I’ve noticed increasingly the past year how the clothing and apparel that people wear, whether it be hats or shirts or footwear, seem to mirror whatever social media is promoting at the time. Have you noticed this phenomenon? I’ve seen targeted ads on Instagram, the only social media I’m still permitting in my life right now and it will seem as if the ads are tailored to you and your preferences, however, before long I start to see those same brands in public on people. I can’t find any of those brands in stores. It seems they are purely, or mostly, online.
I’ve been guilty in seasons of my life, I’ll confess, of picking up clothing items or desiring things purely because other people want them or have said they are cool. Who hasn’t done that or felt that? However, this feels a bit more an invasion of the thought life of individuals to the extent that I believe is gradually eliminating individuality among people who are connected to social media with the exception of the sort of individuality that gets people noticed in order to play into the algorithms to get those on social media more. How do I mean?
Go back 30 years ago and you find yourself in the early 90’s. Alternative grunge rock is a thing. Hip hop is happening with the media spinning an east and west coast rivalry that was more a media spin than an actual thing, we know this now. Kurt Cobain, Tupac, and Christopher George Latore Wallace better known as the Notorious B.I.G. or “Biggie Smalls” were all still alive. The internet was primarily in school offices and making its way to libraries, but personal computers were not common yet. Smart phones didn’t exist and cell phones were rare, and if they existed, wealthy people had them and they could double as a giant projectile weapon. Thinking of the cell phone Zach Morris used in Saved by the Bell. Most people had phones with cords connected to the wall, or perhaps a cordless phone that was convenient but had a strange static that would happen as it picked up other waves. The Gulf War was happening, Operation Desert Storm. News was primarily about things that happened whether locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally. The news were at set times of the day and you had to tune in to those times, adjust your schedule to when the news happened. People regularly got local newspapers and read them in order to be “in the loop.”It was a slower pace of life. When you stood in line somewhere, you didn’t have a phone to look at, you just stood there. I remember as a kid my mom would want to go shopping and take me with her and I would wait for what seemed like forever. In reality, it was probably 1-2 hours, but as a kid time moves slower, whereas, it seems to move at light speed as an adult. If you wanted music, you bought these new things called CDs which were more expensive but sleeker somehow than a cassette tape. And if you wanted music for free, you used a cassette tape to record whatever song you wanted from the radio on your boombox. If you were clever and a young entrepreneur, you sold those mixtapes and created a business. I wasn’t clever, lol.
You get the idea. The 90’s. 30 years ago. It was like a different world. You started school with 2 number 2 pencils and paper, you practiced writing in cursive in school, had Trapper Keepers, were mesmerized by Nintendo but still spent more time outside. People wore all sorts of clothes. You had the plaid shirt, jeans, Airwalks and skater shoes, grunge look. You had people with Fubu shirts and Jnco jeans. You had people just doing their own thing. I’m an outdoorsy person and use my Instagram account to post photos typically of various adventures whether hiking or visiting the coast for a surf. Many of my friends and connections aside from people I’v met in places I’ve lived are likewise connected to outdoor sports. So, when I open Instagram, I’ve been tempted to look at and buy targeted products like Forsake shoes/boots, Topo Design shirts, LEMS shoes, and various random adventure themed hats and apparel bits. I’ve exercised restraint and not purchased anything from Instagram nor purchased things their algorithm has suggested. However, I’ve noticed where I work that people regularly are walking in with Forsake and LEMS shoes, Topo Design shirts, and those exact random hats that were marketed to me on Instagram. Every single person I’ve asked about their products out of curiosity has shared they were browsing on social media and made a purchase from social media.
My concern is not that people are buying the same things or buying from social media necessarily, but how perhaps the motive in browsing and purchasing for one, and also the algorithms tapping into preferences and at times steering preferences and manipulating them could be both creating a public pseudo personality much like social media profiles but in real life, and that that frenetic activity could be distracting us from what is really going on inside us and from God. We busy our lives with things that feel relevant and important, but are we really busy or do we spend a lot of time doing unnecessary things? It is one thing to be busy taking your child to the doctor and another to lose 2-4hrs a day on your smartphone or streaming device.
My concern is that more often than not, we do things because we can, but we sometimes fail to ask whether we should? If it is good for us? What are the consequences of how we spend and use our time? How are the things that vie for and populate our attention spans and spending habits forming us as human beings?
