The Antidote to Performative Formation


In my upcoming book Editing Jesus I tackle the forming influence of social media in our culture, and how the dynamics of the medium have (for many) created a performative momentum in us. Of course, this momentum has infected the people in our congregations in profound ways and even impacted the way we lead our churches. Here I’ve strung together some excerpts from the book—a few lens-shifters that will help us reclaim our agency over social media’s forming influence on us, and give us a missional mindset as we accompany adults and young people on their journey toward the heart of God…

Social psychologist and professor Jonathan Haidt tracks the viral dynamics introduced a decade ago by the early social-media platforms:

“By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would ‘go viral’ and make you ‘internet famous’ for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.”

Haidt is saying this “platforming” ethic has a powerful forming influence on all of us, not just influencers. Today, almost five billion people are on at least one social media platform—that’s two-thirds of the world’s population. The way we present ourselves in these spaces, and the attention that presentation attracts, shapes our identity.

The Medium Shaping the Message
The twentieth-century media philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said: “The medium is the message.” He meant that the conduits we use for communication reshape (and overtake) the message we’re delivering. If that message is our own identity, then the tools of platforming will form us. This formation process is often at odds with our character formation, and it’s in tension with the norms and values of the kingdom-of-God culture Jesus came to plant in our hearts.

In the 1950s a scant 12 percent of US college students described themselves as “an important person,” but the same study tracking that number over the decades pegs it at eighty percent today. Of course, we are all “important” to Jesus who leaves the ninety-nine sheep safe on a hillside to go after the one who is in need (Luke 15:1-7). Maybe eighty percent of us feel important because we’ve experienced mass healing of our self-esteem. But this migration in our collective identity, from common humility to common self-importance, conflicts with Jesus who says, repeatedly, “you must lose your life to find it.” Meta-narcissism is fundamentally incompatible with life in the kingdom of God. And it has a cancerous impact on our soul—in a CDC report highlighting the steep decline in mental health among young people, experts track the downturn back to the rise of selfie culture, around 2012.

Performative Motivations
Yuval Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, researches the relationship between fame and virtue. He’s noticed a shift in the motivation of those who run for political office, and makes the case that this same shift has infiltrated all institutions, including the church:

I came to think that what was really happening was a transformation of [political institutions] from a place people seek to come to in order to make laws and influence public policy, to a place that people come to in order to become prominent players in the theater of our culture war… This was something that was happening in a lot of institutions. We had transformed our expectations of institutions from expecting them to form people we could trust, to expecting them to display and elevate people as individuals on a platform… Over and over, you find that rather than be formative, these institutions became performative; rather than be molds, they became platforms.

Jesus is well-familiar with this way of thinking, because He “has been tempted in all things just as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Just after the start of His public ministry, He is traveling around Galilee as an itinerant rabbi, teaching and healing. But His brothers, in an interchange saturated in mockery and disdain, goad Him to add more fuel to the fire of His popularity: “[Jesus] wanted to stay out of Judea, where the Jewish leaders were plotting his death. But soon it was time for the Jewish Festival of Shelters, and Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!’ For even his brothers didn’t believe in him” (John 7:1–9).

Because He is saying and doing things they resent, Jesus’ brothers prod Him to out Himself as the fame-monger they believe He really is. But Jesus pushes back, ignoring their platform-bait: “‘Now is not the right time for me to go, but you can go anytime. The world can’t hate you but it does hate me because I accuse it of doing evil. You go on. I’m not going to this festival, because my time has not yet come.’” He does (of course) eventually travel to the festival, but not for the reasons His brothers assume…

The Festival of Shelters is marked by two metaphoric rituals that are repeated every day: 1) A symbolic pouring of water from the Pool of Siloam at the Temple Altar as a reminder that the hoped-for Messiah will immerse a parched people in the life-giving waters of salvation, and 2) The lighting of four huge oil-fed candelabras symbolizing the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of the wilderness—again, a nod to the promise of the coming Messiah. So, on the last day of these rituals, Jesus reveals Himself by standing to teach at the Temple. And what does He teach about? “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink” and “I am the light of the world.” Far from building His platform, Jesus is announcing Himself as the Messiah-now-here—a declaration that will lead to His capture, torture, execution, and resurrection. Jesus’ decision to step into a public spotlight is self-sacrificing, not self-aggrandizing. His chosen platform is Golgotha.

A New Path
Jesus intends to restore our broken identity not by goading us into performing better—instead, we freely give ourselves to Him, and He freely gives us back our whole self. We lose our life to find it. And when we live out this trade in everyday life, our deep desire to be known and seen and enjoyed slowly shifts—we wander from the path of platforming, seeking out a new path, one that Henri Nouwen describes well: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”

Questions to Consider

  • What does it mean to “stand in this world with nothing to offer but [your] own vulnerable self”?
  • In what ways do your formation environments encourage performative mindsets, and in what ways do they encourage vulnerability?
  • If social-media is an immersive forming environment, what can you learn from your own story, and the stories of others, about the superseding ways Jesus forms us?

If you would like help as you explore a more vigorous faith-forming environment, reach out to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.







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