“Yet I will restore the fortunes of Elam in the days to come, declares the LORD.” ~Jeremiah 49:39~
The year 1979 will be forever be seen as a defining watershed when the history of Iran in the twentieth century is written. The events that unfolded that year have changed the lives of the Iranian people. That was the year that the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, was forced to abdicate his long reign in Iran and flee into uncertain exile. It was also the year that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini flew into Iran on his chartered Air France jumbo jet and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. These events shocked the Iranian people like no other event in modern history.
Like an earthquake sends shock waves through the earth, the events of 1979 sent out shock waves through the Iranian people. In 1979, the people of Iran could have been called, at best, nominal Muslims. But now, the full weight of Islamic Law and practice was placed on them. The women were forced once again to cover themselves with the chador, a veil that covers women from head to toe. All alcoholic beverages were destroyed, movie theaters were closed, and western music was eliminated from the radio and TV programming. A countrywide reform began to bring every area of personal and public life into compliance with Islamic Law. In short, the Islamic Revolution turned life upside down in Iran.
The results were catastrophic. Iranian society began to erupt. Thousands of educated Iranians and those with ties to the previous regime began to flee the country.
It was difficult to book a seat on a flight out of Iran. The great Iranian Diaspora had begun. It is interesting to note that in Jeremiah 49:34-39 we read that God brings his judgment upon the Elamites (one of the ancient names for the Iranians), He humiliates their king, and he scatters them to the ends of the earth. In the 17 years since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian people have literally been scattered to every continent of the globe. A 1993 study done by Iranian Christian Internationals, Inc., shows significant numbers of Iranians in 33 different countries and on every continent. The total number of Iranians scattered worldwide is cited at over 3 million. Today that number has climbed to 4 million. It is estimated that 2 million of these displaced Iranians live in North America.
The next shock wave that began to be felt was the surge of Iranians who began to turn to Christ as a result of the Revolution. Of course, this was not evident to everyone. At first, many Christians fled Iran along with others. My wife and I had the privilege to be in Iran during the first year of the Revolution, and we were firsthand witnesses to the devastation that the exodus of Iranian Christians had on the churches. However, we also saw the heightened interest in the Christian faith as churches began to be filled up with seekers. Iranian Christians International reports the number of Iranian believers in 1979 at just fewer than 3,000.
Seventeen years later, that number is now estimated at a range of 25,000 to 40,000 Iranian believers. It is difficult to get statistics which can be verified but the point is clear: there has been a dramatic growth of Christianity among Iranian Muslims. In 1969, Dr. William M. Miller wrote his landmark book entitled, Ten Muslims Meet Christ. At the time, it was heralded as a breakthrough. Today, if Dr. Miller were to write a book he would have to call it, The Rise of the Muslim Convert Church, for ever since the Islamic Revolution, over fifty Iranian fellowships have arisen outside of Iran. This fact prompted Greg Livingstone, the founder of Frontiers Missions, to comment that “the Iranian Church is the most mature Muslim convert church in the world.” Iranians are coming to Christ in unprecedented numbers with more of them turning to Christ in the last 17 years than in the previous 1,000 years. The Iranian mission field is white and awaiting workers. Today, there is only one Christian worker for every one million Iranians.
There is one more shock wave to consider in order to understand the Iranian context. It is the persecution of the Christian church in Iran. Christians in Iran have fled from the grip of the Islamic Revolution because they understand Islam’s stance towards Christianity. They have firsthand experience with Muslims making every effort to stamp them out. Today, Iranian believers are routinely persecuted for their faith. However, the blood of the martyrs has become the seeds of revival. Pastor Mehdi Dibaj, one of the Iranians that was martyred for Christ, often said, “The Church in Iran is like a rose petal; the more you press it the sweeter the perfume.”
To summarize, the Islamic Revolution has changed the contour of the Iranian heart and mind. He has been driven from his homeland by forces beyond his power to control or even to understand. He has been ripped from the intimate relationship with his family, causing devastating emotional consequences. He has suffered the ravages of war, possibly having family members executed by the Islamic courts. Iranians have witnessed the unmasking of Islam which may now lead to hate of all religion and religious leaders. He may mistrust other Iranians and want to lose himself in his new country of residence. Needless to say, the events of the Islamic Revolution still affect Iranians deeply and stir up a host of basic questions about the God of history and the purpose of life. You can find within the Iranian community the full range of conclusions about life, but you can also find some of the most open and searching souls on earth. God has prepared Iranians for such a time as this. He is calling us in the Western church to respond.
