Mykhailo Cherenkov is professor of theology at the Ukrainian Seminary of Evangelical Theology and the author of A Future and a Hope: Mission, Theological Education, and the Transformation of Post-Soviet Society (2014). He is also vice-president of the Association for Spiritual Renewal, which seeks to develop a “church without walls.” From this movement came Students Without Walls (SWW) – training the next generation to be society-changers for Christ. Spread now to 12 countries, it has impacted more than 700,000 people in its outreach.
What does “SWW” mean?
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. SWW 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.
What has changed for SWW since Russia invaded Ukraine?
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.
How has the persecution of Christians affected SWW?
Many of my friends, Evangelical church leaders, were kidnapped and tortured. Churches were seized, looted and burned. The largest risks are taken by Christian leaders remaining in captured territory and serving people there. As one Baptist pastor told me, “I can’t leave Donetsk, because my flock is here. We are helping people, feeding the hungry and continuing to hold services.” Meanwhile most of the largest churches in Donetsk have been seized by terrorists and turned into military bases.
Evangelical Christians in Eastern Ukraine feel that not only is Russia at war against Ukraine, but that the Russian Orthodox Church is at war against Evangelicals. The best-known case is when four leaders from an Evangelical church in Slavyansk were kidnapped directly from a worship service on Pentecost, then tortured and killed.
The most painful part of the conflict for me personally was the seizure of Donetsk Christian University, where I served as rector for the 2012-13 academic year. It now serves as a military base for separatists, and they are holding hostages there. At great risk of life the university staff were evacuated. The separatists hold nothing holy.
What can Christians in Canada and the U.S. do to support the work of SWW and Christians in Ukraine?
There is a great need for prayer for Ukraine and for believers there. Our nation relies on the Church for support, and this is a big test for the Ukrainian Church. Pray for spiritual renewal within our churches, that they can be a true support to our nation, and to promote reconciliation and peace. I want to emphasize that this is a fight not only for Ukraine, but for the entire fragile Eurasia region and for revival. Ukraine has sent thousands of missionaries and pastors into Russia alone. If we can defend Ukraine and bring about spiritual revival, it will multiply the influence by serving Europe, Russia, and the world.
What is the number one threat up ahead for SWW?
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. At the same time we also have a unique opportunity – to inspire every young Christian with the vision of SWW, 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.
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