Over two hundred years ago, a young man in a forgotten corner of England surveyed the state of his society and became determined to respond. Robert Raike was walking down St. Catherine’s Street in Gloucester when he spotted a little boy in a tattered blue shirt fighting with another boy half his size.
“Get your hands off me!” the little boy screamed as the two of them wrestled on the cobblestones. Soon a crowd of children had gathered around, jeering and taunting the fighters.
“Hey, stop fighting!” Robert shouted at them as he pulled the two boys apart. “Go home, all of you.”
As the children left one by one, Robert asked, “Who are these children?”
“Ah, pay no mind to them,” a local woman answered. “Everyone calls them the white slaves of England. They work twelve hours a day in the mills and sweatshops. Most of their parents are in prison or dead.”
Robert’s own father had died when he was younger. He could have been one of these poor children.
“When do they go to school?” he asked the woman.
“School? They don’t go to school. They have to work to live,” she answered.
This encounter birthed a seed of an idea in Raike’s mind. He was convinced that the church should reach out to these children.
Raike started the first Sunday School through his local church. His beginnings were humble. A motley group of destitute boys gathered for lessons every Sunday. The teachers were lay people from the church with no special qualifications.
Other church leaders responded with a mixture of astonishment and criticism. The Bible says nothing, they argued, about meeting the educational needs of the poor—especially on the Sabbath!
Despite this opposition, the idea began to catch on. Another Sunday School group started, then another—until the movement had spread all over England and then overseas, to the United States.
Within a few years, millions of children’s lives had been transformed by the Sunday School movement. At one point, almost every child in England and the United States attended Sunday School. Today, that number has dropped to less than five percent in the UK.
We urgently need a new church movement—a discipleship movement to reach the world’s most vulnerable children...
In seventy countries today, more than half of the population is less than twenty five years old. Forty-nine of those countries are in Africa, and the rest are scattered throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The two “youngest” countries are Niger and Uganda, where the median age is just fifteen years old. Ninety percent of the people in the world who are under the age of thirty live in so-called “developing” countries.
The vast majority of children and young people alive today are living in economically poor families and communities far removed from the world’s centres of wealth, power, and resources. These young people living at the margins are not a problem to solve or a burden to carry, but rather a tremendous source of hope and capability.
Rather than trying to fix the “problem” of so many young people at the margins, we might begin to partner with them as leaders and problem solvers. This partnership might usher in the Kingdom of God.
Business leaders and investors already recognize the immense potential of these young people as entrepreneurs, innovators, and consumers. The United Nations calls the youth of today “a new global power reshaping the world.”
They’re also asking a good question: “What can we do to unleash the creativity and potential of the largest youth cohort humanity has ever seen?”
Christians who believe in the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and want to live by his example need to be asking the same question in a different way.
What if young Christian "Alongsiders" in thousands of local churches around the world, accepted the call to love, mentor, and disciple one of the most vulnerable children in their own communities?
Those youth would stir up their local churches and become bearers of the gospel in their communities. As they grew in leadership, maturity, and integrity, others would follow their examples. Children and families would come to faith, and we could anticipate improved health and well-being for children, reductions in family violence and abuse, and increased cooperation between neighbours. Countless lives would be changed.
This may sound like a wildly speculative wish list, but it’s based in reality.
The first Alongsider movement began in Cambodia in 2003. Now, Alongsiders are being mobilized in a growing number of countries, and every movement starts with a simple, profound vision: Build a loving relationship with one vulnerable child from your own community and make a difference in his or her life.
Along with vulnerable children, the Alongsiders are being transformed as they become disciples of Jesus while serving and making disciples among the next generation. This holistic process is unique for each Alongsider, but the following are some general impacts:
1. They choose a lifestyle of love and compassion for another human being.
2. They develop important life skills as they cooperate with each other, with other members of the local church, and with parents and leaders to overcome barriers and solve problems.
3. They practise servant leadership and receive valuable training along the way, becoming leaders who are known by their love.
4. They begin a pattern of relational disciple-making that will last for the rest of their lives.
5. They find purpose and hope in being part of a movement that is changing lives in their church, community, and country.
