Unexpected Companions: Albert Kestin, the Question Master.

A young missionary called Albert Kestin was walking to Church one Sunday morning in 1900, when he came across a group of young people. At that time there was an expectation that all children would go to Sunday school. Kestin asked them why they weren’t there, to which they replied that they “didn’t like it, sir”.

At this Kestin asked would they go to a group that he ran? He would teach the scriptures and tell them about Jesus, he would make it fun and interesting, and what is more his landlady would provide tea?

Kestin had wanted to be a missionary no doubt with a great ambition of serving in faraway parts of the world, yet God’s call was to stay local and work with young people, which he was very gifted at. Nowadays there is some kudos in being a youth worker, but not then, indeed many would tell him that he was “wasting your time on Sunday school drop-outs”.

Kestin was obedient to the call on his doorstep and gave up the notions of serving on the other side of the world. Instead committing himself to seek to teach these young people in a fun, interactive way that could be applied to their everyday lives. The group grew and thrived and soon many other groups were formed, these groups were not Church based groups but working across Churches even in an interdenominational way. Sadly, even today (especially today?) Christians seem scared to work and serve together.

I would love to have been able to eaves drop on the lessons that Kestin had with the young people, they were clearly lots of fun and very popular, he managed to speak into the culture of the young people in a way they could understand -what of us, do we speak other people’s language or do we expect them to learn ours? Scripture challenges us that “one generation shall tell another the glories of the Lord” but have we learned to speak how the next generation can understand?

We talk of missionaries learning to do cross cultural mission in different countries but often we fail to realise that there is cross cultural mission to be done across generations too.

Thus, Crusaders was born, later to be called Urban Saints, which has reached many young people who previously had no real contact with the Church with the message of Jesus in a way young people can understand and respond too.

Is there anything more important with the work of the Church than to see the next generation rise up and take their place as followers of Jesus, even if they choose to live out their faith differently to us, we need to remember that the gospel is proclaimed afresh (not just again) in every generation.

This story made me ask some questions myself.

In this case the young people had tried Sunday School and not liked it, but for some people they have not rejected Jesus, or indeed Church, they have never experienced it and don’t even know that they would be welcome to come, I remember on one occasion someone asked me “would I be allowed to come to your Church?” The word “allowed” really challenged me, do people know they are wanted and welcome?

My colleague Peter in Kingswood was talking to two local ladies one asked the other “do you go to his Church?” “No” the other replied “because he never asked me?” Some people are waiting to be asked, I often think that often much of our evangelism looks like nervous year nine students asking one another to dance at the school disco, circling one another but never actually quite asking the other to dance! Bishop Lee of Swindon said: “Don’t say someone else’s ‘no’ for them”.
Kestin too knew the difference between style and substance, the young people hadn’t rejected Jesus -just as many young people today haven’t- but not heard about him in a way they could understand and respond too. Too often I hear people say “kids aren’t interested” which often really means “what we do and how we do it isn’t engaging with the young people”.

I noticed too that Kestin didn’t just set up a youth group with no Christian content in a religious building and hope somehow kids get converted by osmosis,, a classic case of adults getting too worried about kids being “in Church” but not worried enough about “knowing Jesus”.

Kestin, I believe started in the right place by asking a question, how often do we not ask questions because we already assume, we know the answer?

Too often in Churches we presume to know what people want, and often questions like “why are there no young families here” are answered by the opinionated people in the room with real grasp of what’s going on, Kestin chose to ask and listen to the right people.

Asking people why they don’t go to something might mean we hear feedback we might not want to hear, and what of us, have we ever given feedback where something awful is declared “lovely” (or we simply not to offend someone, but leaving them unaware of a potential problem?

Kestin, rather like Nehemiah in scripture, heard the problem and volunteered himself to be used by God in its solution, he could have just sympathised with the young people and said some encouraging words about Jesus and felt like he had “done his bit”, instead he grasped the opportunity and invited the young people to study the Bible with him, what of us, do we see the opportunities and grasp them with the boldness of Kestin?

Kestin had the young people in his home, and had his land lady fed them, which would have cost him money, and cost him time and energy too! Are we, am I, prepared to be inconvenienced for the gospel? Do we not seize the opportunities God has placed in front of us because we (wrongly) believe we are too busy? We are often reticent about engaging in things that are time consuming, expensive and require sacrifice -yet, I would suggest that this is because too often we have our priorities wrong and saying “no” to the things the Holy Spirit is calling us to and “yes” to the fruitless clutter Satan wants to fill our diary’s with! Someone once wrote that we miss most opportunities God sends us because they come in overalls and looks like work!

Kestin embodied a great verse that the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”.

Too often we think of the spiritual life of our nation with many thousands of people knowing little or nothing about Jesus as someone eases problem rather than realising that it is ours. We have a personal responsibility to make Jesus known in our day and our land.

We have a world where many are saying “I don’t want to go to Church” and not going but perhaps we can be creative and find different ways of exploring faith with people, asking them the questions of how to explore Jesus with them whilst building relationships rather than trying to get them into a Church building.
Kestin may have lived a long time ago, but the lessons he must teach us are often not grasped by us as Christians.


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