THE STORY OF IRAN'S CHURCH
IRAN AT A GLANCE
God is writing an amazing story in Iran.
It’s a simple story that can be summarized in just two sentences:
Persecution threatened to wipe out Iran’s tiny church. Instead, the church in Iran has become the fastest growing in the world, and it is influencing the region for Christ.
As simple as it is, such an amazing story is worth examining deeper.
Growth Amid Persecution
The Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hard-line Islamic regime. Over the next two decades, Christians faced increasing opposition and persecution: All missionaries were kicked out, evangelism was outlawed, Bibles in Persian were banned and soon became scarce, and several pastors were killed. The church came under tremendous pressure. Many feared the small Iranian church would soon wither away and die.
But the exact opposite has happened. Despite continued hostility from the late 1970s until now, Iranians have become the Muslim people most open to the Gospel in the Middle East.
How did this happen? Two factors have contributed to this openness. First, violence in the name of Islam has caused widespread disillusionment with the regime and led many Iranians to question their beliefs. Second, many Iranian Christians have continued to boldly and faithfully tell others about Christ, in the face of persecution.
As a result, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran. In 1979, there were an estimated 500 Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. Today, there are hundreds of thousands—some say more than 1 million. Whatever the exact number, many Iranians are turning to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
In fact, recently the mission organization Operation World named Iran as one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in the world. According to the same organization, growing nearly as fast as the Iranian church is the the church in Afghanistan - and Afghans are being reached in part by Iranians as a result of their languages being similar.
Three Changed Lives
The testimonies of Iranian men and women who’ve come to Christ are powerful.
- Hamed was a smuggler and drug dealer. He was violent and unkind towards his wife, Lydia, for many years. But after reading the New Testament and giving his life to Christ, he began to change. Seeing the transformation in Hamed’s life, Lydia also gave her life to Jesus. Today they are being trained to serve as evangelists.
- Mona, a middle-aged Iranian woman, wanted meaning for her life. One day, she met a Christian, Reza, who shared the Gospel with her. Afterwards, Mona had a dream about Jesus. She went back to Reza to learn more and gave her life to Christ. She began telling others about Jesus. Since being saved, Mona has seen God save her daughter and youngest son. She continues to witness to her husband and other son. Mona recently attended a conference with Elam. She now courageously distributes New Testaments inside Iran. Through her evangelism, seven women have come to Jesus, and she is discipling them.
- Vahid is an Iran refugee living in the UK. He asked us to get a New Testament to his sister, Mina, who still lived in Iran. A few months later he called us excitedly to share that Mina had given her life to Christ. Moreover, Mina had shared the New Testament with three others who had all also come to Christ. A new house church is now forming.
- The stories of Hamed, Mona, and Vahid are a few of countless remarkable testimonies of Iranians whose lives are transformed by Christ. Each one is a painful and yet marvelous celebration of the Gospel’s beauty. Each one is a powerful reminder that despite trials and persecution—perhaps because of the suffering—the Gospel of Jesus shines and the church of Jesus grows.
The Story God is Writing
We are living in a time when many Christians are suffering for their faith, particularly in Islamic contexts. People often react by preaching fear and hatred of the Muslim world. Yet the Apostle Paul reminds us that we are to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). This is our call.
And the story God is writing for Iran reminds us that we have every reason to rejoice and remain confident in our sovereign Lord and the power of his Gospel. Jesus will build his church. It’s a promise (Matt. 16:18).
Please pray for the people and nation of Iran.
- Many more Iranians to give their lives to Christ.
- Endurance and joy for Iranian Christians suffering in prison for their ministry—many have testified to sensing the prayers of the global church while imprisoned.
- More trained leaders to serve as evangelists, church planters, and pastors to disciple the many new Iranian believers.
Persecution threatened to wipe out Iran’s tiny church. Instead, by God’s mighty hand, his church is growing rapidly. Praise him!
The Bible is full of stories reminding us that, whatever the opposition, God is always victorious. It’s the story of Joseph before Potiphar’s wife, of Moses before Pharaoh, of Daniel before the lions, of Esther before King Ahasuerus, of Peter and John before the Council. Supremely, it’s the story of the Lord Jesus, who was crucified and rose for our salvation.
It’s also the story of the Iranian church in my lifetime. When I was a child, persecution threatened to wipe it out. Instead, the church in Iran has become one of the fastest growing evangelical churches today —and it’s affecting the region for Christ.
