Christians need to acquire influence in this world for one simple reason: Christ commands us to do so. If “subdue and have dominion over it” is not a mandate for acquiring influence in this world, we need a serious dictionary rewrite. The psalmist reiterates man’s influential position when he cries in awe, “You have made him [man] to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet” (Ps. 8:6). Likewise, when Christ reaffirmed His creation mandate in the full light of the Gospel, He commanded us to go and make disciples of the cultures. “Culture is not an accidental aside” in history; rather, Christ told us to influence people on His behalf through the power of the Holy Spirit.1 As His disciples, we may only aspire to what will advance His name, His Kingdom, His sphere of influence.
Unfortunately, in both secular and sacred circles, critics often perceive influence to be a four-letter word. They wrongly portray influence as a reality of life in the real world, but not fitting for the faithful to handle, and certainly not for Christians to acquire. It reeks of this world and, after all, this world belongs to Satan (wink-wink). But those same critics would strongly encourage aiding the poor with bread, clothing the homeless, or even sharing the Gospel with an unbeliever. But that’s influence. When we give bread to the needy, we exert influence on that needy soul, challenge all who witness the selfless deed, and propose an alternative to the messianic state. The question is never, “Will we influence?” but “How will we influence? And for whom?”2
Consider the example of one ambitious young man with dreams of acquiring influence — Joseph. God harnessed Joseph’s God-given ambitions to make him the most powerful man in the world. After God brought him through the School of Humility and Slavery, Joseph pursued his Bachelors in Egyptian Culture at Potiphar’s house, acquired his M.PA. (Masters of Prison Administration) in the royal dungeons, and even learned how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people along the way before God granted him more influence than Pharaoh himself. But don’t miss this: God trained Joseph to acquire influence in a satanic culture. Perhaps nowhere in Scripture do we see a clearer example of Paul’s admonition to be “in the world, but not of it.”
But what of today’s Josephs? What of young Christians who aspire to change their world for Christ? How should they pursue influence? Certainly, selling oneself into slavery wouldn’t seem the best move in modern society. Joseph paid a price most Christians would rather not pay to acquire influence. But perhaps another necessary course of action is equally terrifying to both children and parents. College.
A Higher Education
In our postmodern society, the overwhelming majority of Christian young people will need a college degree as a minimum qualification for acquiring influence. Their need for the degree is like a NASCAR pro’s need for a driver’s license. It won’t make you Richard Petty, but without it, you can’t even get on the track. Likewise, being able to write words doesn’t guarantee John Grisham’s success in book sales, but if Mr. Grisham couldn’t write his alphabet…. Well, you get the idea. A college degree does not guarantee influence, but its absence seriously limits the possibilities.
But what of the rising cost of higher education, a cost that may seem like economic slavery? Is that price too steep? Should it be? Let’s keep it simple: if Christians are serious about acquiring influence in the 21st century, they must cross the thresholds of colleges and inhabit the hallowed halls of universities. Period. There’s no way around it. And this is a serious limitation, but let’s be honest about something. Most colleges are overpriced. They cost way too much money for way too little education that you could probably get more efficiently on your own for a lot less money. Do you really need to fund the State U’s research into the mating habits of a pre-historic virus that probably didn’t even exist in the first place? Probably not. Nor do you need to pay for the school to have an entire department devoted to paranormal activities. So there, let’s admit that right up front. The price tag for most higher education is seriously inflated.
But what is the price of influence? What most people (not just Christians) fail to realize is that higher education is not primarily about acquiring an academic education but about obtaining credentials. Credentials that speak on your behalf. Credentials that open doors otherwise closed to you. Credentials that assure you of a chance to dance. Credentials do not guarantee anything, but they do qualify you for consideration. Christians should not find this concept foreign; after all, the Apostle Paul claimed to be the most credentialed Christian in the Bible:
Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, A Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:5-6)
On many occasions, Paul’s credentials opened doors for ministry and cultural impact. His religious qualifications gave him an instant pulpit in temples and synagogues. His philosophical education created opportunities in Athens, the philosophical zenith of his day. His Roman citizenship qualified him for preferential treatment which he used to advance the cause of Christ. Because of his credentials, the cultural leaders of his day could not merely dismiss him as yet another rabid fisherman. His credentials made him a force to be reckoned with but not an arrogant erudite on a personal crusade for power. “Recognizing the value of the credential and then using it in the world is in no way connected to pride and quite obviously connected to purpose.”3 The Christian must never be content with simply existing. Rocks exist. People exist for a purpose — to advance the purpose of God. Even rocks do that. Imagine what rocks could do with the right credentials.
