it is added; it must penetrate and infuse in order to preserve. So it is through personal contact and association that men are reached by the saving power of the gospel. They are not saved in masses, but as individuals. Personal influence is a power. We must come close to those whom we desire to benefit.”1
With that said, to offer that a bashful soul can escape the reality that their presence makes a difference would be untrue. Every individual’s presence, even a quiet and unassuming presence, makes a difference. It is the nature of reality. In that, the timid soul has no choice—none of us do. Where the choice lies is in what type of influence we will exert, be it in our reserved stance or in our boisterous conviviality.
An attractive influence draws others to emulate you in some way, and a repulsive one does just that—repels them away from your example. Most often we think of influence in its attractive capacity, as it results in behavior that aligns with that which is modeled. Influence, however, is the mere ability to affect those around you. Its effect may be attractive or repulsive.
Think, for instance, about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days. “Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did. . . . Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death” (John 11:45-53). It is noteworthy that the same behavior elicited both attraction and repulsion.
While we may have some control over factors impacting how our influence is exerted, we cannot guarantee how it will be received. As Paul states: “God . . . causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life” (2 Cor. 2:14-16, KJV). A life lived in faithfulness to God may attract some and repel others.
In the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23; Luke 8:4-15) there are four types of soil, where each soil type represents the state of the heart of the hearer of God’s Word. While everyone is responsible for the state of their own heart, there are things that the sower can do to encourage good soil, just as any farmer knows to cultivate the ground before planting. If there is anything that we can do to ensure that the seed is well received by the ground, we must spare no pains to do it. Ultimately, though, people’s hearts are not inanimate soil, and each person will choose how they receive the gospel when they hear or see it.
Although we cannot necessarily control the way people respond to our influence, we do have a choice in the nature of the influence we exert, be it for good or for ill. It is apparent that one’s example may be virtuous or deplorable, whether or not it is attractive to others. More important than how many follow the example set through our influence, though, is what type of an example we are setting.
Jesus lived His entire life as an example for us (cf. John 13:15; 1 Peter 2:21). As we follow His example, our lives become an example for others, pointing them to the Great Exemplar. So Paul exhorts, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). The apostle’s goal was not to amass followers in order to puff up his pride, but to use his influence to draw attention to the One who changed his life.
Describing the cycle of influence, Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake. And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe” (1 Thess. 1:5-7). Not only did the apostles preach the gospel in theory, but they demonstrated through their lives what it looks like lived out. The impact of the Word inculcated and infused in their lives resulted in a more powerful proclamation. Those who received the Word in turn became an example for others. And so the cycle continues.
Paul’s invitation in his letters to follow his example does not come in a vacuum. As evidenced in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he spent time with them, investing in a relationship with them, being open and transparent with them (verse 5). In his first letter to the Corinthians he addresses them as his children (1 Cor. 4:14). It is in the context of this loving relationship that he urges the church at Corinth to imitate him (verse 16). Paul’s influence bears greater force because he has personally invested in those he hopes to influence for Christ. Through his personal investment he has been careful to maximize the impact of his influence.
Here is a caveat. Since we have no choice but to exert an influence, if we are not being careful to exert an influence for Christ, then what is the nature of our influence? Consider that we are sinful human beings and but for the saving grace of Christ, our tendency is to evil. Without a decided effort to orient our influence for the salvation of others, do we not run the certain risk of misguiding them? Without a daily reliance on God’s guidance, we may inadvertently exert a noxious influence.
“There are many whose names are on the church books, but who are not under Christ’s rule. They are not heeding His instruction or doing His work. Therefore they are under the control of the enemy. They are doing no positive good; therefore they are doing incalculable harm. Because their influence is not a savor of life unto life, it is a savor of death unto death.”2 Not everyone will fit the definition of social media influencer, but everyone has influence. If we do not choose to use our influence for Christ, then it will inevitably work against Him. Let us summarize the three points in this article one more time for clarity. We cannot decide whether or not we will exert an influence in the world. By virtue of our existence we have an influence. We cannot necessarily control how others will respond to the influence we exert. That’s their choice. Our choice is in what type of influence we exert. For the Christian, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). So whether in life or in death, our influence must decidedly be on the side of Christ—from the charismatic personality, whose influence is immediately apparent, to the reserved individual who may still need some convincing that they have an influence.
1 Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 36.
2 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 304.