I grew up hearing many warnings against being conformed to this world from my grandma, VBS teachers, pastors, youth pastors, on and on. To the point that I take it for granted. World = bad, God = good, make sure you’re conformed to the right one. I never stopped to ask the question: How is one conformed, either way? Well I’ve asked the question now, and spent some time mulling it over.
In the past I assumed being conformed to the world meant taking pop culture to heart. I responded to this by taking on an ambivalent attitude towards pop culture, never getting too attached. I made sure I was one step ahead, one plot line smarter, one shrug ahead of the next f-bomb. If I knew what was coming it gave me a superiority to the music, movies, and TV. With a cynical scoff I could turn away any time and still be the bigger person. How could I be conformed if I was one step ahead?
But being conformed has little to do with TV, or music, or movies. They are involved, but they are not the source. Being conformed is not about dominance, but submission. What do we acquiesce to, or let in when our guard is down? Where do we take our cues from? Where do we turn for comfort when the day beats us down? Where do we find our identity?
Take the lifestyle surrounding music. I spent a good amount of time hanging around the punk rock scene in my city growing up and watched a lot of this conformity unfold first hand. Let’s walk through this process with a hypothetical friend, we’ll call him Steve. Steve is 15, he hasn’t found his niche at school, dropped out of the youth group at church, and feels insecure. Someone hands him a flyer for a local band playing at a small venue downtown. Steve finds a ride somehow and goes to the show.
The other kids in the car are wearing tight black jeans with holes and tears. The guys have chains attaching their wallets to their jeans. Everyone also wears a t-shirt with the names of different bands, maybe some artwork surrounding the names. Everyone’s nails are painted black or purple, but just to show they don’t care the paint is chipped. No one’s hair is particularly clean. Everyone is wearing either Van’s or Converse All-Star shoes, distinguishing who is into skateboards and who is only in it for the music.
Steve is wearing blue jeans, no holes and a polo shirt. His wallet has no chain, his nails are natural. He’s wearing leather shoes. His hair is clean and styled with gel. Steve looks around and sees that these new friends belong together and he sticks out. They get to the venue only to see that everyone there is wearing the same “uniform.” This group of young people are their own community, bound together by the music they share.
Steve stays through all four band performances. The music is loud and exciting. The other kids are friendly. Steve feels emboldened by the certainty created in the music and unified atmosphere. Steve feels he has found his people at last. He buys one of the CDs and t-shirts from a merch table after the show. He swaps numbers with a few people to hang out the next day.
Next week Steve goes to the venue again. He wants to get that shot of confidence. This time Steve is wearing the t-shirt with his blue jeans and leather shoes. His hair is clean, but he lost the gel. Steve wants to be himself, but fit in a little better.
Fast forward a few years. Now Steve has learned to play bass guitar, he has enough t-shirts from all the shows over the years to only wear band tees. His room is full of CDs and records, his laptop is full of digital music. Steve now has a cursory knowledge of every band and their music and lyrics since the 1960s. All he talks about is music, the only way he is able to express himself is through music whether it be an original song or a playlist. His jeans are black and worn out, his shoes are Converse All-Star, because he is serious about music. His hair is dyed black and is in a constant state of disorder. He didn’t start painting his nails until he joined a band. He wears a bandana on his wrist to set himself apart from the crowd.
Steve was conformed to the world of independent music. Why? Because the venue became the source of Steve’s friends, comfort, excitement. There were clear cues he could pick up on to know how to belong. There was clear community he could plug himself into. Steve found a purpose, an identity. He submitted himself to the music scene until he was conformed to it. He went in as “generic teen” and came out “bad-ass rock and roller,” (pardon my French) looking and sounding like everyone else in the music scene.
Perhaps that’s a bit extreme as far as examples go. You might say to yourself, “I’m not hardcore, so I’m not conformed to this world.” I myself have found comfort in that very thought. What if Steve had remained “generic teen?” He finished school with his leather shoes and polos. He went to college and started playing the latest Playstation game with his roommates in the dorm. He watched whatever dude-appropriate show his roommates watched. They talked about their games and their show when they weren’t doing homework.
Steve finds a nice female “generic teen” now “generic twenty-something” to date and eventually marry. He marries her around the same time as his core group of friends from that original dorm floor marry their girlfriends. They all graduate and find jobs and move into the suburbs. Now they are “generic newlyweds.” I’m sure you can finish the script. Steve’s wife gets a job in administration to help pay the mortgage. They have kids. Steve works in computers or sales, his wife moves up to management to get the pay raise so they can afford childcare, later to pay for soccer team fees.
Steve still plays games, but now they’re on his computer instead of a Playstation. His wife sits in their room watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix with a glass of wine while he sits downstairs on his computer with a beer. At some point they join one or the other to get a second round of drinks and watch one of their “together shows.” Until 11, when they go to bed and start the work-school-sports-dinner rush all over again.
Where did Steve go for his cues and comfort now? The generic crowd, with the unspoken but strongly agreed upon expectations of “the good life” in America. Did Steve ever ask himself whether he wanted to be married with kids in the suburbs? With student loans, car loans, credit card debt, and a mortgage? A life separate from the people he claims to love the most? A life of quiet desperation, dulled with winning online and beer; his only real connection with his wife through a shared TV show? But he filled the expectations, he looks and sounds the part. So Steve belongs, and in that belonging he can find comfort. Steve was conformed to this world, via the generic route.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with music or living the generic American life. I’m saying unless you live with intentionality, these things will conform us. Paul knew this and wrote to warn the Christian Romans, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Rom. 12:1-2 NKJV)
Go to God, to His altar, even if you make an altar by kneeling where you are. Present your life to Him. When you offer your life to God, you submit to Him. When you live out that submission you will be conformed to God. Even then, God is more gracious than that. Paul doesn’t say, “You’re either conformed to the world or conformed to God.” He says, “You’re conformed to the world or you’re transformed by God.” Being conformed has a ring of coercion, while transformation is something done together. If you keep your life in your own hands, you will inevitably submit to something in this world and be conformed to the world instead of being transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is not easy to submit to God whether it be daily or once in a while. But comparably, it is not easy to submit to the world either. Wherever you land in life it ends up being painful, confusing, challenging, boring even at one point or another. Some lifestyles are more obvious than others in their ties to sin and sorrow, but everyone ends up with their share of struggle. Why not struggle towards someone, rather than the ultimate emptiness of this world? Why not come out of the struggle with a renewed mind and transformation? When you give everything to God He gives you something back. When you give everything to the world it keeps it.
I landed somewhere in between the rock and roll life and the generic life, and it’s not because of cynicism. It’s not always pretty, definitely not perfect, but I work to submit my life to God. I seek to be transformed by Him. In His grace, God shows me little ways that add up to big conformation to the world that needs to change as we go along together. So the next time I feel unsure, or beaten down by the day I’m going to turn to prayer or worship. Anything to get my attention on God and my heart in submission to Him.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether I’m one step ahead of pop culture or not. Keeping one step ahead keeps my attention on pop culture more than God. Rather, I should ask myself, where are my knees? Are they knelt before the Father, is my attention on Him? Ambivalence won’t save me from being conformed to the world. If I keep presenting my life to God, submitting myself to Him, He will continue to lovingly renew my mind and transform my life.