The proverb, “It’s easier to bend a tree when it’s young,” suggests that the patterns and values that we practise when we’re young will last our entire lives. When young Christians become disciples of Jesus and disciple-makers, they’ll likely continue in the same pattern going forward. And in time, they’ll influence the direction and character of their local churches.
Change movements must be local
The Alongsiders movement has taken the following Cambodian proverb to heart:
“It takes a spider to repair its own web.”
Even if we had a really good set of tools, we would do better to let a spider repair its own web. In the same way, the answer to each community’s brokenness lies within the community itself, and the same is true for all nations. The key to real, lasting transformation is in the local people themselves as they discover and employ their own strengths, knowledge, and capabilities.
Sadly, in many cases, the last ones to affirm the capabilities of the “poor” and get out of their way (or join them) are those who have been tasked with helping them. Alongsiders live and serve in their own local communities, so they’re like spiders mending their own webs. They practise healing and restoration from within, and they inspire other local people to join together and do the same...
We want to be careful when we speak of movements and change. Consider the following pair of statements.
Alongsiders live in economically poor communities where time is often counted in seasons and years. Most of them, like their little brothers and sisters, are considered insignificant in the eyes of society. They’re farmers, labourers, vendors in roadside stands, and students riding bicycles to school. But once a week or more they each take time to build a relationship with their little brother or sister by studying for school, reading a lesson, doing chores, taking a walk, or going to church together.
Alongsiders International is working with partners who represent networks including anywhere from a dozen to literally thousands of local churches. With a strong vision and simple, reproducible systems, we’re ready to move quickly. It’s not hard to imagine Alongsiders movements starting in a rapidly growing number of countries and touching the lives of thousands of vulnerable children and youth in the coming months and years.
For many of us, the second statement is more stirring to read, even if we resonate with both of them. The second one communicates movement, tangible results, and a fast rate of change. But all of that depends entirely on the slowly forming relationships and mundane daily activities described in the first statement.
The second statement talks about “touching lives,” but the first one describes how lives are actually touched and changed by real people.
Most people reading this book live in a world in constant motion, and we’re used to things happening quickly, if not instantly, with a single click. Yet when we read the news, we encounter stories that never seem to change or go away: poverty, hunger, human exploitation, corruption, and greed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to eradicate even one of these problems?
Twelve years ago, a prominent economist wrote a book explaining how to end poverty within a lifetime. He was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of the year, captured the attention of Bono, and sold loads of books. But the end of poverty seems just as elusive today as it did then.
A few years later, a pair of authors whose book was much less widely read wrote in response:
Our world is captivated by speed. We want to abolish world hunger or solve the AIDS crisis in Africa. And we want to do it fast. To be valid, hope has to make the headlines, have sweeping ambitions, pack stadiums, make its way onto television or produce miracles and prosperity. Campaigns organize around grand promises of “Overcoming Violence” and “Ending Poverty.” Even Christianity’s growth is measured by numbers of people converted and churches planted. The faster all this happens, the better.”
We must consider how the talk of movements, the allure of speed, and the fascination with numbered results might lead us to act in ways that would undermine or overwhelm the slow, transforming work of Alongsiders at the local level. The movement belongs to them.
Perhaps it will help us to keep reading and reflecting on statements such as the following from an Alongsider who disciples a boy in his community,
"My little brother is starting to change in character. He is cleaner now. He never used to wash his hands before eating. I encouraged him to do that, because then he can stay healthy, study well, and improve his life. He tried to change, but it’s a slow process. It takes time for him to be aware, so that even if no one is looking he will take care of himself. I invited him to church, and he came to know Jesus. But I’m not sure if his heart has fully changed. What I do is to love him consistently, and I think he will come to understand the love of Jesus. It’s a process that takes time."
Up close, an Alongsider movement is human and ordinary. It takes time. One step forward is usually followed by another step forward—or sometimes a step back. This slow work may look like a waste of time and effort.
Jesus once said to his disciples, “Lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (Jn 4:35). The disciples looked around in confusion, because they hadn’t seen Jesus do anything or talk to anyone worth noticing. They only saw a Samaritan woman getting water and wasting Jesus’ time.
They didn’t see a movement coming, because they didn’t have eyes to see.
To read more about this unique discipleship movement and how it works, check out our new book, now available in ebook and printed version on Amazon.