Making Disciples in an Entitlement Culture

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Call me old school. Throughout my education, I worked hard to achieve. Academic and athletic achievements did not come easy, or so it seems. But when they came, I learned to be thankful.

In elementary school, I had to overcome setbacks in the 3Rs due to an undetected visual disability and problems with enunciation requiring speech therapy. In junior high and high school, I routinely got cut from the basketball teams, even though I indulged myself in hoops, forever my first love in sports. You know. I had to settle for track and cross-country where my hard work paid off but never with the fulfillment that basketball could bring. In college, I barely eked out a “C” from the notorious Professor Studebaker. In graduate school, I failed one of the written preliminary examinations for my Ph.D. Yes. I failed, and I was given one more opportunity to redeem myself. Otherwise, I could not have advanced to candidacy and written a dissertation. These are but a few examples from my not-so-entitled experience.

Things have changed.

Today many students–not all of them mind you–don an attitude of entitlement. They expect to get good grades regardless of their performance and work ethic, or so it seems. In a previous blog post, I distinguished between doctoral students and students enrolled in postgraduate programs. In my opinion, at least 50% of students fit into the latter category.

Students these days are not alone.

Many professors–not all of them mind you–are wannabe superstar scholars; they want to be esteemed among their colleagues, and their unspoken mantra is this: “more Einstein than thou!” They fight with madness over intellectual property rights and quibble over who has the best theory, whose discovery is the most important, whose peer-reviewed articles have the most citations, whose books are with the most prestigious publishers, who is funded with the largest research grants, and who simplifies patterns out of complex phenomena. Welcome to the entitlement culture of academia—where the expectation of recognition, honor, and prestige rules, where even when these accolades are not deserved, they are touted as deserved, and where the ones who have deserved achievements laude them over those lesser others.

How do we step into this culture and make disciples of individuals whose fundamental attitude is prestige at any cost and unmerited recognition?

How do we challenge a value system that predicates on greater than thou and it is more blessed to receive than give? Of course, salvation is the gift of God. Of course, grace is the unmerited favor through Jesus Christ our Lord. But should entitlement pervade the expectations of followers of Christ?

Entitlement was not the attitude donned by Christ—just the opposite. Paul tells us in Philippians 2: 5-8 (NLT): You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Neither was entitlement the attitude of Dietrich Bonheoffer, the author of The Cost of Discipleship.

Submission, humility, accountability, and self-sacrifice—these are the marks of a disciple of Christ.

Every day in the academy, flanked by the larger society, I encounter a culture that propagates something radically different. While publish or perish is justifiable, the self-adulation stemming from entitlement is unbiblical. I have grown increasingly disheartened by the skyrocketing number of self-identified Christians who sell out to this culture. They put prestige over principles and make academic pedigree the condition of human worth.

Recently, I was blindsided by a mentee who, head first, dived deeply into this culture. It was as though he sold his birthright for a pottage of research data. My heart aches. Here is the conclusion of the matter: We must redouble our efforts to fight this subtle foe of the faith. We must skillfully diagnose our protégées’ core values, confront their attitudes and actions as necessary, and hold them accountable for authentic discipleship.