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.