Scripture is clear that God often uses his people’s suffering to advance his kingdom. In his providence, the Islamic regime’s strategies to stamp out the Persian-speaking church in Iran have backfired—resulting in further church growth. Here are five examples.
1. Banning the Bible has backfired.
In addition to banning the printing of the Bible in Persian, closing down the Bible Society, and burning Bibles, Iranian government officials have warned citizens against reading the Bible. Apparently, this warning has caused many Iranians, already disillusioned with their government, to become all the more eager to obtain a copy of the Bible. And many have put their faith in Christ after finding and reading one.
A few years ago, a government official waved one of the New Testaments printed by Elam on national television and warned the population to avoid it. Demand for the New Testament soared as a result. Many who receive a copy through our street evangelism efforts say they’ve been searching for a copy. Some say they’ve been searching for years.
2. Closing church buildings has backfired.
The Iranian government’s closure of churches over the past years has forced Christians of Muslim background to meet in underground house churches. These usually grow and multiply as friends, family, and neighbors give their lives to Christ. Though government security agents work hard to crack down on these outlawed house churches, there are so many—and new ones are formed so regularly—that it’s impossible to find them all.
3. Censoring television and blocking websites has backfired.
Christian websites are routinely blocked and TV channels scrambled in Iran. This censorship makes more people curious about what the government doesn’t want them to know. Despite these censorship measures, blocked websites can still be accessed through VPNs (virtual private networks) and scrambled programs through satellite television.
I know of hundreds of new house churches that have been planted through satellite television, social media, and follow-up ministry.
4. Killing leaders has backfired.
Eight pastors have been martyred in Iran since 1979 because of their ministries. Their deep affection for Christ—and their willingness to suffer for him—has made these leaders compelling examples for the rest of the church to follow. Their martyrdom accounts are well known among Iranian Christians, many of whom desire to have the same depth of love and courage in their walk with Christ.
Because of their leaders’ example, many Iranian believers are increasingly willing to take risks in order to share the Gospel.
5. Imprisoning Christians has backfired.
Persecution is intended to instill fear and paralyze the church. Instead, seeing Christians willing to suffer often draws unbelievers closer to Christ. They ask, Who is this Jesus that people are so willing to suffer for?
One man I know began his journey to Christ when he heard on the news that Iranians Christians had been arrested for their faith. Their willingness to go to prison for their beliefs made him curious, and so he searched “Christianity” online. The Lord used that internet search to eventually lead him to surrender his life to King Jesus.
Painful Path, Sovereign Christ
We glorify God for how he is accomplishing his sovereign purposes in Iran. Yet persecution remains deeply painful. Lives have been lost; homes, businesses, and inheritances stolen; families torn apart. Some will carry the physical and emotional scars of suffering for the rest of their lives.
But we won’t shrink back. As the Apostle Paul declares, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:3–5)
Suffering has not destroyed the church in Iran. Rather, suffering has deepened its dependence on God, which in turn has increased its endurance, character, and hope.
A few years ago, an interrogator admitted to an imprisoned pastor, “We know we cannot stop the church. We can only try to slow it down.” Two thousand years ago, King Jesus promised to build his church (Matt. 16:18). He is doing so in Iran today. Nothing can stand against him. With humble confidence, then, we continue to press forward with the work we’ve been given to do.
Please keep your Iranian brothers and sisters in prayer. Pray for continued openness to the Gospel among the Iranian people. Pray for genuineness of faith among professing Christians. Pray for perseverance and for the establishment of faithful churches.
Never before have we seen such opportunity for ministry among Iranians.
First published in ‘Iran and Beyond’ magazine. You can subscribe to receive future print communications).
How Persecution in Iran Has Backfired
David Yeghnazar, Elam’s Executive Director, reflects on the ways persecution has fueled church growth:
Persian (Farsi) is the official language
0-14 years: 24%
15-24 years: 13%
25-54 years: 49%
55-64 years: 8%
65 years and over: 6%
According to government statistics:
Muslim (official religion): 99% (Shia 90-95%, Sunni 5-10%)
Other (includes Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian): 1%
Iran is home to more than 40 different people groups, including: Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Balochis, Arabs, Turkmen and Turkic tribes, Jews, Assyrians, and Armenians
27.5% of 15-24 year-olds are unemployed
18.7% Population below the poverty line (2007 est.)
9.6% inflation (2017 est.)
Chief of state: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei