This is the audio recording of the first reading of week five of Start, entitled The Sum of Our Influences.
“To live in reality we must edit our streams, digital or otherwise. We must filter our mental intakes. Just like we watch carefully what we put into our bodies — few of us pick up random garbage off the sidewalk and pop it in our mouths — we must take great care with what we allow into our minds. And we must take deliberate steps to set our minds on the reality of Jesus and his mental maps. This, and this alone, will lead us into the kingdom, where we will enjoy the deepest kind of life to be had.”
The world is a formation machine. When we give attention to something, it forms us. The media we consume, the people we interact with frequently, the places we spend our time, and our hobbies and interests all play a part in shaping who we are. This is not inherently good or bad. It’s just a fact. It’s a fact that need not scare us, but it must not be ignored. We are influenced by what we give our attention to. Our lives, for better or worse, are the sum of our influences. As G.K. Beale says, “We resemble what we revere, whether to our ruin or restoration.”
Since this is true, we have a great incentive to think carefully about what we allow to influence us. In Ephesians 5:15-17, Paul writes, “Look carefully then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time because the days are evil.” These words remind us of the importance of paying attention to what we pay attention to. We can focus on influences that will help us grow in godly wisdom and Christlikeness, but that won’t happen by accident. If we don’t do this, we will find ourselves formed into the mold of our culture.
We don’t get to choose to ‘opt-in’ to the process of being formed by the world around us. That’s the default. We must intentionally opt out. We must opt out of formation by the world and opt-in to counter formation in the way of Jesus. We call this counter-formation because it is a way of formation that runs counter to the ways of this world. Paul speaks to this in Romans 12:2, where he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is the language of counter-formation. Do not conform (or be formed by) to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind (counter formation)
When Jesus called His disciples, He invited them into a life of counter-formation. In responding to this call, they placed themselves under Jesus’ influence to be formed into His image and participate in His mission. This is the essence of discipleship. We reject the formational power of the world and choose to be counter-formed by Jesus.
To ‘opt-out’ of the world’s formational systems doesn’t mean we must withdraw entirely from society. Instead, we must be mindful of where we place our attention.
Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith says, “Our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and…those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices (of modern consumerism) that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world.”
In other words, we naturally pursue what we love, but our ‘loves’ are shaped by the practices that fill our lives. These practices, according to Smith, are handed to us by our culture, and they inform how we think about the world and our place in it.
Smith goes on to say, “Embedded in (these practices) is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit (goal) of our own desires and actions. That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become…embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions.”
What does all of this mean (James K.A. Smith is brilliant, but he can be a bit difficult to understand!). He’s saying that the culture around us gives us a picture of what the ‘good life’ looks like. For example, many cultures in the West associate the good life with significant wealth and consumerism. Smith is saying that when we buy into the vision of the good life that our culture gives us, the culture begins to form us. It shapes our desires, our motivations, and, ultimately, our actions.
That’s a lot to digest, but note the connection Smith draws between our loves, habits, imaginations, vision of “the good life,” and formation. It’s all connected. The culture we live in—and its exaltation of consumerism—shapes our imagination and idea of ‘the good life,’ which, in turn, influences what we value and what we do. Again, we don’t “opt-in” to this process. None of us asked to be formed by the values of Western consumerism. That’s the default we were born into.
This leads us back to where we began: The world is a formation machine. We are formed by whatever we give our attention to. This includes people, media, stories, and ideologies. In the 21st century, our access to formational influences is seemingly limitless. We carry around vast libraries of formational content in our smartphones! But we have been called to counter formation in the way of Jesus.
Consider this way of thinking about the activities of our lives in terms of their formative impact:
If you spend much time scrolling social media, chances are you enjoy it but don’t view it as a beneficial activity. Few of us would say social media scrolling is helping us reach our goals or contributing positively to the areas of life that matter most to us. Few of us are actively trying to increase the time we spend doing it. But scrolling social media is easy, passive, and moderately entertaining. It’s no wonder we find ourselves reverting to it so often. So how do we reduce the time we spend on it?
