The Cure for Teenage “Affluenza”

On Monday, April 2nd, Ethan Crouch was released from prison. He is the teenager who killed four other people in a drunk driving incident and then pleaded not-guilty to the charges because he claimed to be suffering from “affluenza.” He said that because of his affluent upbringing, he was unable to know the difference between right and wrong.

Before you scoff at the audacity of such a defense, I will admit I’m not that much different (and many of you probably aren’t either). Stay with me here.

Adam and Eve had everything they needed, but sinned anyway – a confusion over right and wrong – when they wanted the one thing they were told they couldn’t have. This is my daily struggle. Wanting something other than what God has blessed me with, wanting more than I need. Again, this is my struggle and it’s likely yours also. At its core, this is Ethan Crouch’s struggle as well.

Affluenza, viewed in these terms, is also the struggle of many students in our youth ministries. Teenagers have the vast majority of their needs provided for them. After all, it’s the job of parents to provide. I am not saying teenagers today are more spoiled than generations past…I think people who say that have both a short memory and an inaccurate understanding of the environment today’s teens exist in. Many teens today and yesterday are raised in communities of affluence. The very opportunity our kids have to opt into a youth group, to spend discretionary time in community with other teens on Wednesday night and Sunday morning, to pay to go on retreats, and to learn about “thanksgiving” through serving others – all of these things testify to our inherent affluence.

Like Ethan Crouch though, far too many teens in our ministries do not know right from wrong, or at least they don’t live as if they do. In a cultural climate where platitudes like “you do you” and “YOLO” are considered truth, how do we ensure teens know the difference between right and wrong?

First, we must speak the Truth to them. Freedom comes from knowing the truth. Let’s say you go to an auto mechanic and ask what’s wrong with your car and the answer is, “You didn’t change your oil and your engine has seized.” No one responds with, “That’s your truth, not mine.” Teenagers in our student ministry must be taught the Truth. Like a boat with sonar that allows the boat to see below the surface, there is a moral topography that only Truth helps you to see and understand.

To teach this Truth, we must teach the whole of the Biblical story. We must teach Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation (or this: Ought, Is, Can, Will). At the core of all our teaching must be that we were created good (ought), but our sin broke everything (is), then Jesus’ death and resurrection made life possible (can), and he will return one day to make all things right again (will). We must first teach kids to have faith in this story.

Second, teenagers must be taught the importance of confession and repentance. Paul writes that godly grief (which is only possible when knowing the Truth) “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). Teaching grace without teaching confession and repentance will never teach students to love the life that God is inviting them to live. Teaching them only grace reinforces the false idea that they can live any way they want, ignoring the life that God designed them to live. Grace apart from confession and repentance is a tragically thin grace, with no recognition of why we so desperately need it in the first place along with every hour of every day. God didn’t give us “rules,” he gave us “gifts.” Living within his design for life is where we experience true life. We are called to holiness…the holy life is the good life.

The way to teach confession and repentance is to model it. Share stories of how you’ve needed to confess. Incorporate times of confession and repentance into your teaching, and not just around the campfire on fall retreat. Henri Nouwen in his profound book, In The Name of Jesus, writes that “confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which we sinful people love [God and] one another.” By confessing, we admit that we’ve wronged someone (God, others, ourselves) we care about, someone whose love we desire and someone who desires to love us. Confession and repentance also reinforce and remind us daily what is wrong and what is right, good, pure, and true. It saves us from that easy predator, affluenza.

Finally, our ministries must not just teach a gospel of grace. We must be communities that embody it. When our students know that we not only believe in grace but we live it through forgiveness, acceptance, and then transformation, it becomes much easier for a young person to admit their failure, to admit wrong; they know our ministries and churches have grace to give. It is through the receiving of grace and forgiveness that we are in Christ and become “a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Kris currently serves as Director of the Kansas City Fellows and has been a youth ministry practitioner for more than 20 years. In addition to loving Jesus and loving teenagers, he also has a deep appreciation for all things coffee, cycling and Djing. He recently completed his Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a Sticky Faith certified coach. He's been married to his wife Heather for more than 20 years and has two daughters.

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