It has become commonplace in Christian and religious circles to discuss discipleship. Sometimes, these terms have been used so frequently that somehow they can lose their meaning or their meaning can be confused with other things. In some churches today, discipleship is reading a book, possibly with a group who are also reading that book, then talking about it once a week with snacks. What is a disciple? According to the Bible, it is simply someone who follows Jesus and not simply follows from one place to the next, but someone who follows in the sense of an apprentice as someone might apprentice under an experienced electrician or carpenter or welder in order to learn a trade and learn it well, in order to do that same trade themselves. This is what it means to follow Jesus and that is why we see the disciples Jesus has called, who have responded to Jesus’ call to follow him, being with Jesus, learning from him, becoming like him over time in some ways, and being sent out to do the things that Jesus did. That’s what the Bible reveals is being a disciple or follower of Jesus. Reading a book and talking about it might satisfy an intellectual craving, and provide good content, but isn’t discipleship.
The reality is that what we do, what we posture ourselves, our lives around, shapes and transforms us. In reality, everyone is a disciple of something or someone, the question is, what?
You’ve heard the phrase, “You are what you eat”? Well, “we become what we spend our time primarily doing.”
If we spend our time streaming hours of Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime every day, we will be shaped and molded by the type of entertainment that we watch as our brains are literally rewired to accommodate what we consume or rather what consumes us. It’s like in hiking when you hike a trail through some tall grass. At first, there isn’t much of a trail, just tall grass, but over time upon repeated excursions of that same trail perhaps by many people the grass lays flat where people have tread the same ground over and over and over again, forming a path. It becomes easier over time to find the trail and to travel a trail that is well-traveled. The same is true with our brains. What we do shapes us and our neural pathways in our brains like trails are formed. Some habits can become very easy to do, so easy we might not realize they are habits at all and they become very difficult to break.
It’s because what we do shapes us, whether we follow Jesus or not. It’s a human thing, not explicitly a Christian/religious thing.
This is problematic for a number of reasons, but one can begin to see why a 1 hour talk on Sunday is insufficient for remedying a week and perhaps months and years or unhealthy habits that have formed in a life.
Increasingly, being a Christian is about living in quiet, subtle resistance to the flow of the culture in which we inhabit.
We need to be mindful of the ways in which we might be malformed as followers of Jesus in ways of living and bits of daily life that our culture finds normal, common, acceptable. If these things fail to shape us into becoming more life Jesus, then we need to audit our lives and decide what is healthy for our life with Jesus and what helps to enable further growth in love for Him and others, and what hinders that? Like pruning a plant, as we are all pruned as followers of Jesus whether we desire it or not by the Master Gardener, we can also seek to posture our lives as we are able to more closely align ourselves for healthy growth in a life with Jesus. Simple questions such as, “What am I doing to cultivate a life with Jesus?” “Am I spending time with Jesus?” “How do I spend time with Jesus?” “How can I tweak my schedule, adjust the ways my life might be leading me down a trail that doesn’t lead to becoming more like Jesus?”
Then, it amounts to deciding on a course of action and following through with it. If I can share one personal example, I commute into the city a ways for worship with my church family every Sunday. As I live a bit outside the city, I am unable to get connected with the Community Groups during the week. I have inquired about getting connected more but it isn’t possible unless I move into the city. I’ve even inquired about starting my own where I live in a more mountainous, beautiful area. Anyway, I’ve felt for a long time that the technology we’ve all become familiar with during the early part of the pandemic could be leveraged on a regular basis in healthy, needed ways to help with community. I sensed this past Sunday that while I’ve considered this for some time, I needed to follow through with it. So, I had one friend from seminary in mind and another friend I’ve connected with back in New England come to mind. I reached out to both about meeting once a month over a Zoom meeting to share life together, encourage one another, pray for one another. I’ve had many spiritual practices/disciplines that I do regularly to help me grow as a follower of Jesus, and I’ve become increasingly aware of the effects of modern tech on our relationship to Jesus and to others, but I haven’t cultivated much of a community apart from Sunday and apart from people with outdoor sport interests where I live. This would be a greater, more intimate community of accountability. We’re going to start meeting once a month. One friend lives in the Bay area in California and another in southern Maine, an hour or so north of Boston, and I live in the Pacific Northwest.
Think of your schedule and what you do as a trellis for a plant, the plant being your heart and life with Jesus. How is that trellis helping you or hindering you from growing in healthy ways to be more like Jesus and to do what Jesus did in your life? Is it time for a needed change? Like working out, it takes a couple weeks to form the habit and make it routine. Whatever you do, stick with it. You might not notice a change immediately, that’s okay. This following Jesus thing isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pruning and new healthy practices can feel at first like hills in the race, but can become great sources of strength in the long haul.