There are two approaches we can take. One option is we can try to motivate ourselves to change by willpower, guilt, or shame. We can tell ourselves things like, “I shouldn’t do this!” or, “This is bad, I need to stop!” That may work for some personalities, but for most of us, that approach won’t lead to lasting change.
Another option is we can ask ourselves, “How do I want to be formed, and how is social media forming me?” This will help us realize that passive scrolling has a formative effect on us. It’s influencing the person we are becoming, the way we think about the world, and what we value, and that influence probably isn’t positive. It’s almost certainly interfering with our spiritual and relational growth, and it likely isn’t helping us grow in areas that are meaningful to us. Activities like passive scrolling will lose their appeal when we realize it’s not forming us into the type of person we want to be. There is no guilt or shame in this process. It just requires that we think about how we want to be formed and how that matches us with what we are letting form us.
Smith says, “Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counter formation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life.”
We engage the counter-formative way of Jesus through Christian worship and spiritual disciplines. They help us see the poverty of these “rival versions” of the good life our culture presents to us and enable us to be shaped and molded by Jesus instead of the voices or influences of our culture.
If our lives are indeed the sum of our influences, we must be mindful of what our influences are. And we must consider how to train ourselves so that our loves and habits align with the way of Jesus.
As we begin this week of readings about counter formation, we will start by examining our influences. As you look at how you spend your time and attention, what influences you the most? The purpose of this exercise is not to induce guilt or shame. Instead, it is to take an honest look at our lives to determine if our influences are shaping us in a manner that is consistent with who we desire to become.
For example, if we give little to no time to spiritual practices outside of a few church services each month, but listen to several hours of talk radio per day, our values and behaviors will almost certainly reflect our talk radio host of choice more than Jesus Christ. In this example, we could substitute social media, sports, television, or anything else for talk radio. None of these things are inherently bad, but they are formational. Our time and attention are a massive part of our formation, and if we are not intentional, we will be formed by influences that direct us away from the way of Jesus.
We live in a world that is a formation machine, but Jesus meets us in that world and invites us to pursue counter-formation, where we are shaped by the Kingdom of God. If we are to ‘walk’ with the wisdom Paul describes in Ephesians 5, we must begin by assessing the current state of our ‘walk’. We have nothing to fear in this assessment. There is no guilt or shame. There is only opportunity. Remember, God only meets us in reality, so we can be honest about our current reality, knowing God will meet us there with kindness and mercy. And we can be confident that the Holy Spirit will guide us as we seek to turn down the volume of the cultural influences in our lives so we can more fully follow His leading and delight in His counter-formational influence. These questions can help us in assessing what’s forming us now:
What is shaping my thinking? If we are to resist formation in the ways of the world, we must be clear-eyed about what is influencing our thinking. This does not mean we must be paranoid or consume only overtly Christian content. It does mean we need to guard our hearts (Proverbs 4:23) and consider what we are letting in.
How, specifically, does my connection with Jesus influence my thinking and decision-making? One way to determine how much something has changed our lives is to look at how much it has shaped our behavior. As you look at how you view the world and make decisions, can you point to ways you think differently because of the work of the gospel in your life? If you’ve been a Christian for most of your life, it might be a little harder to discern this (because you might have little memory of anything else), but it is still a helpful exercise.
How have I been formed more by worldly values than Kingdom values? We’ve said it before, and we’ll repeat it: the world is a formation machine. There is no shortage of worldly ideologies and philosophies seeking to influence us. Some of them, particularly in media and politics, will even use Christian language to secure the loyalty of Christians. We must take a sober-minded, honest look at ourselves and our influences to determine how we have been formed by world values than by Jesus.
- Take a few minutes to reflect on the three questions above. Consider journaling your answers.
- In your own words, how would you describe counter-formation in the way of Jesus?
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
A quick Google search will reveal research connecting excessive social media use with a host of mental and social health problems.
That is not to say it will lose all its appeal. The purpose of this example isn’t to say that all social media scrolling is bad, it’s simply to help us think about the way we spend our time and attention through the lens of formation.