My interview to Judith M. Dinsmore, Christian Courier
What prompted the founders of SWW to start this organization ten years ago?
The idea of School Without Walls (SWW) arose in response to a crisis of leadership in missions. After the fall of the USSR, the missions movement was led by young leaders who showed initiative, pioneers of evangelism. They were not taught, but rather developed themselves. Therefore acted boldly and independently, but did not have the foresight to develop leadership training programs. With time the same faces showed up over and over again in ministry, while masses of young Christians were inert and uninvolved. We understood that we could not continue investing in the same people, no matter how good they were. We set ourselves the task of activating the youth of Evangelical churches, helping each young Christian discover his gift and his responsibility in fulfilling the Great Commission. In other words, SWW made mission a mass movement.
There was another need which SWW responded to. A majority of post-Soviet Christians were most comfortable within church walls and did not see their mission as being outside the church. SWW offered a new vision, not so much a vision of the local church but of the Kingdom – serving God in society, thereby transforming it.
What does SWW do differently from the traditional church to reach Ukraine’s youth? Why does it see the necessity to do outreach differently?
In contrast to traditional ideas of missions – “God is at work in our church, let’s invite people here,” SWW offers a new model: “God works not only within the church, but in society around us, let’s go out into society and transform it.”
For many churches, the name of this program was revolutionary. A school was only thought of as something that took place “within walls,” like a church. As the Communist leader Lenin believed, the church should be separate from the school, and both should be separate from society. Everything outside of the walls is enemy territory, dangerous ground, a risk zone and the kingdom of evil and sin.
School Without Walls changed the church’s perception of the outside world and helped its students see the missionary field, the needs of people and the opportunities to serve them outside of the church.
School Without Walls changed perceptions about school. The most important things were not a building, office, tests and grades, but live fellowship, discipleship, discussions, and innovative ideas that could be implemented.
Today SWW, ministry to the church and society, and Next Generation leaders have all become widely accepted concepts. In the past, we needed to fight for these concepts. Now these concepts are guiding the mission of the church.
About this time last year, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine. What has changed for SWW since that happened?
There is a real war going on in Ukraine, therefore normal life has been destroyed: people don’t think about studies, but about survival. Emotions are at a peak. Unfortunately, this war has divided post-Soviet peoples. In Russia many believers support Putin’s politics, therefore our opportunities for partnership with them are limited. But SWW students and graduates in Ukraine have a unique opportunity to serve their nation – hundreds of thousands of refugees, soldiers, orphans. Therefore I think I’m right to say that the war in Ukraine brought unprecedented openness to the Gospel and equally unprecedented activity among our students, who serve as volunteers.
This is a big challenge to churches in Ukraine and Russia – serving refugees, showing them love and sympathy regardless of political views. In both countries churches are involved in the ‘I Care’ project initiated by young Christian leaders. The program includes distributing food to those in need, organizing training seminars for pastors and volunteers, and offering counseling to those traumatized by the conflict.
We never thought that so many young people would be filled with a thirst to serve and work as volunteers bringing humanitarian aid. This has been a joyous revelation in such tragic days.
In the fall of 2014, churches and religious communities in Donetsk faced intense persecution. How did that affect SWW, and has more of that kind of persecution been occurring in Ukraine?
The events in Ukraine and various reactions to them are changing much in our ministry. It is difficult to find a common understanding among nations, groups and approaches. But we believe that SWW is forming leaders who can become peacemakers, who will tell the truth, and who will serve as an influential minority in their society, helping to transform it.
What is the number one threat that you see up ahead for SWW? The number one opportunity?
The greatest threat is the loss of vision. Many are capable of uniting around a vision, but not many are capable of developing a vision and uniting others around themselves. We don’t have enough purveyors of vision who can look to the future with faith and know how to lead behind them those who are lost, tired, and disillusioned. At the same time we also have a unique opportunity – to inspire every young Christian with the vision of School Without Walls (and also churches and missions without walls), so that they feel their own significance and belonging to the Great Commission. This is our greatest challenge and opportunity – to return to each his special place in God’s plan.
What can Christians in Canada and the U.S. do to support the work of SWW and Christians in Ukraine?
We would like to ask Christians in Canada to continue praying for our ministry of training and equiping the Next Generation of leaders for ministry and to also to consider supporting SWW financially as these young leaders trained through this program are now involved in providing much-needed relief aid to the growing refugee community in Ukraine.
We also invite Canadian Christian organizations to partner with us through SWW. We are very grateful to one of our partner ministries, The Gideons International in Canada, for helping to provide and distribute hundreds of thousands of copies of much-needed Scripture for Russia and Ukraine during the past year.
I very much hope that our Canadian brothers and sisters will see what is happening in Ukraine as part of a big, global war which affects everyone, and therefore must mobilize and bring together all Chrisitans for the sake of serving people and transforming the post-Soviet world.