Why: A Short History

Asking why is a habit that is near and dear to all our hearts. It’s one of those things that is simply a part of being human.

At every age level, we ask why.

My six-year-old son, like every six-year-old, asks why about everything just out of sheer curiosity. It never gets old…to him.

I’ve noticed the teenagers I teach ask why about everything. However, it is out of a genuine concern for understanding and with a pure commitment to respect for authority. (They also often ask me why I’m so sarcastic.)

We adults look at teenagers and ask why. Just why?

By the way, teenagers need not resent that statement. Every adult has had that moment where they looked back in time at themselves. We remember something we said, something we wore, something we did, or something we did to our hair, and we ask ourselves why.

Many why questions we have in life are much more imperative in nature. These are the questions about who we are as people, what we ought to believe, how we ought to live. Perhaps the most important questions we will ever ask concern our identity as Christians.

But, here’s the thing…

It is precisely those questions of eternal importance which we so often avoid. We hear a why brought to conversations about our beliefs and we fall back, not willing to see where those conversations may lead.

The Bible, however, exposes this as more than a bad habit. It is disobedience of the most dangerous sort. We are commanded to “be ready always to give an answer” to every why.

A Short History of Why

The past several generations teach us much about our attitude towards questions about our beliefs and practices. What we find is a short history of cultural action and reaction. As with all history lessons, we can discover what brought us to this point and what we can do to fix the problems we’ve exposed.

The Greatest Generation

In 1998, Tom Brokaw wrote a book commemorating the generation of Americans who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II titled The Greatest Generation.

I tend to agree with this description based on my study of history, but more directly by my relationship with my grandparents. They were born as the 1920s came to an end and grew up during the Great Depression. The topics I teach as a history teacher was their life.

My grandfather told me the stories of how his parents pulled him out of school after the fifth grade to work from sunup to sundown on a farm that they didn’t own. He was working in that field the day a man in uniform brought a letter to his family, informing them of the death of his oldest brother. He was fighting Fascists in central Italy. My grandfather turned 18 the year the war came to an end and spent the next 25 years of his life in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The stories my grandparents tell me about depression and war speak volumes by what is not included, namely the luxury of asking why. They did what they did, worked how they worked, fought when they fought. No questions asked.

Theirs was not a time to ask why, especially about matters of faith. After all, for them, faith was not something to question; it was something to cling to. As the aphorism of the day decreed, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Baby Boomers

After World War II, the so-called Baby Boomers had a very different experience than their parents. Theirs was a world of affluence, albeit not without unrest.

The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by numerous cultural movements, many of which held a common theme of rejection and redefinition of traditional values. Widespread tensions developed in American society regarding the war in Vietnam, sexual mores, and traditional modes of authority.

Of course, not every baby boomer was a hippie. Many of this generation esteemed both the contributions and the values of the previous generation. Many held to them accordingly, taking them as their own.

As it pertains to our discussion, the baby boomer generation was afforded the luxury of asking why.

Many asked more out of rebellion than inquiry. These gave rise to the cultural movements that so blatantly challenged traditional culture in general and orthodox Christianity in particular. It was in reaction to these movements that many baby boomers didn’t ask why out of respect. For them, the question was inexorably tied to the rebellion of the day.

It is here that we have a fork in the road. Both sides of this baby boomer dichotomy influenced the following generation in very peculiar ways. At risk of painting with a broad brush, I would suggest that those who rejected tradition and orthodoxy went on to fill American culture, both popular and political. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers who held to tradition and orthodoxy filled American churches. As oversimplified as this summary may be, it at least lets us focus on the experience of the next generation of Christians.

Millennials

The generation following the Baby Boomers is a wide spectrum. Among other names, we are most often referred to as millennials. It is at this point that you will notice a change in pronouns because this is my generation. I am a millennial.

So, what happened to us?

Between 2007 and 2011, sociologist and market researcher George Barna surveyed tens of thousands of twenty to thirty somethings, i.e. millennials, who had grown up in church. This research was revealing in many ways, but one statistic stands painfully dominant. Of those surveyed, 61% identify themselves as being “spiritually disengaged.”

I am not a math teacher, but I am a teacher. So, when I see that 39% of millennials raised in church have remained in church, you can guess what letter grade comes to mind.

As one of these millennials, I can confirm Mr. Barna’s findings. In all honesty, I look at my subset of friends, people my age in the churches I attended, and to me, 39% actually seems a bit high.

So, let’s apply our question, why? Why did most churched millennials leave the church when we became adults?

The following year, the Barna group reported six reasons why young Christians leave the church. They are as follows:

  • “Church seems overprotective.”
  • “Christianity seems shallow.”
  • “Churches come across as antagonistic to science.”
  • “Church experiences related to sexuality are simplistic and often judgmental.”
  • “They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.”
  • “The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.”

We don’t have to go into a full discussion of each of these points to recognize how each relates to our discussion. There is something that seems to me to be glaringly obvious: each of these reasons could very easily be embodied by questions, most of which would begin with the word, you guessed it, why.

On a side note, it is perhaps fortuitous, if not surprising, that another popular term for millennials is “Generation Y.”

So, given that many millennials grew up in churches which were largely filled by traditionally-minded Baby Boomers, and that those Baby Boomers saw a firm connection between asking why and an air of rebellion, I think the problem reveals itself. Millennials had questions, and questions were not welcome.

I want to be careful not to cast blame, so much as to find a cause. I am a millennial. My father, a pastor, was one of those baby boomers. I grew up having questions and found very few answers. But, I have come to realize that my plight was the result of my father’s natural response, not his negligence. He did all he could to make sure that the rebellion that plagued his youth did not plague mine. For that, I am eternally grateful.

The Next Generation

Nevertheless, time does not stop. We have another generation coming of age in a culture where tradition and orthodoxy are not simply being challenged. They are being disposed of.

On top of Baby Boomers coming to terms with their legacy, and millennials coming to terms with their questions, a new generation sits among us barely old enough to be named. The future we feared is their present.

One thing is certain: this new generation won’t have the luxury of asking why.

They will not have the opportunity, not because they are preoccupied with war, but because their questions will be answered before they can ask them. They will be answered by a culture that is altogether at war with the Christian worldview.

For them, a Christian upbringing is now something that you shouldn’t let hold you back, something you should refuse to allow to define you. And, all of this is happening much sooner in their lives than we would like to think.

The Barna survey asked millennials when they began to doubt their faith, giving them four age brackets: elementary, middle school, high school, and college. At what point would you assume most began questioning?

If you’re like me, you might assume college. However, about 40% first had doubts in middle school, about 44% first had doubts in high school, and just over 10% first had doubts in college. As we look toward the next generation, can we honestly believe that their situation is improving?

Nevertheless, we are not without hope, no matter how bleak the outlook. We are not without an answer, no matter how daunting the why.

The solution as always is found in God’s Word. Next week, we will take a look at the solution for why.


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