I’ve been thinking lately about influence—not my influence on others, but how others have influenced me. I think of my “formal” mentors who influenced me in college and graduate school. I think of preachers who influenced me from their pulpits. I think of Sunday school teachers who brought influence even when they thought I wasn’t listening.
But there are also “informal” mentors who influenced my thinking and worldview. Movies I’ve seen. Books I’ve read. Friends whose approval I’ve sought. In many respects, the informal influence in my life has shaped me far more than the formal influences, and often I’ve been unaware. Informal influence seeps into our minds. Formal influence enters by way of invitation.
Often, these two realms of influence compete with each other. I’m formally taught that racism is wrong, and I agree. But the informal influence of primarily homogenous friendships plants seeds of subtle separation. More formal influencers guide me to a spirit of humility and generosity. But my informal influencers tug at my desire for recognition and accumulation.
Zack Eswine calls this the difference between the “Big T” and “Little T” (The Imperfect Pastor, 47). Each of us walks around with theologies, worldviews, and perspectives developed in formal processes of education and training (“Big T”) and informal processes of culture and upbringing (“Little T”). The problem is that regardless of what we profess about our theology and worldview with a “Big T,” all of our little theologies and worldviews show up in the most unexpected ways.
For example, Jesus taught His disciples to love their enemies (Luke 6:27). I imagine the disciples would have been shaking their head in agreement with this “Big T.” But as soon as some Samaritans gave offense to Jesus, James and John wanted to kill them in the name of God (Luke 9:54). The informal influences in their lives overshadowed the formal influence brought by the words of Jesus.
So, what do we do? First, we acknowledge the influence of culture, family of origin, and friendships. We “own up” to the fact that we have a shadow side that needs to be brought under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Second, we come under the formal influence of biblical teaching, preaching, and study so that we re-shape our “Little T” theology into conformity with “whatever is true, honorable, just, and pure” (Philippians 4:8).
Surround yourself with people of faith, hope and love in Jesus Christ, so that the informal influence that seeps into your mind is consistent with the formal influence you gain by invitation. And then go and influence others.