Acquiring the right college credentials will require serious adjustments for most Christian families if they are to surpass rocks in influence on this earth. In most cases, both Christian young people and their parents must adjust at least three things:
A. Attitude. Call it an exuberant sense of humility, if you will, but Christians (make that all people) tend to aim too low. Paul calls us to make it our aim “to be well-pleasing to Him” (2 Cor. 5:9). Could we possibly be called to aim higher? Yet so many Christians fail to aspire to much of anything. It’s been said, “Blessed is the man who aims at nothing for he will surely hit it.” Sadly, too many Christians approach life the way Charlie Brown approached target practice — shoot the arrow, then draw the target. Can’t miss.
B. Budget. Nothing scares Christians away like talking money. But nothing worth accomplishing can ever be accomplished in one lifetime; therefore, parents must think in terms of generations. A little bit of money set aside now turns into a substantial chunk of college funding when invested properly. Of course, that may mean no cable tv, scaled down vacations, and not as many trips to Old Navy, but as David said, “Neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). Success always has a price.
C. Concept of the Call. Why did David challenge Goliath? Because he was called. Why did Paul refuse to see any obstacle to his mission? He was called. Why did Peter think he could do what everyone said he was not qualified to do? The call. Once a Christian hears the call, there can be no going back. Money is not an issue. Time is no barrier. Difficulty becomes irrelevant. The call consumes everything. If you’re called, you can do whatever needs to be done to fulfill the call. College? Are you called? Not a problem.
But even with these adjustments, challenges await the naïve Christian young person in choosing the college path. Consider the three following dangers especially:
1. Most colleges are moral black holes. Let’s face it: all colleges will test the Christian young person’s ability to make the Faith his own. And most campuses today are cesspools of fornication, substance abuse, and satanic ideology — those are the good colleges. But Egypt was all those things. And Joseph still had to go. Because he was called. And not only did he succeed, but his faith flourished in the hostile environment. That being said, a student’s choice of college should largely be determined by the true strength of his faith, for it will be tested. To ensure success, the student should attach himself to a strong church family for support while in college. If such a church is unavailable, don’t go to that college.
2. Many Christian colleges just don’t qualify. If your goal is acquiring influence that will open cultural doors, most degrees from Christian colleges will not cut it. Right or wrong, our culture perceives Christian colleges as majoring in sub-par education. It doesn’t matter if it’s true (although, unfortunately, it often is), that’s reality. Status matters. That being said, most Christian young people would never survive on a secular campus without bowing to peer pressure. Their faith would be destroyed before the end of the first semester. Bottom line: find out how the Christian college is perceived in your field of interest before blindly attending and wasting a lot of money. Or attend the Christian college for your Bachelor’s degree then transfer to a university more prestigious in your field for your graduate work.
3. Most degrees are virtually worthless. Hugh Hewitt puts it this way, “Masters and Ph.D. degrees have value but only if they are properly explained. Sometimes, you don’t get the chance to explain, and all those years of study end up helping you very little — if at all.”4 Unless you have an extremely narrow career focus, consider a liberal arts degree or something comparable that will keep your options open for graduate school. Most college students change their major several times, anyway, so you may as well plan on God changing your plans. Hewitt offers what I think is sage advice. Pursue a postgraduate degree with stand-alone value — M.D. (doctor), J.D. (attorney), or M.B.A. (boss) — that will prepare you for influence just about anywhere God may call.
I hear the protests already, “College isn’t for everyone!” Granted. But that list is shorter than most critics would like to think. Consider the following three legitimate exceptions to the college rule:
1. Women. No, I’m not saying college isn’t for women. Quite the opposite, actually. Most women will experience the most influential calling in the world as mothers. They will shape the minds of their children as no one else can or should. Future moms need to go to college. But they must be prudent in doing so. For while a future father may be willing to take on six-figure debts that his resulting career will easily repay, a future mother should exercise caution financially for she may be acquiring debt that her career (motherhood) will not be able to repay in a timely fashion, thus hindering her family’s influence rather than helping it.
2. A narrow career focus. Some young people are already locked into their career choice. Some just think they are — for now. These situations are rare but do exist. For example, (and one must stretch the mind to conjure some of these) a career in the military does not require a college education, although the student will need to compensate for it in some way through meritorious service if he hopes to advance. A career as a convenience store clerk also may not justify a college education, but it will also produce little influence.
3. Mental limitations. In His sovereignty, God has not given the same intellectual capacity to all. Some of His people face challenges to learning that would cause the rest of us to quit and go home. But that is not to say that those people cannot have influence or acquire an education simply because they do not meet admission standards. They should, in fact, make every attempt to maximize the capacities they do have to maximize their influence. Once again, however, this list is shorter than most cynics think. Most young people labeled as “vocational school material” have simply never been forced and taught to think diligently or instilled with the work ethic and study habits to succeed. There is no shame in being a carpenter, if that is what you have been uniquely called and gifted to do to influence the world for Christ.
1. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), 181.
2. For a succinct treatment of influence as leadership see John C. Maxwell’s “The Definition of Leadership: Influence,” Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993), chapter One.
3. Hugh Hewitt, In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition and a Desire to Influence the World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 33.
4. Ibid, 30.