Older preschoolers press caregivers with questions nearly every waking moment. Eventually children learn that too many questions can lead to: “Because I said so.” And thus most of us learn, as we grow up, to curb the number of questions we ask.

Like young children, church newcomers and seminary graduates are highly curious. How often we stifle their questions with some version of this answer: “We have always done it this way.”

Slate.com is running a series of explorations on “What’s that thing?”, in which writer Mark Vanhoenacker examines seemingly mundane things we often overlook but that occupy and affect our everyday lives.

In a time when Christian leaders are trying to name and reclaim the constructive role of congregations, denominations, seminaries and other traditional Christian institutions in American culture, recovering the art of asking and trying to answer good questions can help us to:

  • Keep tradition from lapsing into traditionalism. Asking about a practice or idea doesn’t mean the questioner necessarily doubts its value. Talking about why we do what we do and believe what we believe can remind us of its importance and help us to reaffirm our traditions.
  • Re-envision our purpose. When we ask, What's that thing?, we're really asking: What’s that thing for? The end of Christian leadership is God’s reign. Through questions we can connect -- or discover the disconnect between -- our plans and God’s purpose.