In this episode of Neighborhoods & Nations, Steven Morales examines how the gospel is spreading across Iran. Despite the Iranian regime’s attempt to censor outside influences, the gospel is accessible in Iran. Nima Alizadeh, a Christian leader who was forced to leave Iran, warns that the prosperity gospel is affecting the Iranian church. Steven and Nima discuss how Farsi-speaking Christians outside Iran are using the internet to spread contextualized, biblical resources with those inside the country.
Steven Morales: There’s something we need to talk about. When it comes to the Unreached or Hard-to-Reach or any place where gospel access is limited. We need to recognize these places and the people who live there are not all the same. While they all may face hardship and persecution in some form, there are a multitude of factors that play into how hard a place is to reach. Take North Korea, for instance. It constantly ranks as the country most hostile to Christianity in the world. If you’re identified as a Christian, you might be executed on the spot just having a Bible or just even expressing curiosity about Jesus could send you and your family to prison to be interrogated and tortured.
But that’s not the only way persecution takes place a little closer to many of us. There’s the island of Cuba. For generations, Cuba’s communist regime has considered Christianity intolerable, viewing it as a dissenting voice. The government has banned all churches from owning property or meeting in the open. They don’t allow people to bring in Christian literature, and doing any sort of religious work is pretty complex. Forcing believers to form a network of house churches and even set up their own printing facilities on the island.
You’ll find both of these countries as well as Iran on most persecution watch lists. Becoming a Christian in these places means your life will be harder. But here’s the thing, and I know this might be obvious, but hear me out. In order to better understand what the Lord is doing all over the world, we need to be a little more nuanced and willing to explore these complexities. Living in a place that’s hard to reach means much more than just having no access to the gospel.
As we’ve explored Iran, we’ve already seen that there are profound historical, political, religious, and cultural challenges that directly or indirectly affect the advance of the gospel in this region. And sometimes you don’t have to go that far back in history to see how these challenges play out in the lives of people today.
News Reporter 1: It has been six months since the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, who died while in custody…
News Reporter 2: …arrested after being accused of wearing her hijab improperly…
News Reporter 3: …unprecedented wave of protests…
News Reporter 4: Crowds of young men and even schoolchildren have taken part, an unprecedented display of unity.
Steven: The Iranian government’s morality police killed Mahsa Amini. This sparked an outrage in the entire country. People took to the streets and to social media to call out the Islamic regime’s injustices. So how do you think they responded?
News Reporter 5: At least 522 people have been killed, including 70 minors. More than 20,000 arrests have been made. Hundreds of those are on charges that can lead to a death sentence. At least four have been executed so far.
Steven: The Islamic regime does not tolerate anyone getting out of line and they will do everything in their power to maintain control. They hold their people in a chokehold and they don’t hesitate to squeeze whenever they feel threatened, not even against their own Muslim citizens.
I was in Tehran shortly after Mahsa was killed and tensions were high. Many streets were closed down. Police and armed forces were posted throughout the city and the government shut down the internet in the entire country. For my entire time in Iran, I was disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s a surreal feeling, and you can’t help but wonder if this is how believers in hard to reach places feel all the time.
Like “Does anybody on the outside know what we’re going through? Does anyone care?” So when almost 90 million people live under this sort of chokehold, what hope can there be for a future of gospel growth?
So you would think that when the government shuts down the internet, it means that no one can get online? Well, not quite. So I’m walking outside Tehran’s bazaar and I walk into this shop mostly because they’ve got football jerseys and I’m talking to the guy in the shop. I mean, he doesn’t speak English. I don’t speak Farsi, but we’re figuring it out.
And I see him pull out his phone and open up Instagram and immediately I’m like, Wait, what now? I’m not addicted to Instagram, but my phone doesn’t work. And everywhere I ask, people say there’s no internet. So I ask the guy and he explains to me that government surveillance in Iran is a very real thing. Another guy in the shop even said Iran was turning into the next North Korea, which is how bad things were getting. But many people have found ways around this using pirated SIM cards, VPN connections, and satellite phones. And all of this made me realize that even when the internet shut off Iranians today are actually more connected than ever before.
Iran was the second country in the Middle East to access the internet and in spite of the government firewalls and shutdowns, it’s reported that 90% of internet traffic is routed to hosts outside the country. So what I’m saying is, if you live in Iran, you can find a way to access what you want. And talking with Iranian believers, it became clear that the challenge for getting the gospel in Iran is not so much about accessing the gospel, but about what gospel they have access to.
Iman (Iranian Christian): The biggest need for Iran is teaching. God is doing a lot for it, and people are coming to faith but the theology and people coming with wrong teaching is a lot. Is a lot in Iran.
Steven: I mean, it’s kind of like what you described earlier, that a lot of people become Christians, but there’s not much leadership, there’s not much training. And so people make mistakes.
Iman: Exactly. Yes.
Steven: Many Iranians have become disillusioned with Islam over the years. They are now taking to the internet, TV, and radio to find hope. And incredibly, this has led to thousands, if not millions, of Iranians coming to faith. But like in so many other places, Iran not only has access now to the gospel but also, unfortunately, to a steady stream of false teaching being pumped in from other countries. And it makes things messy and confusing.
It’s kind of like what Jesus taught in the parable of the weeds. He tells us that whenever God plants seeds that will spring into an abundant harvest. The devil’s in the wave of confusion and distraction in the form of weeds to interrupt Christ’s work.
Milad (Iranian Christian): The number one challenge which I myself am trying to talk about is the prosperity gospel. Can you imagine you are teaching or talking to a group of people that they are in massive need and you just you tell them, come to Christ and you’ll get everything? So who [would say] no to that gospel?
If people don’t have money if people are sick, or if people are tired, then you promise them to come to Christ, and as the sons and daughters of the King, you’ll not get sick anymore or you know you will not be in financial need anymore. Or tell people when you pray, don’t tell God if you need a car, tell God what color you want. So it’s more like they turn God to sound like a genie. It’s a light switch. Just tell him what you need. That’s not the God that the Bible teaches.
Steven: I heard several stories from Iranian believers of turning on a TV and just happening to come across Christian programming. For many, it was a turning point. And I didn’t know that many of the most popular megachurch pastors we see in the US are actually being translated and broadcast all over Iranian satellite TV.
But that’s not all. I was also surprised to find a lot of Christian imagery in museums and other historic sites around the city. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that seeing a picture of Jesus will make someone a Christian. But I am saying that for Iranians, the name and the idea of Jesus is not this inaccessible, nebulous concept.
So problem solved. Right? Iran has been reached. They got Jesus on TV. What else do they need? Well, let’s not be too hasty. From what we can gather, there are two big issues at play that need to happen for a healthier future for the Iranian church.
First, there’s the matter of contextualization. They need more resources, sure, But the right ones.
Nima Alizadeh: We have the satellite. We can actually air everything in Iran. So we should be actually careful of what we are giving them. Actually, they are seekers. They are serious seekers. We have to listen to them because they have specific needs and challenges.
We should actually say “Okay, these are the needs and challenges, we shape our ministry around that, instead of vice versa.” But we do things, we say this is the Western culture, we want to feed you with the Western culture. And that wouldn’t help. You know what I mean?
Nima: You want to contextualize something, so you cannot really impose or you can reinforce another culture through Christianity to this culture. Christianity is very young in Iran. so we are kind of learning as we go. But some people we see they’re just copying Western Christianity into Iranian Christianity.
When we see that happen, Iranians inside Iran, they cannot really take that to heart. You know, there are so many good things we can learn from Western culture, Western Christianity, and Western churches. But we have to be really mindful of not having a hundred percent of, for example, the American church to the Iranian church. That doesn’t work.
Steven: Nima had to leave Iran because of persecution. But he’s been working tirelessly on providing content for the Farsi-speaking church. I mean, I don’t know anybody who works harder than this guy. And a lot of what he does is translate and adapt some of the best Christian content that’s produced in our churches so that it can work for the Farsi-speaking world.
Milad: We need resources. We need opportunities for those who like to do a job like this. Connect them with good theologians in great churches in the West, to learn from them, to talk to them, to sit with them and see, okay, how we can change that softball illustration to something that makes sense in the East and still have the point.
Steven: So the Iranian church needs more resources that are not only biblical and gospel-centered but that feel Iranian, even if they’re just translations. And advances in technology have resulted in hundreds of articles, videos, books, and podcasts that are all about the gospel, helping Iranians learn the fundamental basics of the Christian faith. But what about the most important Christian resource of all? What about the Bible?
Milad: Having Bibles to give people was a really big challenge. That’s why right now my number one prayer for Iran is having Bibles. And I thank God I know many, many ways that Bibles are going to Iran. They’re online so it’s everywhere.
Steven: Owning or distributing a Bible to Muslim citizens is still illegal in Iran, but online access and the pure boldness of the church have made it even more available than ever before. The Bible has been translated into Farsi, and yet every Christian would agree that while having a Bible is huge and of the utmost importance, it’s also vital to have other believers, other disciple-makers, pastors, teachers, and Christians who can gather together to worship God and deepen in their relationship through him, through the reading, studying and application of his Word.
And this brings us to another really urgent need for the future of the church in Iran. In other words, Iran doesn’t just need gospel access. It needs more gospel presence.
Our Iranian brothers and sisters need not just access to the gospel, but a faithful gospel presence in their lives. They need churches. And perhaps we need to consider if we lack a sort of gospel presence as well. Maybe not physically, but are places like Iran present in our minds and hearts? Or do we just consider them lost causes?
Steven: I talked to another Iranian pastor who said after the Iranian Revolution in ‘79, many ministries pulled out and said, “Yeah, it’s impossible to do anything here.” And some people look at that work in some of these difficult regions and said, “It’s impossible. Pretty much, we should invest elsewhere.” How do you respond to that?
