Spiritual Formation in an Age of Entitlement

With permission, we share the thoughts below, which were presented by ACSI’s President, Dr. Dan Egeler.  They are challenging and powerful. As leaders who hope to impact the next generation, this is a must read.  Although this article was written a few years ago, the results remain the same and are actually stronger with increased data support.

Spiritual Formation in an Age of Entitlement

In my travels around the world, I’m always fascinated by the different underlying values that each culture inculcates in the next generation. Every culture has values that run counter to biblical principles and each culture constructs myths and lies to promote these values. In discussing this with Josh McDowell in a dinner conversation a few years ago, he proposed a provocative idea for an elective course for Christian schools. What if we taught students to identify the top ten cultural lies being taught by American culture and then equipped them with the skills to debunk those lies? What do you think some of those lies would be?

One of the first cultural lies that I would identify is the primacy that American culture places on comfort and wealth. Dr. Richard Swenson, while speaking at the ACSI 2004 Leadership Academy, made the statement that the new American dream is now “more possessions – more quickly”. In his book, The Overload Syndrome, Dr. Swenson states, “Getting more and more of everything is wonderful – as long as that is what we need. When saturated, however, getting more and more of everything faster and faster becomes a problem. Most of us don’t need more. And we certainly don’t need it faster. Instead of being our friends, more and faster have now become our twin enemies.” (1998, pg. 43)

I believe that this value system has also infected our Christian schools and it is an insidious threat to the healthy spiritual formation of our young people. Too often, those that are held in high esteem are people that have succeeded in terms of comfort and wealth. Rather than the focus being on the quality of a man’s spiritual character, it’s the size of a man’s home, the type of car they drive, and the type of fashionable clothes they wear that dictates the level of respect they receive in Christian circles. It’s not that wealth and comfort is bad in and of itself, but it should be of far less importance than the character of a person. The book of James has a lot to say about judging a man based on outward appearance. Why do our Christian kids want to grow up to be like our cynical and ungodly music, athletic or even business celebrities rather than the Godly janitor, educator, or neighborhood pastor? It’s because we live in a celebrity culture that values comfort, wealth and image.

One of the negative by-products that often comes out of a focus on comfort and wealth is the disease of “affluenza”. De Graff, Wann and Naylor in their book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic define this syndrome as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” (2005, pg. 2). This current generation of American young people is growing up with so much stuff because their parents have achieved the American dream by accumulating a stupendous amount of possessions. By any economic indicator, our American Christian families are the wealthiest in recent history and our kids have become infected with this disease. Affluenza’s costs and consequences are immense, although often concealed. Untreated, the disease can cause permanent discontent (De Graff, Wann, and Naylor, 2005). This discontent leads to a sense of entitlement with its rejection of self-discipline, a deep repugnance with the concept of delayed gratification, and the embracing of self-indulgence. After all, don’t we all “deserve a break today?!” as a Burger King commercial used to proclaim.

The fall out is that indulged children are often less able to cope with stress in an increasingly complex world because their parents have created an atmosphere where every whim is indulged and children then believe that they are entitled to a life of comfort and wealth. This indulgence promotes a lack of frustration tolerance and produces an inability in children to persevere in the face of difficulties. Dan Kindlon teaches child psychology at Harvard University and he states, “One of the hallmarks of what we call emotional maturity is the ability to not be fazed by setbacks; to roll with the punches and persevere in the face of difficulties. Kids today can press a few keys on their computer and order up a video and dinner. They can instant message a half-dozen friends at the same time. So much appears to come to them so easily. We need to teach them how to develop skills such as frustration tolerance, and, more generally, how to cope with stress. Unfortunately, there is no magic in this. The only way a child can accomplish this is by actually experiencing frustration and stress, which is painful for him or her, and for us as parents to watch.” (pgs. 59-60, Kindlon)

One of the key arenas in which children today can learn to not accept the option of quitting and learning to persevere is in the realm of athletics. Unfortunately, our culture has focused solely on winning and the self glorification that comes from being number one rather than the character traits that can be learned from competing valiantly. My second son is a wrestler and he began to compete in a number of top flight wrestling tournaments. For the first two-thirds of the season, he did not win a match and was being pinned consistently in the first period. As his Dad, I helped him to set some realistic goals as he was competing against nationally ranked wrestlers. His first goal was to just make it through a match without getting pinned. This wasn’t very glamorous as he ended up spending six grueling minutes fighting off of his back. I celebrated the first match in which he did not score a point and was beaten badly BUT HE DID NOT GET PINNED. I celebrated and honored my son because he learned to persevere and that lesson was far more important than what he could have learned from winning. The sport of wrestling was one of the few avenues that I had to teach my son the importance of not quitting and learning to persevere.

