The Shape of Influence

Seven years ago I was sitting in the library at the University of Mississippi. I was in graduate school for philosophy, and this particular occasion I was reading a paper in the philosophy of science. I had sat often in the library between classes and read, but this time something was different. As I read the paper –– which I found enjoyable and intellectually stimulating –– I realized that further graduate study of philosophy wasn’t for me.

I didn’t make that decision because I didn’t enjoy philosophy. If enjoyment had been the decisive factor, I would have stayed in philosophy. And I loved the campus culture and the discussions I had with my professors and peers.

Instead, I decided to leave philosophy because the direction of my life was not influencing others the way I had envisioned.

If you asked one hundred people what it means to influence others, I’m sure you’d get mostly unhelpful answers; the responses would differ widely or, if there was some agreement, be so vague as to be unhelpful. But sitting in that library, I knew what I meant by influence. It wasn’t an abstract goal; it was a person.

I wanted to influence people the way my campus minister, Jim Brinkerhoff, had influenced others, including me.

Jim Brinkerhoff
Jim Brinkerhoff

This past Saturday (December 5th) marks two years since he died unexpectedly. Seventeen months ago, I was hired to fill the ministry position he left behind. I didn’t write anything on social media about it. But just like the one-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death, it was a day of grief and of remembering moments and conversations. Mostly, though, I thought about his influence on me.

I have often told people that next to my father, Jim had more influence on my faith than any one else. He changed the way I thought about God and Christianity. He affected the way that my faith shaped my daily actions. And, years after I’d graduated from Auburn University, he shaped the way I approached being a minister.

Part of Jim’s great influence on me, though, was that he showed me the shape of influence.

People have different approaches to influence. Some try to influence people by keeping some conflict going. I came into college from churches that had argued and split and condemned. I listened to a lot of talk radio during that time: Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Michael Savage. I was used to trying to influencing people by perpetuating conflict and controversy. I understood what it meant to “fire up the base.” But, of course, for every person you influence this way, you turn a dozen away from your message.

Despite my love of discussion and debate, I have never been attracted to this form of influence.

I was also familiar with preachers who were dynamic speakers and masters of emotional appeals. If you were listening to them for substance or a position that was fully thought through, you probably would not hear it. But they were easy to listen to, inspirational, and their talks were packed with stories that emotionally moved the listeners.

Preachers like this have had a lot of influence. But it’s never appealed to me. For one thing, I don’t trust that either the motivational preacher or the conflict-focused preacher has lasting influence. Once one burns out on conflict, or the inspiration wears off or is overcome by trials, what’s left?

But the way Jim influenced people was different. He wasn’t flashy or cool. He wore sandals and socks and tucked his t-shirts into his blue jean shorts. I don’t remember many jokes or humorous parts of his lessons. I never considered him a creative teacher. I didn’t listen to him for these reasons. And I didn’t even spend much time with him. We had a few meetings and a couple of lunches a semester. But with three hundred other students in the ministry, his influence on all of us wasn’t reducible to having a close relationship with each of us. His influence came from his vision of the Christian life, his teaching, and a life that modeled what he taught.

And he didn’t seek conflict. He held views that I would have found controversial at the time (I grew up in very legalistic churches). But he expressed these views in a way that showed they from his deep and never-ending study of the Bible. And his biblical insights commingled with his years of experience to create something more than mere bible knowledge or intelligence: wisdom. So over three decades of ministry, he probably changed more people’s theological convictions than any other preacher in our fellowship.

I spent years apprehensive about being a Christian minister. I knew I couldn’t be a minister whose lessons bordered on emotional manipulation; I also didn’t want my career to be based on promoting conflict. I needed my four years in college, seeing Jim minister, noticing the way he influenced everyone around me. I had to see that the true shape of influence was thinking deeply about the faith, passionately teaching the faith without avoiding depth or seeking controversy, and faithfully following the call of Jesus.

Without seeing that, I don’t think I would have entered ministry.

I am different from Jim in many ways. There’s no evidence that he was sarcastic; there’s some evidence that I am. I’m a extroverted nerd, and he was an introverted nerd. So, undoubtably, my approach to ministry is and will continue to be somewhat different. Consequently, the way I influence others will be different. But I am in ministry because of Jim, and because of him I have a vision of what it means to influence others.

And, so, I had a quick answer to a question I was asked while in seminary. I was talking with a theology professor about the possibility of overseas missions. After I’d rambled a bit, he stop me. He explained that church attendance was in a decline, and there was a great need for good ministers and new church plants in the U.S. He then encouraged me to continue to consider campus ministry. The campuses are important to the Kingdom of God, he said.

He paused, and then he asked, “I mean, wouldn’t you like to influence college students the way that Jim did?”

Easy answer.

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