Shiite Christianity in Iran

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Challenges and Opportunities for the Iranian Church

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.

medium_do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-deity“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

Solitary Christianity: We Must Awake and Arm the Sleeping Giant of Iran

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Challenges and Opportunities for the Iranian Church

In December 2017, I began a series about the three unique challenges that are creating a crisis for the church in Iran and the three opportunities we have as a Church to address this crisis. This article is the second challenge in that series.

What challenges are causing this crisis for the Iranian church?

The first challenge is Shiite Christianity. Without intervention, the Iranian church will allow Shiite cultural behavior norms to destroy the developing Christian community and the church’s witness. As individuals, Iranian Muslim background believers are very passionate about their faith and very grateful for their salvation. However, they have no knowledge nor experience of a vibrant Christian community. They need to be taught biblical principles for Christian fellowship because they have never before encountered fellowship in this manner.

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At least 9 out of every 10 Christian live between the walls of their homes and apartments feeling small and powerless, not knowing that in truth they are one part of many making up Iran’s sleeping giant—the church.

The second challenge is Solitary Christianity. At least 9 out of every 10 Christians in Iran have no Christian fellowship or live connection with other known believers. They are alone. They have no models, no mentors, and no support. They live between the walls of their homes and apartments feeling small and powerless, not knowing that in truth they are one part of many making up Iran’s sleeping giant—the church.

How and Why the Church Got Put in Such Isolation

Did you know that the history of Christianity in Iran goes back to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9)? Yes, Parthians, Medes, and Elamites were all residents of Persia. Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians formed some of the earliest churches, and Armenian Christians joined them in the early 17th century, settling deep in Iran. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Protestant missionaries arrived in Iran and began evangelizing the ethnic Persian Muslim community. But growth was very slow.

At the time of Islamic revolution in 1979, there were more than 500,000 Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Most have left Iran since then and that number is currently less than 100,000. However, during the same time span, the number of Muslim background believers (MBB) has gone from less than 500 in 1979 to an estimated 1–3 million today. Today there are no churches in Iran where MBB’s can attend. There are a few Assyrian and Armenian churches left, but they are forced to worship in their own language and are forbidden to allow any MBB in their midst.

In the last 40 years, the number of MBB’s has exploded, creating unprecedented growth of the Christian population and one of the highest growth rates of Christianity in the world. This tremendous growth has occurred despite the government forbidding conversion from Islam to Christianity and responding with arrests, torture, and death. This growth has threatened Iran’s Islamic government and has caused them to persecute MBB’s out of fear.

The number of Muslim background believers (MBB) has gone from less than 500 in 1979 to an estimated 1–3 million today.

How many MBB’s are in Iran? The most conservative number is around 400,000. Many concede that a more accurate estimate is more than 1 million Christians, with a majority being MBB. My experience and close work with Persians in Iran—and recent events that have contributed to yet another explosion in conversions—tells me that the real number sits easily somewhere between 2 and 3 million. Our underground house church leaders put the estimate even higher.

The reaction of the Islamic government fits with this higher number. They are scared that their oppression tactics are not reducing or even slowing the growth of MBB Christians.

In 2013, the government tried to stomp out the threat by quarantining individuals. They imprisoned many pastors, forced the rest to flee the country, locked the doors to every Farsi-speaking church, and banned and burned Persian Bibles. Evangelism is illegal, gathering in public places is illegal, gathering at home is illegal, reading the Bible is illegal, and Christians continue to be persecuted, tortured, and sometimes killed.

The Islamic regime intends to stop, silence, and suppress any expression of Christianity that might seduce the growing masses of Muslims disillusioned with Islam.

The Resulting Challenge

The result is that 95 percent of Iranian Christians live in isolation from one another just as if they were imprisoned in solitary cells in their homes. They hunger for the bread of life that comes from the Word; they thirst for the connection in the Spirit with other believers. But they worship and pray alone.

The result is that 95 percent of Iranian Christians live in isolation from one another just as if they were imprisoned in solitary cells in their homes.

Without connections and resources, they are immature in their knowledge yet supernaturally hungry for spiritual truth and growth. Unlike a large portion of the Church in the West that is content with spiritual immaturity, the number one request we receive daily from these Christians is “train us, teach us, equip us!” They want to pour out their lives for the One who saved them. But they don’t know how or where to start.

If no one steps in to help them, the Islamic government’s tactic of separation will succeed. Alone, these Christians are allowing their witness and supernatural gifts to stay hidden, asleep.

The Opportunity: Wake and Arm the Sleeping Giant

What would happen if we could encourage, equip, and mobilize this “sleeping giant” church throughout the country? Two to three million believers throughout Iran who are ready to be salt and light and share the gospel would impact families, friends, neighbors, and all people in their circle of influence in astonishing numbers.