You will not regret the time you give to your Iranian friend, for he will teach you much more about friendship than you will be able to teach him. You will find him more interested in spiritual matters than your Western neighbor and you will probably find that God will touch your life in a new way through him, as you observe God working in him.
The Key of God’s Love
By now it should not come as a surprise to you when I say that your Iranian friend needs love. You can see that he is hurting. He has lost much. He has lost his homeland and his life’s fortunes. By the time he gets to the West, he may have been abused by smugglers who promised him an easy access to the West or been harassed by Western government officials. He needs a friend who can love him with the unconditional love of Christ. He needs someone who can help him find his way in his new country.
As I have listened to the countless testimonies of Iranian Christians, one of the key things that God has used in their lives has been the unconditional love of Christian brothers and sisters. Iranians are very social people and do not thrive when they are alone. When Iranians first arrive in America, they are amazed at how detached we are from our friendships. Iranians may find us to be friendly on the surface, but they are surprised at how poor we are at being friends. When they come to our churches we smile and greet them, but we seldom invite them to our homes or open our lives to them. This would not be the case if we were in their home country; we would very quickly be invited to their homes. When we understand this about their culture it becomes a key bridge into the Iranian’s heart. Become his friend. Open up your life to him. Learn about his culture and enjoy his foods. One aspect of Iranian culture that you must master quickly if you are going to have a successful interaction is what Iranians call tarof. The best way to explain tarof is to define it as a formal politeness that may disguise the true feelings of person. For example, if you ask you Iranian friend if he would like something to eat, he will probably will say no. However, what you should do is bring him something to eat anyhow. He is not likely to share with you his real wants. If you go to his house it is customary to take flowers or a small gift. The best thing to do is to ask you Iranian friend to tell you about how tarof works. For a fuller description of the Iranian culture and holidays, I would recommend Sharing the Gospel with Iranians, by Don M. McCurry.
The Key of God’s Truth
The events of the Islamic Revolution have caused a great many Iranians to become distrustful of Religion. They have seen the hypocrisy of their religious leaders. They know the powerlessness of Islam to change the human heart. As I have listened to dozens of testimonies, I have heard this over and over again. Their distrust is with the Mullahs who rule Iran with merciless adherence to the Qur’an. Many of them have a story to tell the listener about their discovery of the emptiness of Islam. They might tell you about their experiences of searching for the truth and how they brought their questions to the Mullah, who then told them to believe blindly.
One of my good friends who taught the Qur’an for many years, who today is a follower of Jesus Christ, shared with me how he had been taught that if he would repeat a certain verse from the Qur’an a thousand times, God would give him anything he desired. He prayed and fasted for three days and repeated the verse thousands of times. He told God that there was only one thing he desired: a change in his character. He had a terrible temper. Once he had finished prayer and fasting, he had great hope that God would answer him and make him a new man. When he emerged from his room he saw one of his children doing something annoying and he exploded with anger. Within moments he was in great despair, not only had he gotten angry but he had discovered his faith was powerless to change him. So great was his despair that he plotted to take his life. Instead, he was led to the cross of Christ and to the One who makes all things new. Iranians are experiencing a great paradigm shift in their souls. They are going through a time of great questioning and the key to winning them for Christ is to present the truth in love.
It is extremely important at this point to note that all our confessions of the truth must be accompanied with a life that demonstrates it as well. Iranians are so distrustful of religion and religious leaders that they will not easily be convinced by insincere Christianity. You can begin to demonstrate Christ’s love in your life by praying with your Iranian friend. I usually say something like this, “I like to pray with my friends; would it be alright if we close our time together with prayer?” Never once has an Iranian objected. When I pray, I always make it a very personal and intimate communication with God because I know that the one I am praying with does not know God that way. I also always include very specific requests for my friend. Our prayer times serve as a spiritual session in which they see how I depend on God. They get to see God at work. It does not surprise me when my Muslim friend calls back to tell me God answered my prayers and asks if I would be willing to pray for another matter. I now have an open door to begin sharing with him how he can know God personally. I try not to argue my friend towards faith in Christ but lead him to taste and see that the Lord is good.
