A vibrant church in Iran has the potential to change the face of the entire Middle East. But the church in Iran has unique challenges that we must address. Indeed, three current challenges are creating a crisis for the Iranian church. Yes, a crisis!
Of course, these three challenges mean that there are also three opportunities for responding and correcting the problems. I want to visit the first of these crises and opportunities today, a crisis that is a bigger threat to the future of church in Iran than even the Islamic government.
Crisis 1: Shiite Christianity
The Church is growing, numerically, very fast in Iran. Operation World lists the annual growth rate at one new believer for every five existing. But the growth of leadership, training, and teaching is not keeping up.
Ninety-five percent of believers in Iran are isolated Christians. So out of an estimated 2 million Christians, only 50,000–100,000 are connected to a church of any kind, such as underground, online, or above the ground.
Many individuals are coming to Christ—evangelism is relatively easy—but congregations are few and weak. Don’t get me wrong—the Christians in Iran, as individuals, are strong. They are dedicated and hungry to know Jesus and walk with the Holy Spirit. But when they gather, they do not automatically form healthy congregations.
“Three current challenges are creating a crisis for the Iranian church.”
Iranians have no model for healthy, biblical community. They know how to relate to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, but they do not know how to relate to each other. With so many new believers and very few mature believers, there is nobody to teach and model such biblical relationships.
As a result, Iranian cultural values define their relationships instead—this is what I call “Shiite Christianity.” Shiite Christianity is a bigger threat to the future of church in Iran than even the Islamic government of Iran.
How Christianity in Iran Becomes “Shiite Christianity”
When Islam invaded Iran, it was Sunni Islam. But Sunni Islam did not suit Persians well, a people long known for their emotional poetry; it lacked any emphasis on emotional experience. So they adapted Islam to fit their culture. They invented what is now known as Shiite Islam.
“Shiite Christianity is a bigger threat to the future of church in Iran than even the Islamic government of Iran.”
Iranians are doing the same thing, unconsciously, with Christianity. Here are some of the symptoms of the influence of the Iranian culture on the church:
- Overdependent on emotions. The good news is that Shiite Muslims already value emotional experience, and so they crave experience with God—a relationship. Praise God! Allah does not give them this, but Jesus does. Lives are often changed in dramatic ways for individuals and families.But Iranian Christians can become too dependent on emotions and experience, and this overdependence can be very dangerous. Without Bible knowledge, these Christians can be easily deceived since they don’t know how to discern between the Holy Spirit and a demonic spirit.
- Dictator Leadership. For Iranians, Allah is a dictator. The government is a dictator. Even family structures are authoritarian. So when Iranians form a congregation, they know no other form of leadership. Dictator leadership seems normal and feels natural to not only the leaders but also most of the people in the congregation. Servant-leadership, on the other hand, is a mystery to them. Most Iranians view servant-leadership as “weak leadership” and do not heed to it.When dictator leadership combines with a lack of Bible knowledge, all sorts of heresy can slip in. The result is often a cult rather than Christianity. There are many cults in Iran—some are imported and some are homegrown—but they are growing fast.
- Reactionary Individualism. After lifetimes of submitting to authority—often cruel authority—some Iranians become reactionary to any authority. Instead of submitting to one another in the Spirit (Eph. 5:21), they claim the presence of the Holy Spirit means they have no need to submit to or respect the teaching of pastors and leaders. This individualism makes leading and fostering unity even more difficult. There are many divisions among the believers in the few congregations that exist.
Opportunity 1: Using Media to Help Grow a Healthy Iranian Church
While a vibrant church in Iran has the potential to change the entire Middle East, a poorly trained church might end up creating more lasting damage for spreading the gospel in the region than no church at all.
This is why I have been working many years now not just to spread the gospel but to grow healthy Christian communities and transformed, mature believers.
The good thing about the media is that you don’t just tell but you can also show. The opportunity here is for us to model Christ-like community and servant-leadership while providing sound biblical teaching.
The Islamic government of Iran has outlawed any gathering of Christians and sentences those who gather in homes to long jail sentences. Under these circumstances, there is no other way to enter the homes of Christians and help them except through media.
Here are just some of the benefits of using media:
- Media gives isolated Christians continuous access to comprehensive, sound Bible teaching.
- Media makes available the virtual modeling of Christian community and servant-leadership in places where the infant church has been driven underground.
- Media has the power to touch and change culture—for better or worse.
Four years ago I started a global church called “Church 7” as a response to Shiite Christianity. By connecting believers across the globe and modeling what a community of Christians should look like through weekly worship services and live programs, Church 7 goes beyond teaching individuals. It helps point to the kind of loving community that Jesus meant His Church to be.
Join Me to Make Lasting Change for a Healthy Church in Iran
The challenge of Shiite culture changing the Iranian church is a huge one, but the opportunity for the Iranian church to change Shiite culture is just as big.
The time is now to make a lasting difference for the growing Church in Iran. I hope you will join me in praying and working for the expansion of God’s Kingdom in Iran and the whole Middle East “…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13, NIV).
If you want to know more about how Church 7 is changing lives, text “IRAN” to 74784 to receive more information and video links.