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The Epiphany of Robert Raikes.

Robert Raikes was a Philanthropist, he was trying to transform society, most notably through prison reform, and yet he saw people re-offending and cycles of poverty and poor choices reoccur again and again. One day he felt utterly deflated by the whole thing, and slumped into a chair in his study. Something caught his attention out of the window. It was a young child just hanging around in the street. For Raikes it was something of an epiphany, for at that moment he realised that he had been trying to change an established culture with people who had deeply ingrained learned behaviour was flawed and the cycles he wanted to see broken were being perpetuated. Looking at the child in the street he realised that God was talking to him about the power and fruitfulness of
early intervention, starting with children and given them opportunities to enable, equip and empower them to make different choices and to break those cycles of behaviour and bad decisions.

One of my favourite quotes comes from Desmond Tutu “We need to stop just pulling people out of the water. We need to go up stream and find out why they are falling in”. Too often we end up treating the symptom rather than the cause, dealing with the “drowning in the water” rather intervening earlier -‘swimming up river’-and working with young people helping them to navigate their lives and not end up drowning in the river.

Education Raikes realised could be this early intervention, and the key to social mobility, transforming lives and communities. To change a nation meant investing in its future, its next generation, it’s children and young people.

Perhaps that is why the last labour governments pledged their priorities in 1997 to be “Education, Education and Education?” as that sought to rebuild Britain and thousands lifted from poverty, crime, exploitation and dependency culture.

More recently in 2013 the world was horrified as a Taliban gunman shot 15 year old Malala Yousafzai in the head, her ‘crime’ wanting to go to school and believing girls had the right to education; saying “we know terrorists are afraid of the power of education”.

We, in the affluent West take universal education for granted, but back in the time of Robert Raikes it was a privilege only a few of the wealthier people could afford.

Educating young people –most of whom were illiterate-, Raikes realised, held the capacity to break the stronghold of poverty, crime, exploitation, addiction and dysfunctional lives.

Yet, how was he to reach and educate the marginalised and disenfranchised young people of his city? Many worked long hours in the mills, pits and factories for six days a week. “We will do it on a Sunday!” Raikes suggested “a school on a Sunday!”

So, Robert Raikes began to pioneer Sunday Schools starting his first one in Gloucester in 1780. Although not actually the first to start one, that was started by Hannah Ball, a protégé of John Wesley, in 1769. Yet Raikes managed to enable other people to catch this vision for education and by 1831 1’250’000 children were in Sunday school, nearly 25% of the population. The children were taught to read, write, do arithmetic and learn the good news, love and salvation of Jesus. Raikes and this movement had its detractors, some said that Raikes was ‘desecrating the Sabbath’ others called the schools disparagingly ‘ragged schools’ yet this did little to stop the growth and expansion of this work.

This revolution quietly changed the western world, eventually every child in this country had the right to an education, and universal education is now seen and understood as a human right rather than a privilege of the affluent, through this many people were able to have many opportunities previously denied to them,

Yet, more than just “up skilling” the future countries work-force the schools the spiritual effect cannot be underestimated, where many children came to a real and personal faith in Christ for themselves, people thought seriously about discipleship and how to pass on spiritual truth, rather than just assuming that people ought to know them. The school system did much to take the message of Christ out of the domain of the upper-middle class and into the lives of ordinary people.

Although as a young person I hated my time at school with a passion, it is ironic that I have spent the last twenty five years or so of my working life regularly working in schools both offering pastoral care, running “Big Questions Clubs’ and “Christian Unions”, taking RE lessons and leading assemblies. Seeking to enable young people to hear this message of hope and salvation which I have found to be utterly life transformational.

Often our Churches reach a small percentage of the children and young people of our nation, but nearly all of them will go to a local school, and as part of their school life there is a legal requirement for them to learn about Christianity, and explore what they think about the great questions of life like “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “What am I worth?” “What is true?” or “What really matters?”

As I thought of the beginning of this revolutionary story and wish that many Christians in this country could have the same epiphany as Raikes, realising the importance of children and young people in reaching and transforming this nation for Christ.

When I was a Vicar I used to talk about my desire for their to be an active and fruitful church within the community for our children and grandchildren to be a part of, we are called to pass on the batton to the next generation faithfully, as the psalmist says “one generation shall tell another of the goodness of the Lord”.

People used to regularly ask my vision when I was a Vicar, to which I used to reply “redundancy!” that other people –the next generation- are able to do all that I do (and better and more effective than me) and are actively living and serving Christ in all that they do.

Yet, sadly, Church has become so consumeristic that despite seventy five percent of people who choose to follow Christ do so before their twenty fifth birthday only a fraction of Church resources are spent on this age group; many Churches have no youth and children’s work and no intention of starting any. Even Churches with youth and children’s work struggle to find enough volunteers to sustain it, I have seen several fruitful works close not because of the lack of interest from young people, but too few Christians prepared to serve in this way.

Too rarely do Churches realise that their most valueable resource is often sat on the back row of Church and is often ignored and over-looked. Yet, how can we raise the leaders of tomorrow if they are not members of the Church of today?

