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Schools Without Walls and the Local Church: A Model of Informal Leadership Training in Post-Soviet Countries

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Schools Without Walls and the Local Church:
A Model of Informal Leadership Training in Post-Soviet Countries

Schools Without Walls (SWW) began in 2004 as an experiment. The fact that this experiment has lasted six years and in that time as expanded geographically to cover ten former Soviet republics means that it can be considered successful, however its founders prefer to talk about movement and growth.

SWW arose as an attempt to offer a new, flexible format of training for new missionaries. It was preceded by a long-term project of the Association for Spiritual Renewal (ASR) holding a series of Church Planting Seminars (CPS). Over 5,000 missionaries were trained through CPS, who went on to plant thousands of churches. Therefore SWW has a history, which includes a number of zealous missionaries, but their number was limited. A decrease in investment in support for professional missionaries—those fully engaged in church-planting—led to an even greater decrease in their numbers. By 2002 it was clear that the CPS movement would not become a widespread missions vision for the younger generation, and also could not become self-financed—the newly-planted churches could not support their pastors or send out their own missionaries.

Given this situation, SWW offered a missions vision for church laymen. The success of this program helped both identify and prepare new missions leaders, and also rethink the essence of missions.

The CPS movement treated missionaries as unique ministry professionals. In SWW almost everyone becomes a missionary. Missions is now understood not as a specific type of work (involving going somewhere), but as a worldview and calling, which become, inescapably and naturally, the lifestyle of every Christian in relation to the surrounding world.

Thereby SWW has expanded the understanding of missions and the circle of those involved in it. This has helped churches not only send traditional missionaries, but also discover in themselves, in regular church life, a missional character, and take a proactive stance in its social and cultural surroundings.

SWW makes Christian education a part of Church life.
It has become common to hear that Christian education needs the Church, but one rarely hears that the Church needs Christian education. Yes, churches send members to study in Bible colleges and seminaries, and may even financially support some schools. That is probably why pastors speak from an elevated position about schools—as though they are in control of the human and financial resources which allow the schools to exist. But the Church can’t live in a vacuum either. The interdependence of various ministries has been instituted by God and is in accordance with human needs.

Educational institutions and programs help the Church prepare leaders and intellectual resources for ministry, form doctrine, and authoritatively defend the faith. Education will always present a challenge to the Church, her traditions, authority, and ministry format, but it is education which gives it the systematization and dynamism it needs.

SWW cultivates interest in education.
The system of Christian education in post-Soviet countries has undergone a difficult, though typical, evolution—from a fight for resources to a fight for people. Years have been invested in creating a physical infrastructure, but buildings empty quicker than their construction process can be completed. Those who wanted to study have finished their studies. Those in need of motivation to pursue studies haven’t received it.

With time, secular society has offered that which the Church couldn’t—a wide array of choices of various levels and types of educational services. In the beginning of the 1990s, sick of Soviet education, with its communist ideology and atheistic worldview, people longed for the alternative of religious education. However eventually it became clear that the quality of Christian schools did not meet the expectations of mature and motivated students. What’s even sadder is that Christian education couldn’t even compete with corrupt and technologically backwards public schools.

Disillusionment with Christian educational institutions led to a situation where there are no aspiring students, and those who have finished their studies find that there is no demand for the knowledge/skills they acquired.

In the big picture of Christian education SWW plays an educational and motivational role. SWW makes it possible to expand the pool of potential students for Christian schools, because it appeals to all youth, including those who never considered Christian education; it motivates the average young church-goer to study and prepare for active ministry. SWW provides an opportunity for practice for young teachers, seminary graduates, and missionaries. It brings together teacher and student resources which were hitherto unused in local churches.

SWW’s structure unites the Church, education, and missions.
SWW is unique in that it operates entirely within the Church. It grows from within the church situation and responds to her needs.

Students grow in the Church. Children and youth can be viewed as future students, missionaries, and pastors. An experienced church leader sees in them the future, but that future will not grow and develop on its own. If people were born leaders, there would be no need for education. However as far as we have seen, that is not the case.

In most churches there are young people with leadership potential, but they need encouragement, motivation, development of their talents, and to be armed with relevant knowledge and skills. Potential leaders need an education that can turn laymen into leaders.

Teachers also come from within the local church. Not always the same church as the students, but they are nearby, visible, accessible. The overlap between church life and ministry helps students and teachers create connections and relationships. Fellowship is not limited to within classroom walls, but continues in joint ministry. Therefore all teachers are selected by the local coordinator in accordance with the needs of the local church.

When the two-year SWW program finishes, graduates remain where they are and continue to serve in the local church while expanding her borders, influencing society, and serving those around them. Church leaders, coordinators, students, and graduates make up one big ministry team.

SWW’s relationships with churches help the Church, but also contribute to growth in SWW.
The reciprocity of the relationship between SWW and the local church can be expressed in terms of response and influence. SWW responds to the needs of churches, but also influences the creation of those needs, expectations, and opinions.

A recent study by Taras Dyatlik revealed a disconnect between the expectations of churches and educational projects. It turned out that a majority of schools and programs don’t meet the needs of pastors and their ideas of church-oriented education.

This raises many questions, but two stand out: first, to what degree are pastors’ opinions representative of the Church—how well do pastors understand the mission of the Church and its connection with education, as well as education itself as an intellectual sphere; and second, should educational programs be oriented towards the predominant opinion of them in churches, or should they influence that opinion through educational work and lobbying?

Discussion of these two questions hasn’t received much response, however a foundation has been laid at Institute for Excellence sessions in Minsk, Belarus in 2009 and Kiev, Ukraine in 2010.

Based on our experience with SWW I think it is safe to say that nowhere near all pastors of traditional post-Soviet churches understand the basis for and goals of Christian education, therefore orienting ourselves to their expectations would be inexcusably naive.

Pastors prefer to teach young people classes on “The History of the Ukrainian Baptist Union,” and “Introduction to the Old Testament,” as it allows them to control the situation and ensure that it is predictable. However open theological discussions, learning from the experience of successful youth clubs, internet evangelism, and ministry to at-risk groups seem dangerous, because they lead to change. In response to our offer to hold a seminar on ministry to the HIV-positive, one church council offered this response, “The Old Testament says that such people should be isolated. We don’t know if our church would even be able to help them, and they would definitely infect us.”

It’s clear that the opinions and expectations of churches need to be formed in partnership, dialogue, and mutual openness with educational institutions and programs. Otherwise a lack of commonality between the understandings and expectations of the two will remain unresolved.

SWW offers a balanced program, which treats church traditions, respect for the older generation, and learning from their wisdom and experience, as well as growth, innovation, and relevance to modern society with importance. These seminars for youth help the Church renew its vision and be more active and innovative in ministry.
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