This opportunity is why we have started the 412 School of Ministry (based on Eph 4: 12—equipping the saints for the work of ministry) in 2018, to equip and train Iranian Christians so they can multiply and mobilize others. This need is why we responded to the December 2017 and early January protests with nightly, live prime-time broadcasts. We shared God’s message of love to a hurting nation and showed believers how they could reach out to the people around them during this time with the gospel.

The number one request we receive daily from these Christians in Iran is “train us, teach us, equip us!”

We have already started to see results from work we are doing to encourage and equip these Christians. Almost every week we hear testimonies of how Persian Christians have found ways to share their faith and bring others to Jesus. By watching us, they learn how to witness.

But we cannot awake this sleeping giant alone, nor arm it fully with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and the sword of the Spirit without the help of the larger Church body (Eph 6:14–17).

We need the Church to work together on a larger scale, to reach out to the Iranian church with us, helping them learn to give and serve according to their gifting.

We need your help!

In addition to your prayers and your financial support, we need you to join us according to your gifting and calling. Others like Jack Graham, Pete Briscoe, Bill Hybels, and Michael Yusef already partner with us to broadcast their teaching in Iran and surrounding countries. Would you consider joining them and us?

You do not need to know Farsi to help us make good discipleship, theology, and Bible training available to Persians. We have resources for great-quality voice-over translations. We match the translation voice personality with the teacher’s mannerisms, tone, and passion. And we add subtitles when needed. We just need willing teachers and preachers with a heart for Iran.

We need teachers to record broadcasts and courses, and we also need technology specialists that can help us establish our online school. How are you gifted? Can you help with internet administration? Graphic design? Production? Course administration?

We need teachers to record broadcasts and courses, and we also need technology specialists that can help us establish our online school.

The task is enormous, but God has called us to it. Will you help us accomplish what he has asked of us?

The Church claimed Iran in the first century but was squeezed out. Now it’s time that God will set his throne in Elam (ancient Persia) and restore her fortunes (Jer 49:38–39). This time, if we equip her well, the Church will not only remain in Iran, it will spread and impact the whole Middle East and even the world. This is the pattern we are seeing.

Iran is the Muslim nation most open to the gospel. Iranians are hungry and coming to the Lord by the many. Even whole families at once! And Iran is positioned across the Middle East so that changes in Iran will affect the entire region.

Don’t miss this opportunity. Help us awaken and arm the sleeping giant. Help us equip an army of isolated Persian saints who want to bring light to the rest of the world.

I thank you for answering the call.

If the Lord is prompting to respond or inquire, you can contact me at hormoz@IranAliveMinistries.org or (469) 982-0000, or text “Iran” to 74784 for more information.

Starving Christianity: Hungry for the Word of God

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Challenges and Opportunities for the Iranian Church

God is moving in Iran, bringing Muslims to faith in him at a higher rate than in any other Muslim nation. A vibrant church in Iran has the potential to change the face of the entire Middle East. But the church is heading toward a crisis.

In this series, I am writing about the three challenges that threaten the future of the church in Iran even more than the Islamic government. We have discussed the challenges of Shiite Christianity and Solitary Christianity. This third challenge—a growing crisis—threatens to uproot the foundation of the Iranian church.

Crisis 3: Starving Christianity

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Christians in Iran are starving for systematic truth and resources. They are passionate for Jesus and the Word of God. But the building churches are closed. Pastors and church leaders have been forced out of Iran. And the government makes it difficult to gather or talk to others openly.

The vacuum of mature teachers and experienced elders is a growing crisis for the 2 to 3 million believers that make up the Iranian church.

In America, amazing preachers and resources are everywhere. It is like a banquet table has been set for guests and filled with a feast made by top chefs. But few come. Few are hungry.

In Iran, Christians are so hungry for teaching about God’s Word that they fight for any dried-out bread crust they come across. They want it and they flock to it. But their table is empty—or worse—it’s filled with unwholesome imposters posing as real food.

In Iran, Christians are so hungry for teaching about God’s Word that they fight for any dried-out bread crust they come across.

Where can these new Christians go to find mature, faithful answers to their questions? Who will help them understand the whole counsel of God and separate what Islam has taught them from what God reveals in his Word?

Many wolves in sheep’s clothing are already stepping in, pretending to teach Christianity when they are really teaching something else. The church must make a move now to build a strong and deep foundation in Iran. Too much in the whole Middle East depends on it.

What Has Caused This Challenge?

As I mentioned in part two of this series, the Islamic government of Iran closed the doors to the building churches in 2013 and made it illegal to gather in homes. They also arrested a few key pastors and church leaders.