As we pursue this matter of truth, the good news is that most Iranians still believe in absolute Truth and revelation. However, they might believe in Western relativism if they have completed their formal education in the West. In general, Iranians have been taught that the Injil (the Gospels) is a holy book and that they should read it. They may have been told that it has been tampered with, but my experience is that they are still anxious to read it. I find that Iranians gladly accept the New Testament as a gift. Sometimes, I will say something like, “Now that you are living in our country you probably would like to know what Christians really believe.” Then I will present them with a New Testament. I am always careful to caution them from thinking that all Westerners are Christians. I also tell them that as they read they should underline the sections that are hard for them to understand. I assure them that it is all right to make marks in the Bible since it is a guidebook to God and his peace. This may come as a surprise to them since they revere the Qur’an but seldom read it, let alone dare to write in it. Normally, the first verse I like to read to an Iranian seeker is Matthew 11:28-30: the Lord’s invitation to give rest to those who are weary and burdened always seems to cut to their hearts.
There are two cautions at this point. First, you must be warned that an Iranian’s mind is very much a literal mind. By that I mean he will take the Bible very literally. You will have to help him understand it. Be patient as he asks you questions you may never have heard before. One example might be: “You say Jesus is God but here he is praying to God. If he is God, to whom is he praying?” Iranian seekers will also need help with many concepts that are familiar to us. They will not know what a Pharisee is or what the Jewish feasts are all about. As you encourage your Iranian friend to read and ask questions, be patient and explain everything clearly. Do not assume he is getting the message the first time he reads the Bible. It is better that you discuss these concepts with him alone. Never ask him questions about his faith in front of other Iranians, but make time to be alone with him. It is also better that he initiates these times. Iranians are very polite and may agree to meet just to please you. So tell your Iranian friend that you are at his service for when he wants to discuss his Bible readings. As always, the best thing you can do is pray for him.
The second caution is that Iranians tend to only believe truth when it comes from a person of authority. For example, a young Christian might give a seeker a totally correct answer from the Scriptures, but the seeker will not accept it because it did not come from the mouth of a pastor. This means that you should find a way to link the Iranian seeker with a person whom he accepts as authoritative in the matter. Take him to your pastor or an older leader in the fellowship and let him get his answers from him. This is especially important if the Iranian you are dealing with is an older man.
After one takes into account these two cautions, you are ready to discuss specific things with the Iranian seeker. At this point, I cannot over-emphasize how important it is not to debate the weaknesses of Islam. It is far more productive to use the New Testament and simply discuss who Christ is and what he offers the sinner. It is also advisable to present Christ as Savior of sinners and leave the question of his divinity for later.
One of the first problems one might run into are the definitions of terms. In the mind of your Iranian friend, the terms you use might mean different things. You may not pick this up at first, but it is a major hurdle that must be overcome. For example, when you suggest that your friend is a sinner, he might become quite insulted. The reason for his indignation is that in his mind sins are horrible crimes against God like murder, adultery and stealing. He is insulted that you are suggesting that he is such a person. You will need to gently show him in Genesis the story of the Fall. Explain to him that he might be a good person in comparison to other human beings but in God’s eyes, all have sinned and that he has inherited his sin from Adam and Eve. You will have to show him that all human beings are sinners not because they sin; but they sin because they are sinners. I often spend an entire evening laying a sure foundation on the depravity of man.
As you continue your discussions with your Iranian friend, you will want to begin to define from the Scriptures many key concepts. Jesus’ true identity will quickly become a focal point. He will say that he believes in Jesus, but before you celebrate his conversion, you need to know what it is that he believes about Jesus. He believes He was a great prophet, that he was born of a virgin and that he lived a sinless life, but that Jesus himself did not die on a cross for us, rather it was someone who looked like him. You now realize you are up against a system of thought that has carefully eclipsed Jesus’ divinity and atonement. All your arguments will not reveal the truth of Christ to your Muslim friend; it will take the revealing work of the Holy Spirit.
A day will come when your Iranian friend will want to have a serious discussion with you about the divinity of Christ. He may find himself drawn to Christ, but the Trinity is a stumbling block for him. Here are the steps I have used that God has blessed many times.
- “Do you agree that God is almighty and can do anything he wills?”