Nima: When we look at the Bible, look at Acts, I mean the Roman Empire, and then we get to Nero and the persecution is huge, it’s massive. But we see godly people standing for God, for the kingdom, and we see the same thing in Iran. So we should actually, in places like Iran, we should invest more because the hunger is there. Iranians are coming out of Islam now because they know Islam is not the answer. Because now they know that all the promises that Islam has given them are false.
So they are coming out of Islam. It’s a great opportunity, actually, for Christians to give them alternatives. To say, okay, this is not a religion, this is the way of life. This is the way that you can actually be saved. And there’s a thirst for that in Iran because the Iranians have the fear of God, but they are misled. So I think, it looks impossible, but underneath there’s a great opportunity and we have lots of lots of godly people, godly saints, in Iran. They are willing to sacrifice so many things just to get the Word out and preach the gospel, and we should actually help them to do the work because some people… can’t do it anymore. I cannot go back anymore. So what I can do? I can support them, I can encourage them.
Steven: In the Great Commission Jesus commanded us to go to all nations and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. And what we’re finding in Iran right now is a group of hungry young believers turning from Islam and running from an oppressive regime who are now in desperate need of healthy leadership to see the gospel apply to all areas of life right where they are.
Milad: So how do we equip and empower the church inside the country for them to first realize if something is not biblical?
Milad: Second, to learn more about how they can disciple people, not just convert them. I don’t think God is looking for converted people. God has asked, seeking, and looking for disciples, right?
Steven: Milad here is asking the right question How will Iranian disciples be made? And then how will they go and make disciples? How can Iran go from a place that persecutes Christians to one that sends Christians to other nations?
As with most things worth doing, there are no easy answers and there’s no microwave discipleship method. But there are ways we can be present with them. In this endeavor, the primary way is through our prayer.
Iran is already experiencing a type of revival, one brought on, in part because of the severity of its persecution under an Islamic regime. We can ask God to turn the tables in Iran.
We can also be present with them through the opportunities that immigration provides. This varies on where you live but there very well may be Iranian immigrants in your city. I mean, California has the largest population of Iranians outside Iran and many Iranian pastors are trained in nearby countries as well. Whatever it is we do, we can find hope in knowing that God’s already at work. The gospel is moving forward. And yeah, there are challenges and obstacles at every step. But what God is doing in Iran and the potential that has to reach other nations, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
Ramtin Soodman: When my father died 32 years ago, the number of Iranian evangelists among Farsi speakers was less than 20 or 25. But nowadays we have thousands and thousands of evangelists, pastors, teachers, and theologians. In the church years ago, all this fruit was not predictable.
Milad: Our pastor in those days was pastoring many house churches in the same city, but none of us were aware of these house churches.
Steven: Okay. For safety?
Milad: For safety. Yes. So it was really hard to know there are other believers in town, but after we left Iran and after everyone was arrested in those days, we found out that there were like 500 house churches in that very religious city.
Iman: I believe that Iran is a country that can send missionaries out to the whole Middle East because to reach another nation is not only for the Americans to come to the Middle East. It’s good, but we are near to the Afghan people. We are near to Arab people and this is our job to go to them, to a different nation.
Steven: There’s a part of me that didn’t really know what to expect coming to Iran. I mean, I still don’t really understand the exchange rate between dollars and reals, and I don’t really speak the language all that well. I know maybe like two words, but more than that, like, would I have any kinship with the people here? Would I would we have anything in common?
But I didn’t really have to worry about that. Yeah, I’m entering territory, hostile to Christians and disconnected from the world for a few days. But the experience here and the stories I’ve heard, it’s not that different than the ordinary life of Christians everywhere. I’m just more aware of it, more aware of the spiritual warfare that’s taking place around me. But it doesn’t just take place here. It takes place everywhere, even in our own neighborhoods.
And sitting down with my new friends like Nima and Iman and Milad, made me realize how much we actually have in common. Just being with them for a few days has made me wonder if I’m missing out on any opportunities to be for them every day.
Could we pray more, read more, consider more, send more? Even now, as we see Iran in the news. I wonder what the future holds for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But one thing I don’t have to wonder about is what will happen to the Iranian church. Because I’m no prophet. But I’ve read the book and I know that in those last days, as we are worshiping the Lamb of God on the throne, there will be a multitude of Iranians too large for me to count.
Until then, all we can do is press on.
Nima: For my brothers and sisters in Iran I really pray that they grow strong. They keep their hope, and they know that God is with them. Jesus is close to his church. Jesus is building his church, even though right now they feel the persecution, but when we read revelation, we see that God is pushing us to be faithful. Pushing us, okay, this is the persecution, but be faithful, because the future victory is ours.
We know that Jesus is king. We know that the kingdom is coming. This is not the kingdom. Jesus is not going to build his kingdom on Earth. So the Kingdom is coming, and we are going to be faithful to him. We’re going to keep preaching the gospel. And that’s my hope that every single Iranian in Iran and outside hears the gospel and put his or her faith in Jesus to be saved.