For the last few years, researchers have credited the underground church in Iran as the fastest growing Christian church in the world. It has unique characteristics that defy comparison with churches in America and Europe, and in the opinion of some who know it well, the church in the West could learn by studying it.
“The fastest growing church in the world has taken root in one of the most unexpected and radicalized nations on earth,” according to “Sheep Among Wolves,” the outstanding two-hour documentary about the revival that has taken place inside Iran. “The Iranian awakening is a rapidly reproducing discipleship movement that owns no property or buildings, has no central leadership, and is predominantly led by women.”
The documentary was produced by Frontier Alliance International (FAI), which supports disciple-making teams targeting the “unreached” and “unengaged” within the 10/40 Window.
There is a mass exodus leaving Islam for Christianity within Iran, according to FAI.
“What if I told you Islam is dead?” one unidentified Iranian church leader says on the film. “What if I told you the mosques are empty inside Iran? What if I told you no one follows Islam inside of Iran? Would you believe me? This is exactly what is happening inside of Iran. God is moving powerfully inside of Iran.”
(screenshot:”Sheep Among Wolves”)
Many of the ruling class still follow Islam, “because that’s where the high paying jobs are,” according to the film, but the majority of the ordinary people love God and recognize that Islam is the problem.
“What if I told you the best evangelist for Jesus was the Ayatollah Khomeini?” an Iranian church leader asks. He maintains the ayatollahs brought the true face of Islam to light and people discovered it was a lie, a deception. “After 40 years under Islamic law — a utopia according to them — they’ve had the worst devastation in the 5,000 year history of Iran.”
Efforts by the ayatollahs to destroy Christianity have backfired, but have served to refine and purify the church. “What persecution did was destroy the church that were not disciples, and destroy the church that were about converts,” the Iranian church leader noted. “All these church planters found out that converts run away from persecution, but disciples would die for the Lord in persecution.
“So our model inside Iran is that we don’t convert to disciple, we disciple so we can convert.”
Often a disciple making movement (DMM) begins the first moment someone comes into contact with an unbeliever. “Everything is foundational on prayer. We find people of peace through prayer. We even find locations through prayer,” the Iranian church leader noted.
“When we do DMM, Jesus has gone faster than us. He has come in their dreams or he’s come miraculously in their lives. When we hear this, we know that Jesus has gone ahead of us.”
Surprisingly, their emphasis is not planting churches; it is making disciples. “He is letting unbelievers lead other unbelievers to himself and the kingdom of God. If you plant churches you might make disciples. But if you make disciples, you will plant churches,” the Iranian church leader said.
“One thing powerful with DMM is that it is obedience-based discipleship. It is based on the authority of Scripture and every time you read the Scripture you must obey it. This is how people become conformed to the image of Christ and sanctified. They are not just reading the Bible for information. They are reading the Bible to get transformed.”
About 55% of the disciple makers are women, according to one Iranian leader.
“What’s fascinating right now is that the most powerful leaders in Iran are women, but it’s not in a bombastic, humanistic way…in fact, they are the most gentle women. They are leading this movement, going out in the highways and byways sharing with prostitutes, drug addicts, with everybody they come into contact with, and that takes courage. They are courageous women.”
The women leaders in Iran have not embraced a feminist theology, according to one of the U.S.-based leaders with FIA. “In a biblical way they are submissive to proper structure and the order of the church, but when it comes to what Satan is doing, they are fierce. These are not like modern angry liberal women that are just upset. No, there is a gentleness and submissiveness that is beautiful and follows the biblical pattern.”
One stereotype of Iran promulgated by the nightly news involves crowds of angry Muslims shaking their fists and chanting ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel.
But the film presents a different reality beneath the surface. “The most mind-blowing aspect of the church in Iran is that central to their redemptive theology, and their understanding of not only who Jesus is, what he came to do and what he will return to do, is a covenantal theology that has Israel at the center.
“When you ask most people what the most existential threat is to Israel and they will say Iran – and that’s true. But behind the curtain of what God is doing, God is raising up one of the fastest growing movements of former Muslims that are falling in love not only with the God of Israel, not only Israel’s king, not only Israel’s Messiah, they are actually falling in love with the Jewish people. As a result of this you have a prayer movement in Iran that is crying out for the salvation of Israel.”
The film cites one Iranian couple that had the opportunity to move to the U.S. After living in America for a matter of months, the wife decided she wanted to move back to Iran, telling her surprised husband: “There is a satanic lullaby here. All the Christians are sleepy and I’m feeling sleepy.”
One leader with FIA notes the alarming nature of her conclusion. “That story was disturbing because that woman was discerning a threat to her faith that was a greater threat than the kind of persecution that happens in Iran. She saw that spiritual sleepiness is a greater threat to her faith than persecution.”
The film observes that the only church in the book of Revelation not critiqued by Jesus was under persecution and suffering. “If freedom is such a great thing for the Kingdom, then why is Europe and America in the state they are in?” an Iranian believer asks.
“When we walk outside, we really don’t care if we get arrested, we are not upset if we get arrested. What is 50 years in prison compared to eternity with Jesus?”
The filmmakers contend the church in Iran offers wisdom to impart. “I believe that what is happening in the church in Iran is going to become a measuring stick for the global body of Christ. It is not something we will be able to admire from afar. It is going to be something we are required to participate in. It is going to disrupt our lives,” one U.S.-based leader with FIA says.
“I believe the Lord is going to take this issue of the testimony, the story, the witness of the church in Iran and thrust it into the heart of the global body of Christ, that we would follow in their footsteps and learn from them. I believe the Lord is putting this message on blast for us to prepare us for the days ahead.”
By Mark Ellis