Why Counter-Formation is at the Heart of Discipleship


“My job is to understand how people behave. Once I understand that, I can change how they behave.” This is what my friend told me over dinner recently. He works high up at one of the most prestigious ad agencies in the U.S. You watch the commercials they make, you buy the products they advertise—it’s your behavior that he changes.

This conversation with my friend reveals one of the most important, and most forgotten, truths of modern American life: everyone is trying to form you. Nothing is neutral.

It’s easy to be discipled by America. All you have to do is nothing.


One of the fundamental lessons of discipleship is that the important things in life are caught, not taught.

I remember very few of the things my dad said to me, but I have become like him anyway. By being present in my life, my dad became normal to me, and that is the most powerful thing he did. Fortunately for me, he was a great dad, and I’m glad I became like him.

If you want to know what or who is discipling you, look at your life and ask what’s normal. The normal things are the most powerful things. The problem is, the normal things are also the hardest things to notice.

Take, for example, your habit of looking at screens. You’re skimming this article right now, trying to decide if you want to read the rest of it or click on something else.

If you’re like me, the habit of spending large parts of the day constantly scanning screens for something to peak our attention is totally normal. That’s probably not surprising. What is surprising is how we’re unknowingly being formed by our screens.

How is it that Facebook, FOX News, Google, and Twitter are all free, and yet they make so much money? It’s because we are the product, and our attention is sold to people like my friend. On the other side of the screen, there’s an army of people spending exorbitant amounts of money studying how to capture your attention and sell it to advertisers, who in turn make loads of money because of their expert ability to change the way you think and behave. We wonder why we can’t stop checking headlines or looking at social media—it’s helpful to realize that it’s not exactly a fair fight.

The real problem is not the calculated campaign for our attention, but that it is so normal we don’t see it. We are discipled by our screens simply by doing nothing. The results are well documented. The fruits of the spirit are peace, patience, goodness, and self-control. The fruits of the screen are loneliness, anxiousness, group-think, and consumerism.

The invisible power of screens and marketing is a great modern example of the power of invisible formation, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The point is to realize that if we care about discipleship, we need to think very carefully about the water we swim in and ask whether those currents are making us more like Jesus or not.

I would argue that we cannot make that assessment without a set of carefully chosen, counter-formational habits; the kind of habits that help us see the water and create a new normal.

The Common Rule is just such a set of habits.


The Common Rule is a set of four daily and weekly habits designed to form us in the love of God and neighbor. There are all kinds of habits, but many of them focus on screens.

Take, for example, The Common Rule habit of Scripture before phone. I love my smartphone. (In fact, I wrote this article on my phone in the back of a car on a trip home.) Phones enable amazing things. But ever since I got my phone, it started invading my mornings.

I’m a corporate lawyer, and for a long season of life the first thing I did every morning was check my work email in bed. My eyes would peel open and I would scan through what people wanted me to do today.

The formational consequences were powerful. My phone became a liturgy of legalism. The gospel tells me I’m loved in spite of what I can or can’t accomplish. But in starting my day in work emails, I wasn’t simply asking my phone what I needed to do that day. I was asking my phone what I needed to do to justify my existence that day.

In the end, I needed the counter-formational habit of Scripture before phone.

Sometimes people think that cultivating such a habit is legalistic, as if you have to do such a thing to be holy. For me, however, cultivating this habit and others like it was what I needed to fight my natural bent towards letting the world disciple me in legalism. Whether it’s social media or news headlines, much of what we read first thing in the morning is designed to stoke anger or envy—to make us think the world is about us.

In order to pursue being formed in gospel freedom, I needed a new habit. By doing nothing, I began the day in legalism.

It took some practice to form the habit of Scripture before phone, but I found that beginning my day in the story of God’s love calmed my anxiety and prepared me to work out of love for clients and coworkers, instead of working to earn myself love. Soon I found it also cleared a blank space in my mornings, where now—by habit—I leave the phone upstairs and read, sit quietly, or drink coffee slowly.


Some of The Common Rule habits focus on friendship, some focus on rest, others focus on work or screens. In different ways, all of these habits are meant to help develop a new normal, so that our habits make us more like Jesus instead of less.

The reason my marketing friend was telling me about his work was that he was trying out a habit from The Common Rule of pausing for kneeling prayer in the middle of his workday.

In a brief midday prayer on the floor of an empty conference room, he was reflecting on the significance of his industry and how he could work to make it a better—not a worse—place. He was inviting God to shape his work instead of inviting his work to shape his view of God.

He was creating a new normal, a powerful new habit of mind. He was cultivating a gospel habit.

Justin Whitmel Earley lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Lauren, and his three (soon to be four!) sons Whit, Asher, and Coulter. He is a corporate lawyer and a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, The Common Rule - Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction is his first book-length project and is coming out with InterVarsity Press in early 2019. Read more at www.thecommonrule.org.