These arrests were no simple show of force but a distinct strategy to force all Christian leaders out of Iran. Avoiding persecution of high-profile leaders that might cause a worldwide outcry and pushback, they arrested lesser-known leaders instead and charged them with heavy offenses that carried long-term jail sentences. For others, after interrogations, they released the pastors, telling them to show up the following month for another court date and interrogation. And then they handed the leaders their passport. The message was clear: leave now or spend your life in jail.

They threatened a few pastors so that they could push all the leaders out through fear. If any Christian leader tries to go back to Iran now, they are arrested and charged. So all the mature, experienced leaders have been pushed out of Iran by force.

This purging has left the 2 to 3 million children of the faith without elders, pastors, or teachers that truly know the Bible. They are young and thirsty.

This purging has left the 2 to 3 million children of the faith without elders, pastors, or teachers that truly know the Bible.

The Immediate Danger: Cults

These Christians have so much passion—much more passion than many in the West who have good resources at their fingertips—but without biblical knowledge to have discernment, and without elders to guide them. The Bible is very new to them. They search out resources online and wherever else they can, but like hungry children who put everything in their mouths, they sometimes have difficulty knowing the difference between orthodox truth and cult heresy. How can they know what to eat unless someone older in the faith helps them?

Paul and the First-Century Church

This problem is very similar to the problem Paul faced with the first-century church. Despite opposition, the church continued to grow and spread quickly. The new Christians had only a few teachers and the Hebrew Bible. Gentiles often had neither the Hebrew Bible nor any background to understand God’s true nature. They were used to what they knew: capricious Greek and Roman gods and the type of worship those gods demanded.

In other words, they were very much like Muslim background believers who need to learn all over again the true nature of God and how he desires us to know him and worship him.

So what do we see over and over again in Paul’s letters to the churches? He warned them of cults (e.g., Acts 20:28–30; Rom 16:17). He had to explain how their cultural behavior and misunderstandings failed to fit with God’s Word and God’s standard (e.g., 1 John 4:1–3). He had to explain again and again who this Jesus was and what his followers should know to be true about God’s nature and their own salvation. He had to help them put together all the pieces of faith and knowledge and understand them systematically (e.g., 1Pet 1:18; Rom 5, 6).

Paul turned to the prevailing tool of the day to counter the rise of cults and the misunderstandings of the faith: he used high-tech media. Yes! At that time, the most advanced media was writing letters and passing them from city to city and village to village for believers to study and copy down. Today, media looks like social media apps, satellite TV, and the internet.

Opportunity 3: A Bible School through Today’s Media

The advances of technology mean that many Iranians do have access to some form of digital Bible that they can download and even pass on to others. But we cannot stop there and say, “They have God’s Word in their language. That’s all they need.”

If the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, who was likely a Jewish proselyte, needed Phillip to explain how Isaiah 53 shows Jesus coming as a suffering servant, how much do more Muslims—people who have been fed much misinformation about Jesus—need a Phillip to explain the Bible systematically?

Social media, satellite TV programs, and all kind of internet resources—this technology is a huge opportunity for the church to reach out to believers in Iran and help them mature in Christ.

The 412 School of Ministry

That is why we are using the best high-tech media we can to create an online 412 School of Ministry, based on Ephesians 4:12. This school will provide systematic training for the church of Iran, develop leaders who can discern truth, disciple others, and model Christ not only in their understanding but also their actions.

A Call to All

Iran is the Muslim country most open to the gospel. Islam is being defeated at an enormous rate, making Iran the gateway to Christ for the entire Middle East. If we leave them to themselves at this critical moment and do not help them to develop a mature faith and systematic understanding of the Bible that they can pass on to others, we will be responsible for one of the great failures of the church in the twenty-first century.

This opportunity is not just a call for me and Iran Alive but for all mature followers of Jesus Christ to use the media of today to provide a sound, systematic foundation for a hungry church.

If we leave them to themselves at this critical moment and do not help them to develop a mature faith and systematic understanding of the Bible that they can pass on to others, we will be responsible for one of the great failures of the church in the twenty-first century.

Let’s take some of the banquet feast from our table in the West and share it with our brothers and sisters in Iran. Join Jack Graham, Pete Briscoe, Child Evangelism Fellowship, Recovery International, World Amity, Michael Yusef, and Christ for Crescent Moon—some of the people and ministries who already partner with us—to send systematic Bible teaching to millions of Christians who are waiting and ready to learn. These believers have a chair and want to pull it to the table, if someone will only put something good to eat on their plate.

We need you to join us. Don’t miss this great opportunity.

For more information on how to partner with us or how you can be a part of our 412 School of Ministry, you can contact me at hormoz@IranAliveMinistries.org or (469) 982-0000. Or text “Iran” to 74784 for more information.