I don't often get the chance to watch tv on a Thursday evening, but last night I decided to watch what turned out to be a fascinating documentary on BBC4 about Sunday Schools in Britain.
Huw Edwards, who can be seen reading the news on BBC1 narrated the programme and interviewed some famous characters along the way, all of whom had been to Sunday School in their childhood. They included Lord Hattersley (a former deputy leader of the Labour party) and Anne Widdecombe.
The origins of what eventually became the Sunday School movement can be traced to an idea of Robert Raikes of Gloucester aimed at reducing anti-social behaviour caused by children. His plan was to take children off the streets on a Sunday and teach them basic literacy skills and Bible stories - reading, writing and redemption.
In its early years the movement grew rapidly but sometimes met with stiff opposition from the establishment because it empowered the poorer classes. A particularly difficult period was during the French revolution, as the ruling classes were afraid that Sunday Schools could help to spark the kind of revolution experienced in France - I know that seems hard to believe today!
During the 19th century and into the middle of the twentieth century millions of children attended Sunday Schools in Britain. In some towns thousands of children attended Sunday School; in Stockport at one time it was estimated that 6000 children were in attendance at Sunday Schools throughout the town.
What was really striking was how Christians with the gospel empowered thousands of children in 18th and 19th century Britain, children who spent the rest of the week working in factories or down the mines. It was also impressive that thousands of Christians invested time and energy in teaching sometimes quite unruly children. The social transformation that this helped bring about was duly noted in the programme.
Personally, I found the presentation thought provoking and challenging. Thought provoking, because it made me think "How can we engage masses of children and young people today?" We can't just do what was done fifty or one hundred and fifty years ago. But we can support projects like Lighthouse and ministries like Nomad / YFC, Kingdom Kids and Youth Club. If anything this BBC production reminded me just how important these kinds of ministries are - not just for the church but for the whole of our society.
And it reminded me what God can do when ordinary people, if anyone can ever be called "ordinary", decide to serve. He uses ordinary people, thousands of them, to do the work. Without armies of volunteers, society will remain more or less the way it is - or just get worse. All of you who volunteer play such a strategic part in what God is doing and will do in this nation.
It challenged me as well. Can we be bold enough to see answers to the social ills of our day? Do we believe that the gospel can still empower the powerless? I hope so. Society needs us to be bold believers.
So Thursday evening in front of the telly was well spent on this occasion! You can watch the programme on BBC iPlayer. You can access it by clicking this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00ccffw
If you do happen to watch it, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what Huw Edwards says at the end. Let me know what you think.