The inevitability of influence

I was thinking about the theology of influence last week. Our third Doing Theology time was all about influence. We actually sought to answer the question “Am I worthy of influence?” Furthermore, the question the pastors tried to answer in their weekly podcast last week: “Why are we so Jesus-y?” Both questions are linked, so I’m going to talk about them together.

For me the question of influence was born again when one person told me that they were unfit to lead—they actually thought that we shouldn’t be leading each other because leadership itself involved a power difference that undermined equity. I can understand the argument, since so many leaders are narcissistic and grandiose. Leaders can be holier than thou and pompous in their piety. But I know so many who are not! Leadership is not just about power and hierarchy. In fact, Jesus said that the last would be first and the first last. He came to serve and not to be served. He really does flip everything upside-down.

But Jesus wasn’t afraid of leadership. In fact he came to reveal the Father and to influence the whole world. For Jesus, his “backward” leadership may have flipped the world’s structures upside-down, but he was still a leader. Leadership is just the reality of the world. Inevitably, we influence people and we are influenced.

In her great book, Real Power, Janet Hagberg writes about leading and leadership as she outlines stages of power. We move from powerless people, to people who are powerful because of our associates, then achievements. Power by achievements is Hagberg’s third stage and it is where most men end up getting stuck (women get stuck at power by association—but once they pass that stage they excel past power by achievement and onto the other stages). That third stage of power is all about our accomplishments, our acquisitions, our titles. Jesus is leading beyond that level, and according to Hagberg, power by reflection, purpose, and wisdom are all higher levels of leadership that involve leading from the middle and behind. They in fact aren’t upside-down at all. Humble, servant leadership is simply better, more advanced leadership. If we’re stuck on our ego and power, we might think we are influential but our bloated sense of self (and our damaged self-image) may cause us to be less effective ultimately. You might not think it’s important to consider how effective of a leader you are, but as you explore yourself and become a more whole person, your leadership will be affected too. We lead and influence no matter what.

When we are confronted with an untruth—like we were discussing last Monday—how do we influence people who may be preaching a message contrary to ours? How do we influence people who think that influence, by definition, is coercive and imperialistic? What would Jesus do? What would Paul say?

The book end to the idea that we are all going to be leaders and we are all going to be influential is that we are all purposely influenced, too. Watch an episode of Mad Men to see how the advertisers are doing it, watch Obama sell his war to you, read a syndicated columnist. The world is filled with people who want to change our minds, sell us something, and convince us to follow them and their way. I don’t want to be just another voice in a loud room, but I have a way I want to influence people too. Though I am not always accused of being “Jesus-y,” for me the center of how I want to influence people starts and ends with Jesus. I think the Christian subculture sometimes wants to influence people in “Jesus-y” ways, as if Jesus is just someone you occasionally follow, or a costume you can sometimes where. That’s trouble because life in Christ is one whole cloth, not just a part of our culture or part of our personality.

When people simply want to make people “like the cultural Christians,” as opposed to real followers of Jesus, our influence is undercut. Josh Crain, of Carlisle BIC, was telling us the other day (start at 41:43) that Christian doesn’t make a very good adjective. Who would want to just decorate someone with Jesus? Jesus transforms us so significantly, that we can’t help but exude him. But I channel Paul when he is “all things to all people” to win them for Christ. Or Jesus, when he gently relates to the women at the well, when he tells her he’s the God for which she has been looking. What Paul and Jesus do is find common ground to relate and know a person, but they aren’t afraid to lead them to follow.

I suppose that’s the whole point of the incarnation of Jesus: Jesus entered the world to relate to us. That’s the ultimate common ground: he became a person, just like us, to show us that he loves us and to help us follow Him. Today, when we influence people, we do it best incarnationally. We do it in relationships, face-to-face. It isn’t just a cerebral issue nor is it just emotional, it’s a body-to-body, spirit-to-spirit too. We influence people, inevitably, by what we are doing, how we are acting, what we are saying, and what we are teaching. I hope that we can own that, instead of avoiding it, because if we are not intentional, who knows what we will unconsciously lead people to do?

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