We hold a misconception about discipleship: that it’s a merely Christian idea, only taking place at weekend worship services, on weeknights in groups and in the mornings or evenings when we “spend time with the Lord.” On the contrary, discipleship is taking place all around us and in us every day. Whether we realize it or not, we are being shaped and formed by the movies and TV shows we watch, the music, podcasts and radio stations we listen to, the books and magazines that we read, the social media feeds that we skim, and the trips we take to the mall. Our cultural practices and habits are discipling us either for good or for ill.
Primed for Worship
We are affected and discipled this way because we are not primarily thinkers—we are primarily worshipers. As Scripture consistently points out, the deepest level of the human person is the heart, the place from which all passions, desires, feelings and emotions flow. It is not our thoughts and beliefs that first motivate and lead us—it is our hearts. This is why our heads and hearts don’t always line up, why we often know something to be true but behave in a way that runs contrary to that knowledge. Saint Augustine even went so far as to say that, at the essence of our beings, we are lovers. Philosopher and author James K. A. Smith says it this way: “We are what we worship; we are what we love.”
Even those outside the Christian stream of thought tend to agree with this understanding of human beings, including many modern psychologists and sociologists. In his famous essay, “This Is Water,” the late novelist David Foster Wallace noted that, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.”
When we understand that humans are primarily worshipers, we understand discipleship as a reorientation of our worship. Since people are born into sin and prone to sin, worshiping creation rather than the Creator, and since “the heart is deceitful above all things” according to Jeremiah 17:9, discipleship becomes the process by which our hearts are rewired toward a love of the Lord.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to renew our hearts and minds, but this generally takes place through practices, habits and experiences that instill in us a right understanding of who God is and who we are in light of that knowledge. The most obvious of these are praying and studying Scripture. But there are others. When we sing songs on the weekend, when we hear a message preached, when we take communion and when we serve others, we are being molded into a certain kind of people—a people being conformed into the image of the Son. These practices help us understand our place in the gospel story and give us a renewed vision for what is true, good and beautiful and for what it actually means to live and flourish.
The Myth of Neutrality
Just as spiritual practices and experiences disciple us, so do cultural practices and experiences. That doesn’t mean culture is inherently bad. God institutes culture as a part of the creation mandate—to cultivate and subdue the earth—and as a common grace to embrace and enjoy; we are, by design, creators and consumers of culture. But cultural practices and artifacts are not neutral in their influence.
Within every book, movie, TV show, song and advertisement exists an underlying narrative—a belief system, a way of seeing the world, an understanding of how things work. Through our daily consumption patterns and our rhythms and rituals, we are being discipled. The cultural practices and artifacts that we embrace turn our affections in a particular direction; they orient our hearts and desires toward a vision of “the good life,” a perspective on reality.
Wisdom and Formation
It’s tempting to think that, as Christians, we are above letting “the world” influence who we are and what we know to be true. But cultural influence is caught more than taught. Through rhythm and repetition, the messages of the various media we consume subtly sink into our beings to capture our hearts, bypassing our rational assent to its premises and claims.
For example, culture can distort what we deem to be beautiful and desirable. We can see the way a woman is portrayed in an advertisement or movie and recognize this portrayal to be out of step with Scripture. Yet, while we can usually make this distinction with our minds, our hearts often cannot. Appealing to our bodies and senses, these images tacitly define in us an alternate understanding of what a woman should look like and what a woman should be, rendering an incorrect vision for beauty and sexuality.
While we are capable of thinking through what is good and what is bad with our intellect, we often don’t. Because we are not primarily thinkers but worshipers, we are primarily shaped and formed from the heart and not the mind. In this sense, there is no such thing as harmless or inconsequential entertainment. No matter the case, everything is vying for our affections; everything is discipling us in one way or another.
A Way Forward
It may seem like the logical conclusion here is to retreat—to delete our digital music libraries, throw away our Apple TVs, cancel our Netflix subscriptions and avoid “the world.” But that would miss the point. Since culture was created by God to reflect His glory, it still has the possibility of orienting our worship toward the Lord—whether sacred or “secular.” There are plenty of books, websites, magazines, movies and TV shows that embody the truth, goodness and beauty of the triune God, despite being created by unbelievers. And these can still help us order our worship toward the Lord.
Yet, more often than not, we don’t think or operate this way. We don’t ask the right questions. Whether or not we recognize our practices, habits and hobbies as means of discipleship, they are. As worshipers and lovers, we are all being discipled—every day—by culture. Nothing is neutral. Everything we consume is writing on our hearts a narrative about the way things are and the way things work, a vision of “the good life.” Everything is orienting our hearts toward a love and desire for someone or something. What is discipling you?