The disease of affluenza and all of its symptoms is not the norm in other cultures. Thomas Friedman, in The World is Flat, illustrates this by pointing out the different mindset that Chinese kids have:

I heard a similar refrain in a discussion with consular officials who oversee the granting of visas at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. As one of them put it to me, ‘I do think Americans are oblivious to the huge changes. Every American who comes over to visit me (in China) is just blown away….Your average kid in the U.S. is growing up in a wealthy country with many opportunities, and many are the kids of advantaged educated people and have a sense of entitlement. Well, the hard reality for that kid is that fifteen years from now Wu is going to be his boss and Zhou is going to be the doctor in town. The competition is coming, and many of the kids are going to move into their twenties clueless about these rising forces.’ (pg. 264)

Friedman (2005) then comments on what American parents need to do to confront this future:

Helping individuals adapt to a flat world is not only the job of governments and companies. It is also the job of parents. They too need to know in what world their kids are growing up and what it will take for them to thrive. Put simply, we need a new generation of parents ready to administer tough love: There comes a time when you’ve got to put away the Game Boys, turn off the television set, put away the iPod, and get your kids down to work. The sense of entitlement, the sense that because we once dominated global commerce and geopolitics – and Olympic basketball – we always will, the sense that delayed gratification is punishment worse than a spanking, the sense that our kids have to be swaddled in cotton wool so that nothing bad or disappointing or stressful ever happens to them at school is, quite simply, a growing cancer on American society. (pg. 303)

I believe that Friedman is on to something as these thoughts were reinforced by the findings of a research team working with Graybeal and Associates that conducted Spiritual Formation Audits at three ACSI member schools. These audits utilized both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies to provide a comprehensive assessment of a school’s climate for spiritual formation. They also provided an unprecedented objective look into the very heart of Christian schooling. One of the most significant threads that began to emerge from this research endeavor was the lack of a heart of gratitude among students, parents, and faculty. I believe that this lack of gratitude can be directly linked to the disease of affluenza.

What is especially troubling about this lack of gratitude is the research conducted by Mike Zigarelli. In his book, Cultivating Christian Character, Dr. Zigarelli analyzed the data from over 5,000 respondents in sixty countries and all fifty states of the United States from an online survey. The analysis of data revealed that there were three clusters that differentiated between high-virtue Christians and average-virtue Christians. These were a heart of gratitude, a life of joy, and a mindset that was God centered. The most important of these three clusters, the one that Dr. Zigarelli termed a “parent virtue – a virtue that begets other virtues” was gratitude (pg. 27). Gratitude was the characteristic that most distinguished high-virtue Christians from average-virtue Christians. Dr. Zigarelli goes on to say, “In my study of Christians, we found solid, confirmatory evidence of this. Growing one’s gratitude has a radical and transformational effect on character because it is one of God’s primary vehicles for inducing other Christian qualities.” (Zigarelli, 2002, pg. 27). It’s quite sobering to realize that the lack of gratitude was the strongest thread emerging from the spiritual formation audits conducted at three ACSI schools. Zigarelli’s research points out the importance of cultivating a heart of gratitude when pursuing spiritual maturity. I suspect that a lack of gratitude would be a significant thread in the spiritual climate in other ACSI member schools. If this is true, then Christian schools have their work cut out for them if we’re going to be serious about fostering spiritual growth.

I suggest that to provide an antidote to the disease of “affluenza”, Christian schools need to develop appropriate educational strategies to teach our kids:
• To resist the consumptive lifestyle,
• To identify and counter the cultural lie that wealth is the measure of a person,
• To cultivate a heart of gratitude,
• To never accept the option of quitting and to learn to persevere,
• To become self-disciplined and to embrace and celebrate delayed gratification,
• To overcome the temptation of self-indulgence.

Confronting the disease of affluenza and the cultivation of a heart of gratitude are central to fostering spiritual maturity in young people. Christian schools should not just throw up their hands and accept that this is the way our culture is and there is nothing we can do about it. Christian schools need to strive to be counter-cultural and the cultivation of Christian character is what should set Christian schools apart from their secular counterparts. As such, it would behoove us to recognize the threat of this disease and to be intentional about confronting its insidious impact on the lives of our young people.


De Graaf, John; Wann, David; Naylor, Thomas. 2005. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. Berkely, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Friedman, Thomas. 2005. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kindlon, Dan. 2001. Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. New York: Miramax Books.
Swenson, Richard. 1998. The Overload Syndrome. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Zigarelli, Michael. 2005. Cultivating Christian Character. Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design.

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