In Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before, she divides people into four groups according to how they respond to expectations. You could be an upholder (those who conform to expectations because they keep all the rules), obliger (those who do what’s expected to please others), rebel (those who simply don’t do what’s expected), or questioner (those who ask ‘why?’ before doing anything). I think I raised one of each. And I only have three kids.
Here’s the thing you need to know about Millennials. They are all questioners. Personality type be darned–“Why?” is their default.
The Default Question
This is considerably different than their boomer parents/bosses, whose go-to question has always been “How?” There is a fundamental difference here that is at the root of much disagreement and distrust in the church.
Baby Boomers are the How-to generation. We have not concerned ourselves so much with the whys of doing something as with the “How can we get this done in the best possible way?” Like Nike, our motto is “Just do it.
Millennials don’t just do anything without a good reason. They have justification for this. They’ve watched as people who just got married because it was the thing to do also just got divorced. They’ve seen parents who stayed loyal to a company for decades get tossed to the roadside before retirement. They know how blind obedience has led to jihad violence.
“Why” is not so much a cry of rebellion as an assessment for survival.
Bringing How and Why Together
So when How and Why come together in church? It can feel to the older generation like their trustworthiness is being questioned, and it can feel to the younger generation like they are being asked to be a copilot when they don’t know where the plane is going.
But let’s look at what we can learn from one another in this dichotomy.
Embrace the Whys
What if we don’t discourage “whys” but follow them to their end? When we understand that “why” is not a personal insult to our integrity and capability, we can listen to the worries behind it. In fact, let’s agree that “why” is a good and valid question. If more people asked why, we might have fewer bad ideas loose in the world.
Let’s apply “why” together to our church programs, our building plans, and our discipleship programs. Honestly, if we’re afraid to ask the question, maybe it’s because we don’t have a good reason for doing what we’re doing.
Asking “Why” forces us not to settle for forging a faith program that doesn’t work, even while it feels comfortable.
Then, what if we ask the next generation for their answers to the whys and hows rather than give them too easily? As I co-write a book on this topic with my daughter, I am constantly amazed at both her talent and her thoughts. These are things I never would have discovered if I had come to the project with all the answers looking only for her corroboration.
Finally, be willing to answer with, “I don’t know why. Let’s find out together.”
Our “how” when it comes to actually doing whatever we’re working on together will be met with much more enthusiasm and acceptance if we’re willing to work out the whys beforehand without feeling threatened.
Trust the Hows
But the next generation needs us as well. Sometimes, they need to give a rest to the incessant “whys” and trust. While it’s a struggle for us boomers not to give answers, the struggle for Millennials is rooted in Hebrews 11—“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things we cannot see.”
Trust does not come easy for them. They want to see that evidence. Yet a faith filled with peaceful trust is the expertise of those who have lived longer. We have the experience of cultivating trust in dark places where there is nothing else. We are the ones who know that it’s enough not to know. We recognize that sometimes, you can only live the “how” of trust and submission without seeing the why.
We need to be passing on the stories of our dark places, our failures, and our questions. We can be the ones telling the tale that all manner of things will be well, even when the “whys” remain completely elusive. The “How” of steadfast belief translates powerfully when others know we aren’t giving it out as a glib answer but that we have lived this how.
The adage goes that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I don’t particularly agree, as teaching high school taught me that there are, in fact, many stupid questions.
But the ones we ask one another in our faith life must be treated with respect. Our generations come at life and faith with different core questions. Are we each ready to hear them out?
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.