Some of the students in our ministry are natural leaders. They are easy to spot. I bet you have them in your ministry, too. Many lead without trying. Their personalities or abilities, or some combination of both, work to draw people to them. And we are drawn to them, too. We realize the impact they are having and the potential impact their future's hold. Maybe we spend extra energy or attention on them. This isn't wrong, necessarily. Jesus did the same thing with Peter, James, and John.
But what about the students who aren't natural leaders?
What about students whose personalities and abilities don't naturally draw people to them? How do we help guide them toward seeing the potential Kingdom impact they can have on those around them?
Not every teenager is a leader. But every teenager has influence.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines influence as "the power to change or affect someone or something," and "the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen." Every single person in our youth groups has influence on his or her peers. They may shrink from the spotlight (which is 100% OK). They may be introverts (which doesn't mean they can't be leaders, by the way). They may be socially awkward or shy. They may not even have many friends. But every student has the ability to impact the world around them. Every student has influence.
When we begin to think about our students this way, it allows us to shape a rhetoric that speaks to our leaders and our non-leaders alike. A few thoughts . . .
The Bible Talks A Lot About Influence
What is Jesus' message about salt and light in Matthew 5 but a discourse on influence? In Matthew 5:16 Jesus urges His disciples to let their actions and attitudes be the vehicle that turns people's hearts to God. If that's not influence, I don't know what is. In 1 Peter 2:12, Peter writes, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." In Ephesians 5:1, Paul encourages his audience to literally imitate Jesus so that their lives will impact those around them.
Very Few People Are Influence-Neutral
I remember a conversation with a guy in our youth ministry several years ago. We were talking about the idea that as someone who was pretty popular and also very public in his faith, people were always going to be watching him. His actions would either positively impact people, or negatively. There would be little he would do that would go unnoticed. Few of his actions would be influence-neutral. He was quiet for a moment. Then he looked at me as only a 17 year-old can and said, "Well, that sucks." I fell out laughing, in part, because I totally understood his frustration. We can sometimes feel like it would be nice to "take a play off" every now and again. But we know it really doesn't work that way. When our students grasp this, it can help crystallize the idea of influence for them.
Influence Doesn't Have To Be Peer-To-Peer
For those students who are shy or have trouble making friends, the great thing about influence is that it doesn't have to be peer-to-peer. Engaging in causes that are meaningful to students is a great way for teenagers to exert positive influence in a way that may be more comfortable to them. Raising money for a cause, donating their time, raising awareness . . . all of these are powerful ways for students to have meaningful influence in a way that takes into consideration any insecurities or fears they may have related to directly interacting with their peers.
When we talk about our students' impact in this way, it's a message that all students can relate to. Teenagers want to their lives to count for something. And when we can look at each of them and say, "You have influence, even if you don't realize it," it's a message that hits home.