If there is one word from the days of Gen X youth ministry that Gen Z students of today have taken and run with, it is “influence.”
The word influence is everywhere. Every brand, athlete, Instagram model, and Youtuber talks about what they got, how what they got, and why you need what they have. It could equipment, clothing, makeup, or even attitude.
I can remember growing up in youth ministry at the turn of the millenia and talking about the circle of influence each of us possessed. In student leadership meetings we would draw circles on poster paper and write the names of real people in proximity to how they had influenced or affected our lives.
For students today, the term “Influence(r)” is a powerful metric of cultural standards, trends, and authority. This is an area that we cannot overlook or dismiss. Students are persistently invited, allured, and provoked to buy, dress, style, talk, meme, or emulate a multitude of persons and personas.
This is terrifying because there is no easy boogie man to blame for unsavory cultural forces. This is exciting because our students are just as likely and just as capable to influence.
The most radical person to ever live started with less than 12 functional followers. The most powerful message of truth and hope transcends history, and its worth and mission continues to out-trend others. The reason we are here today talking about this, trying it on, and taking it back home is because of Jesus’ influence.
We need to point students to the Truth that transforms and the places to which we are sent. Talking to students about their capacity to influence others should flavor your conversations, it should be tagged in your talks, it should be the subject of discussion in leadership meetings. Students should map relationships, platforms, and draw circles for the ways in which they can identify influencers in their lives and name those whom they are undoubtedly influencing.
Four Places Students Can Exert Influence or Set Culture
In Their Homes
The most basic, but also the most difficult site of influence is a student’s home. It is the place they spend the most time, and it is the place that they are most observed by parents and siblings. Jesus-based influence at home is varied for each of your students. Please be mindful of how difficult it is to be a witness at home when others don’t understand, and how even sometimes with seemingly perfect parents consistency feels impossible. The prayerful urgency is that you would help students to establish themselves with parents, siblings, and home-life as a place of honesty about what God is doing in their lives.
In Their Classrooms
Broadly this means the desk, the lab, the hallway, the office, the gym, the field house, the band room.
Specifically, this is the site where many of your students are formally leading out. They are the captains of teams, first chair in orchestra, line leaders, presidents of clubs, elected to student councils, founders of chapters and fan clubs for things that you didn’t even know you could be a fan of. School is a deeply organized and often terrifying social hierarchy.
Your work is to help students see that inside all of the webs of relationships is a layer of influence for their friends who are hungry for spiritual truth and Jesus’ love and grace.
They understand and can navigate the challenges. They need your encouragement to see that wherever they fit (or don’t quite fit) in is valuable. Jesus sends followers all over the known and unknown world.
At Their Workplaces
The ways in which we carry ourselves at work are vitally important. We know it, and students are learning it. For a student who is 16 or 17 the ways in which they interact with authority, customers, and co-workers can be eye-opening and potentially empowering. It is my experience that we just do not talk about work with our students enough.
Encourage your students who are working to consider what the job means. How does this new work creates new opportunities, and how does it carry new responsibilities? Pray for your students who are working; for the added responsibility and stress that the job creates. Support your student when and where you can. Showing up to the restaurant with your family where they serve or patronizing the coffee shop where they barista from time to time can be a warm and welcome outreach.
In Their Online Worlds
This one is tricky, because the Internet truly is a whole other world and, at times, another reality. But for your students who game online, create fun or funny content, moderate forums or streams, or simply work to maintain and grow their digital presence, this is the site of most potential. Whether they feel like the 14 views or 130 likes matter enough is up to your work, youth minister. Help them see that every interaction is important and that there is no magical bar of accountability and influence at 1000, 10K, or 1M followers.
The ways in which we carry and conduct ourselves, create content, and interact with everyone matters to the Jesus who believes that a model of incarnation and a ministry of nearness is the best hope for transforming a broken world.
This post was written by Zac Workun. Zac serves as the Student Ministry Training Specialist for Lifeway and is one of the co-founders of Youth Ministry Booster, Lifeway Students’ collaboration and training network. He has served the local church in various youth ministry roles for over 15 years.