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Young Adults Speak About the Future Church

By TOM MITCHELL
Daily News-Record

Sara Wenger Shenk
"Thank You for Asking: Conversing With Young Adults About the Future Church" is Sara Wenger Shenk's sixth book. (Photo by Jim Bishop)

In researching her sixth book, Eastern Mennonite Seminary educator Sara Wenger Shenk found plenty of household help.

"I have two sons, ages 26 and 23, and a daughter who's 18," said Shenk, 52. Shenk's latest text, titled "Thank You for Asking: Conversing with Young Adults about the Future Church," zeroes in on spiritually weighty matters that burden today's young adults, or "twentysomethings."

The text's title revives a common refrain that followed most interviews, Shenk says. "What we heard over and over after our interviews was 'Thank you for asking. I don't often get the chance to talk about things that are important to me.' Twentysomethings are the most underrepresented group in our church."

The 281-page paperback, which includes a collection of testimonials from young adults, sells for $14.99. The volume is available at EMS and at least two Web sites: one for Herald Press, which printed the edition, and amazon.com.

"Conversing with Young Adults," Shenk's work reflects its author's aim to touch topics that seize young adults in today's world. Shenk's study extracts data from subjects in three forms: past and present life experiences that Shenk respectively terms "narratives" and "practices" along with her sources' expectations or "visions" of future churches. Shenk's two-year venture questioned 56 people (30 men, 26 women) from 15 states and 7 foreign countries.

"This is a book of stories of young adults as told to their peers," Shenk said.

Hard Questions

'Thank You for Asking' by Sara Wenger ShenkA key goal of her book, Shenk says, is to help young adults "make sense" of their lives. To that end, Shenk adds, her work targets young adults' key concerns: specifically, such subjects as faith, family and sex. Talks about sex filled a conversational void too often present on Sundays, Shenk said. "Young adults say 'We want church to be a place where we can ask hard questions,' " said Shenk, whose layered post as Eastern Mennonite Seminary's associate dean and professor of Christian education connects her with young adults.

Young adulthood often tests spiritual ties, Shenk said. Passage from school to career, paired with pivotal choices, shakes personal foundations. "It's a stage of life that is full of uncertainties and experimentation. For many young adults, it's hard to plug in."

Ultimately, Shenk adds, twentysomethings crave guidance. "They want to be mentored, but often there is a certain fear and absence of trust between them and older adults."

The book features a foreword from Brian D. McLaren, who Shenk describes as "a spokesperson for the emerging church movement," an interdenominational cause aimed, in part, at improving ties between young adults and churches.

In his foreword, McLaren says that Shenk's latest work presents "a gritty, honest, unedited, blood-sweat-and-tears immersion into the spiritual, social, emotional and sexual lives of young adults."

Open Book

Shenk says that discoveries from "Thank You For Asking" surpassed her expectations.

"I was very gratified to see how open and transparent these young people were about their lives," Shenk said. "I'm energized and very excited about their vision for what the church can and should be."

Lonnie D. Yoder, a professor of pastoral care and counseling at EMS who served as a consultant for Shenk's project, believes that her book transcends sects and applauds Shenk's approach of having subjects for the book queried by chronological peers.

"The theme represents voices of young adults in the Mennonite world, but I think people beyond the Mennonite context would find this book very helpful," Yoder, 55, said. "It was an intriguing research methodology to use young adults to interview young adults."

Deborah Good, one of eight young adults who helped with Shenk's study, said that her team's role eclipsed research. Good, 24, a former magazine editor, said that her talks with others from her age group "pushed me to think about things we don't think about enough."

Shenk's drive to write her new book is deeply rooted in her own life, which included 12 years of childhood in Africa as the daughter of missionaries. "I care deeply about the church," Shenk said. "To listen to young adults and what they are wanting rings true with my vision of the
church."

--Tom Mitchell is religion editor at the Daily News-Record, Harrisonburg, Va. Reprinted by permission. Contact Tom Mitchell at (540) 574-6275 or .

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