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Lay leader revives young adult group


1:00 P.M. EST June 28, 2010

In this July 2008 photograph, young United Methodist volunteers help expand the Methodist Church in Guanabacoa, Cuba. The newly formed Epworth League will sponsor many such mission trips for young adults. A UMNS photo by James Melchiorre.
In this July 2008 photograph, young United Methodist volunteers help expand
the Methodist Church in Guanabacoa, Cuba. The newly formed Epworth League
will sponsor many such mission trips for young adults. A UMNS photo by
James Melchiorre. View in Photo Gallery

Ken Rheingans, a lay leader at a small church in Wisconsin, has taken a page from the past to resurrect a worldwide association for United Methodist young adults.

As a father of two 20-somethings, and with years of experience working with young adults, Rheingans knows something is missing in The United Methodist Church.

“Ninety-nine percent of the young adults I talk to say their churches have no young adult programs,” he said.

In 2003, Rheingans and his wife started a Vacation Bible School camp for children with disabilities and their families associated with Pleasant Valley (Wis.) United Methodist Church. The summer camp became bigger than the church in budget and people participating. Last year, the camp had more than 250 mostly young adult volunteers.

Clearly there were young adults in the community who wanted to be involved in missions and the church, Rheingans said. That started his search for resources or programs specifically designed for 18- to 35-year-olds.

His research led him to Epworth League, a young adult organization associated with the Methodist Church that had been successful in the late 1800s to mid-1900s. Named for the birthplace in England of John and Charles Wesley, Epworth League had thousands of young adult chapters around the world before it disappeared in 1939.

Rheingans found many of the concepts of that era were still relevant to young adults today.

Offering challenges

“If you look at the church, you will see a huge hole where young adults should be,” said Owen Cooper, United Methodist campus minister, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “The same old way of doing things will not work for young adults. They need an opportunity to learn and grow and be challenged, and I believe the Epworth League is such an opportunity.

“One of the things that strikes me about the Epworth League is how relevant this historic movement is for today’s generation. It’s a bold effort that will only succeed with God’s help.”

Cooper is one of a team of mentors Rheingans is starting to assemble. A handbook with rules for starting a chapter has been drafted and a few mission trips are in the works.

Overwhelming response

The Epworth League central office is located at Rheingans’ “little country church” about 35 miles west of Milwaukee. Almost 1,000 people have signed up to be part of the movement since its Facebook page launched in May.

“So nice to join this beautiful community—a lot of wishes to you all … from Sanciai United Methodist Church in Lithuania,” writes Edgaras Arkauskas on the Epworth League Facebook page. The page also includes greetings from United Methodist young adults from Ghana, Finland and the Philippines as well as other countries and many states in the U.S.

“It's amazing to see how much the Epworth League has grown in such a short time and to see all who support it! God bless all who support this ministry! I am looking forward to seeing where God takes this!” writes Samantha Ruehi from Milwaukee.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Rheingans said.

“We are excited to have this growing out of the North Central Jurisdiction,” said the Rev. Carl Gladestone, an ordained deacon working with the Detroit Annual (regional) Conference and the United Methodist Division on Ministries with Young People.

“My great-grandfather was deeply involved in the Epworth League. We have a lot of old books with titles like, ‘How to be a successful church leader working with young people,’ written in the 1920s.”

Central to the community

The chapters will be focused on service, mission and community outreach – topics young adults are drawn to, Rheingans said. Two of the first programs chapters will offer will be tips on employment and parenting.

The leagues will be geared to the needs of communities.

“Its kinda hard for a person to find Christ when they don’t have food or can’t pay bills for the family. It is a little difficult to talk to them about Jesus when they are hungry or homeless,” Rheingans said.

The Epworth League central office will be working with Tentmakers, a Christian organization that has been training young adults for leadership for the past 30 years, to design a training program for college seniors. The seniors will be trained to start Epworth League chapters.

“Many young adults, especially in their early 20s, were involved in some kind of campus ministry program, Crusade for Christ, etc. Once they graduate there are not a lot of options,” Rheingans added.

This is not just a United Methodist problem; all churches are having difficulty attracting young adults to church, he said.

“The problem is overwhelming, it’s so huge. But look back at our roots. At one time we had a million young adults in programs at 10,000 churches around the world.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia writer for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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