Each generation thinks the next one is more self-centered, and a recent study supports this thinking. To measure trends in egocentrism, researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed the texts of presidential State of the Union Addresses from 1790 to 2012. They calculated the “egocentricity index” for each speech by comparing the number of words that indicated self-interest (words like “me” and “we”) with the number of words that showed a higher level of interest in others (words like “he”, “neighbor” or “friend”). Not only did they find a steady increase in the use of self-interest words in the speeches over time, the analysis also revealed that before 1900 the speeches almost always used more other-interest words. After 1920, nearly every speech used more self-interest words.
The researchers then compared their observations from the president’s speeches to other studies on egotism, such as those on books and songs. The researchers found an increase in egotism across the board, revealing that rising egotism permeates the culture (Scientific American: Mind, Nov-Dec, 2014).
The Univ. of Michigan study is compatible with other studies which show that an increase in wealth, and the economic security that stable employment and wealth brings, correlates with rising self-centeredness. In other words, one of the benefits of living in a stable and prosperous nation is that we can focus more on our wants and focus less on others.
How does this translate to the individual Christian and the church? Are we more self-centered than believers in previous generations? Perhaps thinking about three key practices will help us to answer this question.
First, for what do you pray? Do you pray primarily for matters of personal concern? How much of your prayer is focused on lifting others to the Lord? Do you regularly pray for our national, state and local leaders? Do you pray for other churches, missionaries in distant lands, Christians suffering persecution, and those without Christ in your own community?
Second, with whom do you worship and serve? Do you “attend” the church that best addresses your needs and desires? Or, is the church your family, the people with whom you worship and serve in God’s Kingdom? Be honest with yourself – are you primarily a consumer of religious stuff? How important is it that your church participates in building God’s Kingdom locally and globally through a sustained support of missions?
Third, to what do you give charitably? Do you give primarily out of impulse when your heart is touched? Do you give mostly to things with which you have a personal connection? The “giving question” is important because studies show that Americans are giving more to particular charities and less to churches, as a percentage of their income. Even many Christians practice an uneven pattern of giving, picking and choosing “particular causes,” rather than giving through their local church and the “system of missions” supported by their church.
What the Michigan researchers discovered should not be surprising. Self-centeredness is the natural inclination of a prosperous and secure people. But followers of Jesus have God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to help us overcome our self-centeredness. We are capable of living by faith, not by sight, and thus God’s Kingdom and His purposes mean more to us than any other thing. Or they should. It’s a continual struggle to find our satisfaction in God and not in this world. It’s an ongoing effort, a battle of the mind, to pray, give and worship in ways that honor God and contribute to what He is doing. We live in this world, but our citizenship is in heaven, which is where our chief interests reside.