- “Do you agree that God is a Spirit and can take any shape he wills?”
- “Do you agree that God is infinite and beyond human comprehension except that he chose to reveal himself to us?”
I have yet to meet an Iranian who disagreed with these statements. After laying the foundation I share this illustration. I ask him to compare the vastness of the ocean with that of God. We cannot possibly explore the entire ocean. But what if I took a glass and filled it with water from the ocean and brought it to you? Now you can taste it, touch it and smell it. You could put it under a microscope and you would see that in essence, it is the same as the ocean. It is separate from the ocean but it is in essence the same as the ocean. Then I read John 1:1,14 and Colossians 1:15. I show how God emptied himself and became a human being so that we could taste and see who he is. This illustration has been the key for many Iranians to begin to understand the divine nature of Christ. Throughout your discussion, you will want to underscore the Christian belief in one God by reading him 1 Corinthians 8:6.
You will need to carefully help him see what the Scriptures teach about the character of God, the nature of heaven, salvation, grace and faith. You can safely assume that he has non-biblical concepts for most of these precious truths.
One important thing about prayer. In most Iranian’s experience, one must recite memorized prayers in Arabic. Most of the time, they do not understand what they mean. So while he is praying, his mind wanders. When you begin to pray with your Iranian friend, he might repeat what you are saying because he has never really talked to God. This is why it is important to get your Iranian seeker into the Word. Be sure to provide him with good solid evangelical literature in Persian. One very good resource is Dr. Miller’s little book, The Beliefs and Practices of Christians, in Persian.
The Key of God’s Touch
In our arsenal of weapons we have with which to share Christ with Iranians, we still must look at our greatest weapon. The greatest weapon we have is that God has chosen to touch the Iranian people. We know that Jesus told Peter that it was not flesh or blood that had revealed to him that Jesus was the Christ; rather it was the Spirit of God. Today, the Spirit of God is touching Iranians around the world. This means that God has already gone before you in witnessing to the Iranians that are near to you.
As you grow close to Iranians you will hear more and more stories about the dreams they may be having. You may find these stories hard to grasp, but I have found that almost every Muslim convert that I know has had some type of dream that he understood to be a revelation of Christ. These dreams seem to awaken a hunger for Christ. I have come to see them as God’s calling His own out of the world because we, his church, have failed to go to the Muslim world as we were commanded to go. Still today, only 2% of the Western mission force is serving among Muslims. This people group make up 20% of the world’s population. The approach I take with dreams is to celebrate them and then invite your Iranian friend to get to know Jesus through reading the Bible.
Over the years, I have catalogued the types of dreams that Iranians have been having about the Lord. Most of them have a rescue motif. The person is drowning and a hand comes down into the water and saves him. A person is ill and a person in radiant white robes enters his room and heals him. God is calling these dear people to himself and we need to be sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit, being ready to follow up with good biblical discipleship.
Other evidence that an Iranian has been touched by God is transformation of his or her life. Iranian Christians have miraculous testimonies. I never get tired of hearing them. Their testimonies are full of stories of how God intervened in their lives. One Iranian man told me that while he was visiting Los Angeles, he was walking the streets to pass the time when a painter on a ladder said “hello” to him. That began a two-hour conversation that led him to trust Christ. He confessed, “God sought me out.”
The next very important step is to introduce your Iranian Christian friend to your seeker friend. There is no power like the testimony of one Iranian believer telling his story to another. It is a telltale sign that if your Iranian seeker does not want to meet another Iranian who confesses Christ, he might not have come to faith. A good test of true faith is that one is willing to confess Christ before his own peers.
If you need help in locating Iranian Christians in your city, get in contact with Iranian Christian International, Inc. at 719-596-0010. The people there will assist you.
There is no doubt about it; Iranians have been uniquely prepared for the Gospel. God has brought them to our shores and he is calling us to be available to minister to them. In many of our larger cities, there is probably a small fellowship of Muslim converts from Iran already worshiping and fellowshiping. If we are open to God’s Spirit we can be God’s link between the unbelieving Iranian and the Iranian Church. It might surprise you that an unbelieving Iranian would rather have you as his friend as opposed to having one of his own unknown countrymen as a friend. We need to use this favored position that we as Westerners hold and use it for the advancement of our Lord’s Kingdom.