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. But today, that number has dropped to less than five percent in the UK.
Now, we need a new church movement—a discipleship movement to reach the world’s most vulnerable children all over again. In every crisis, there’s an opportunity. Young people want change, and the good news is the Kingdom of God is here! What if we equipped and released a wave of young Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ, the greatest change-maker in history? Imagine what they might do and become!
Minea, who is thirteen years old, lives in a poor community just outside one of the major tourist cities in Cambodia. She has an easy smile and a gentle manner, but one of her eyes is dull with a red tinge. Years ago, her brother was playing with a knife and threw it across the room. The spinning blade flew at Minea, and she’s had one good eye ever since.
Minea’s family has always been a place of turmoil and even violence. Her parents were constantly fighting and hurling abuse at one another and at Minea and her siblings. But a little over a year ago, Saron, an eighteen-year-old Alongsider from a local church, became a mentor or “big sister” for Minea. Saron says she chose Minea as her little sister because “She was just like me.” Saron grew up with similar conflict and abuse in her own family, and so she wanted to walk alongside Minea. Saron and Minea meet together once a week. They read a comic-style discipleship lesson that’s distributed to Alongsiders, and then they talk about the lesson, along with many other things. Minea says she feels stronger since Saron came into her life, and she is learning about Jesus and his love. Minea’s parents have mostly stopped their fighting and abusive behaviour since Saron’s pastor and other members of her church began visiting their home. They’ve begun to put their trust in Jesus, and they’re learning to forgive and deal with their anger in healthy ways. Through Saron, her church community, and God’s Spirit of love and mercy, a wonderful change is beginning in Minea’s family. This is a special sign of hope for Saron, because her own parents haven’t yet come to faith or stopped their fighting and abuse.
Discipling one child, or even transforming one family, may not seem like much if you’re comparing numbers from a distance, but it’s very significant for Saron, Minea, and the church members who know them. These stories inspire our vision. If this one family in Cambodia can change, the whole world can change! Saron is one of hundreds of Alongsiders in Cambodia, and thousands more around the world. A group of Alongsiders meet at her church, and every year they attend a camp at Shalom Valley campsite with Alongsiders from other regions of the country. Saron is part of a bigger story now, and so is Minea. One day Minea may become an Alongsider and disciple another young girl in the same way.
In almost every church, we now see a Sunday School. Why not an Alongsiders group in every church? In fact, there are now Alongsiders discipleship movements reaching children in 16 countries across Asia and Africa. After all, the call to make disciples is central to the calling of Christians everywhere. Today, youth and children across the non-Western world are becoming disciples of Jesus and disciple-makers. Lives are changing. Families are changing. The movement is brewing as Alongsiders are slowly but surely building relationships that can change the world. Join the movement and let us walk alongside those who walk alone.
Craig and Nay Greenfield are the founders of Alongsiders International, they are missionary partners with Covenant Presbyterian Church in Manurewa, where Nay grew up and was discipled by many faithful “Alongsiders”.
For more information about the Alongsiders, get in touch with is at the FIG and we can put you in touch with Craig and Nay.