Are You Simply Being Influenced, or Are You an Influencer?

Christians have always had to deal with the impact of the surrounding culture:

We have a new term – or at least a new way an old term is being used: ‘influencer’. One definition is this: “a person who is paid by a company to show and describe its products and services on social media, encouraging other people to buy them.”

These often seem to be young, attractive females promoting some product – or just as often, promoting themselves. It has become all the rage of late, but obviously not everything being promoted is worth following or buying into. The believer especially should know better than just falling for anything being pushed by folks in the world.

The truth is, we are all influenced by others, and we all have an influence on others. This can be for good or ill. Let me consider each in turn. That we are influenced by people or our culture or the media or whatever is pretty clear. Obviously, our parents can have a huge amount of influence on us and how we develop.

But the surrounding culture also can have a real impact on us, especially today with advertising everywhere, social media, peer pressure to conform, and so on. It is very hard today not to be influenced. The Christian especially needs to take care as to who and what is influencing them.

But we also all have an influence on others. But you might say that you are just a nobody who has no real impact on anyone. But even in this case you are having an impact – even if by default. Consider one example: I and others often encourage folks to get involved in the culture wars.

But many believers say they are not interested, or are not into politics, or don’t want to rock the boat, etc. But that too is a type of influence. You are effectively encouraging those who know you to go and do the same – to not have an impact in the society that they live in.

So what we do – or do not do – can all be influential and impact other people. The believer obviously wants to be the right kind of influencer, while avoiding ungodly and pagan influences. In this respect Christians will often say we need to get back to the early church and be more like them. They think the church today is far too influenced by the surrounding culture, and we need to get back to a more pure and pristine form of Christianity.

While those sorts of sentiments are basically correct, and while we do want to be less influenced by the world around us, and have more of an influence on others, the appeal to the early church may not always be the best advice. Sure, what we read about in the book of Acts shows us what a Christian witness can be – it turned the world upside down (Acts 17;10).

But a study of the first centuries of the church reveals much more of a mixed bag here. That is, Christians could just as easily be influenced by the surrounding pagan culture back then as they can be today. As I mentioned, the influence of others – for good and ill – is always with us.

In terms of Christianity and culture, we all can be overly subject to the beliefs and values of the culture that we live in. Today for example much of the church in the West is fully submersed in consumerism, materialism, and wanting to live a good – and wealthy – life. We seem to have moved a long way from the early church in this regard.

One meme often found on the social media featuring a quote by Leonard Ravenhill makes this case. He had said this: “The early church was married to poverty, prisons and persecutions. Today, the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.”. This is certainly true in many respects, and Ravenhill was right to call this out. And yet…

Image of Cultural Christians in the Early Church: A Historical and Practical Introduction to Christians in the Greco-Roman World
Cultural Christians in the Early Church: A Historical and Practical Introduction to Christians in the Greco-Roman World by Williams, Nadya (Author) Amazon logo

A new book has just appeared which helps us to think more clearly about cultural Christianity in the early centuries of the church. The American historian Nadya Williams has recently written a helpful volume on this: Cultural Christians in the Early Church (Zondervan, 2023).

In it she shows us in some detail how the early believers were really not all that different than 21st century believers in Melbourne or New York or London. That is, they too were easily influenced by the culture around them. Their faith – like ours – was a mixture of biblical truths and secular influences.

She looks carefully at the first five centuries of the Christian church and argues that those early believers were also very much shaped by the surrounding culture. She identifies cultural Christians as those “individuals who self-identify as Christians but whose outward behavior and, to the extent that we can tell, inward thoughts and motivations are largely influenced by the surrounding culture rather than their Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus.”

Just two examples can be mentioned here – both from the biblical record. First, consider all the warnings Paul had to give to believers back in his day concerning sexual immorality. That the ideal of biblical morality was far removed from ancient pagan beliefs and practices is clear.

Williams looks at how heavily steeped Roman culture was in all this. She looks at popular love poetry on these matters during the day and says this: “Love and marriage do not go together, but marriage is no reason to let go of the pursuit of pleasure, especially for men.” That Paul so often had to remind Christians how different they are to be in these areas shows just how much of the pagan culture still had a strong hold and impact on believers – not unlike today.

Second, we all know about the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira. She shows us that it was not just greed or lying that was problematic for the pair. Back in that culture there was great emphasis placed on displaying one’s wealth in a very public way – even in giving to worthy causes. It meant drawing glory and praise to self in such acts of giving. Says Williams:

It seems likely that they wished to set themselves up as benefactors of their community, in the model of Greco-Roman euergetism [gift giving by the wealthy]. As theologian John Stott put it, “They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it. So, in order to gain a reputation to which they had no right, they told a brazen lie. Their motive in giving was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego.” Indeed, the thought of giving anything to relieve the work of the church does not seem to have occurred to them until they saw Barnabas give an immense sum…

She looks at other ways in which believers in the early church had to struggle with their newfound beliefs while dealing with the old cultural givens of the age they lived in. She concludes: “Try as we might to fight against it, the culture around us has always managed to permeate the church in various insidious ways.”

Not all believers today will agree with all the examples she raises about how the modern church is conformed to the spirit of the age. And she does admit that she too can be guilty of being blind to some of her own non-Christian cultural biases.

But I return to my opening paragraphs. We are all influenced one way or another by the people we know and the culture we live in. On the other hand, as believers, we are called to have an impact – to be an influencer. So the question we each need ask of ourselves is this: ‘Just who is being influenced, and by whom?’

We will never be fully free of outside influence, certainly from the non-Christian world that we live in. But seeking to be aware of his, and seeking to resist it, is the first step. As we do that, we can have an influence for good on others around us.

As Paul put it 2000 or so years ago in Romans 12:1-2, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” While the ESV is clear enough, the old Phillips’ translation is always worth sharing:

With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

As we take care to resist the siren call of the world around us, we can then be an influencer which can really be celebrated. Not for our own glory and praise, but for that of our Lord.

[1564 words]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *