MINUSINSK, Russia - Twenty years ago, the fall of Communism in Russia ushered a new era of religious freedom.
Christianity, once banned by the Soviet authorities, began to flourish.
Since then, Russian Ministries' Schools Without Walls has focused on reaching the next generation of Christians to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
SWW is the largest network of informal schools in the former Soviet Union, with nearly 2,400 students in 65 schools across nine countries.
Reaching the Children
On a small hillside village some 2,500 miles southeast of Moscow, 15-year-old Vanya Zakharov and dozens of orphaned children watch presentations of Bible stories through drama and music.
"My parents abandoned me when I was six," Vanya said. "I've been here for nine years and I've kind of gotten used to it."
The lessons are put on by missionary Mordvinova Svetlana and a team of Russian and Moldovan Christians with Russian Ministries.
"We focus on children because they are the future of this country. This is also one way for us to get real hands on experience in the field," Svetlana said.
"The key is to recruit young people," Pastor Bulychev Ivan added.
Ivan leads the First Baptist Church of Minusinsk in Minusinsk, Russia. For the last few years he's used his church as a SWW location to recruit, teach, and prepare youth for full-time ministry.
"Each year hundreds of people across Russia and in neighboring countries enroll in a two-year (SWW) program on how to be effective communicators of the gospel message," he explained.
Last year, more than 2,000 students from over 250 churches in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan enrolled in the classes.
"Sharing the Gospel in Russia is not easy," explained Mykhailo Cherenkov of Russian Ministries. "Sure, it has became easier since the fall of Communism. But now so many people are obsessed with materialism and making money that they don't have time to focus on spiritual matters."
"So our main focus is to motivate young people for active ministry to go out share their faith in the culture," Cherenkov added.
Vera Vasilikova, 19, is among those enrolled in Schools Without Walls. When she's not in class she joins other classmates involved in evangelistic outreach.
"Schools Without Walls helps me to articulate my faith," Vasilikova said. "I used to be scared about sharing the gospel with others. Not anymore."
"The classes give us the theological foundation," Nastya Tumankina, another student, added. "The outreach ministries provide the practical training."
Remembering the Past
On a recent Thursday morning, SWW students in Minusinsk performed a musical at an area high school.
"I'm not a Christian, but the message was very encouraging," said Gurkova Elena, principle of the Arts School of Karatuz. "Our young people deal with a lot of challenges like drugs, sex, alcohol. The Christian values these young people bring are good and should be shared more often in our schools."
Pastor Bulychev said he wants his students to remember and learn from Russian Christians who sacrificed their lives in the early days to see the gospel preached throughout the land.
On October 29, 1937, twenty-two Christian pastors were executed by KGB officers in Minusinsk.
"Those pastors sacrificed their lives for Jesus. They are the seed bed of the church," Bulychev said. "Our youngsters know that the baton of faith has been passed down to them."
Today across the former Soviet Union, young people like those at Schools Without Walls are rising to the challenge and willing to spread the gospel in the region.
Sergey Rakhuba is president of Russian Ministries. Rakhuba spoke with CBN News Sr. International Correspondent George Thomas on the impact that the Schools Without Walls program is having on the next generation of Russian Christian leaders. Click play below to watch.