What of the young people we already have within our congregations? Often they are treated like a remanant that needs babysitting and wrapping in cotton-wool rather than being equipped, empowered and enabled to be indiginious evangelists to their peers.

So, perhaps, like Robert Raikes, we need to stop what we are doing, take a look out the window, and hear and heed the voice of God that could well be calling us to swim upstream and seeing things differently, perhaps starting in a different place, with another age group as God gives us the keys to transforming this nation for him.

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Where is your Aldergate Street?

I was pretty lost, somehow I was near the Barbican theatre, I was trying to work out where a tube was that would take me back into central London from there I could get to my next appointment. I was starting to get a little stressed and annoyed as the little maps by the side of the road never quite give enough information. I looked up and saw the road name of the street I was on, it was “Aldergate Street” it took me a moment to work out why this road was familiar.

It was 28 Aldergate Street where a group of Moravian Christians were meeting on the 24th May 1738, amongst this group of Christians was the pious young clergyman John Wesley. Wesley was someone who was striving to be holy, working hard at being pure in character and conscientious in his acts of service, and yet he never felt he could do enough to please God, this sense of condemnation weighed heavily upon his shoulders. Yet this evening Wesley heard someone reading the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, which was transformative for Wesley, as he described his heart being “strangely warmed” as he sat listening.

The Holy Spirit at that moment did something beautiful in Wesley, in this moment of heart-warming Wesley realised the full sufficiency of Christ’s redeeming work upon the cross for his salvation, and that it was an unearned grace gifted to Wesley by the extravagance of God’s generosity.

Something of the presence of God within us changes us, God wanting to be encountered by his people, the psalmist grasped something of this when he wrote “better is one day in your courts that a thousand elsewhere”. Moses understood this too, as he and the people of Israel are permitted by God to enter the promised land, but God says that he would not go with them, Moses refuses to budge saying (something to the effect of) if your presence does not go with us then everything is pointless and purposeless.

What of us? Do we have our own ‘Aldergate Street’ -those places where we can say we met with and encountered God? Have we had that heart-warming moment where we have come to understand who we are in Christ, the good news of grace, the liberation that brings us from trying to be good enough (or achieve enough) for God? Perhaps we had a significant moment like Wesley that was a ‘Damascus Road’ moment like Paul, or perhaps you’ve had a much more gradual journey like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who slowly begin to realise that Jesus is walking with them? Whichever is true for you, the important thing is that you know, understand and have accepted God’s love and grace for you, and the free gift of forgiveness, his spirit and eternal life he wants to give to you.

I am often asked to talk about Evangelism and mission at various events and one of my standard questions I ask is “would you trust a skinny chef?” Would you want to eat food cooked by someone who did not like to eat? –I know I would not! I remember once using the unfortunate expression: “We need to be selling what we are smoking!”

As I thought of Wesley, his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ but he lived out a life ablaze for God, sometimes we have stories and experiences that we share but somehow as we live our normal everyday lives something of this encounter gets lost amid everything else.

This moment of his heart being ‘strangely warmed’ was the moment that propelled Wesley with a zeal and passion to tell as many people as possible of the grace of God through Jesus. I believe that something changed here, Wesley no longer thought of himself as a servant of God trying to earn his favour; instead he knew he was loved, accepted, forgiven by God through Christ.

The amazing good news of the Gospel is not that we can learn about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but we can actually know this God personally in our everyday reality of our daily lives.

Wesley’s understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit was changed too, understanding something of God’s power in his presence, much of Wesley’s later evangelism was accompanied by signs and wonders, of people falling prostrate to the floor when the spirit came (indeed, he used to urge people not to sit up in the trees to listen to him as he did not what them to fall out when the Holy Spirit began to move amongst them).

Without Wesley’s encounter at Aldergate Street he would have never come to preach on Hanham Mount, would have never begun his itinerant preaching ministry, and this nation would not have been changed and transformed.

Yet Wesley would not have been in Aldergate Street at all, if he had not been profoundly challenged by the faith of the Moravian Christians on the boat to America amid a fierce storm where they were at peace when everyone else thought they were going to die.

The Moravians were a group of people who lived on the land of Count Zinzendorf who was saddened to hear of his tenants squabbling, and so got the people in his villages to pray, taking it in turns to do ‘shifts’ or ‘watches’ of unbroken prayer, which lasted for one hundred years, the worlds longest prayer meeting (which the 24-7 prayer movement cite as one of their inspirations). I believe that the amazing fruit of Wesley, Whitefield, John Cennick (whose often called ‘the forgotten evangelist’) preaching and Church-planting-revival=movements both here and across the world has its roots in the prayers of this amazing and faithful community.

As I long to see this nation transformed for Jesus I realise I am standing on a significant street, but in one way this street is pretty ordinary too, and then I realise that anywhere can become a significant place. It was a place where Wesley was open and God met with him.

What of us? Are we in that place where we can meet with God? Are we in that place whereby we are expectant of life transforming encounter? Are we prepared to move from the place of receiving a blessing to the place whereby we can become a blessing?

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