Five months after the 1979 revolution that a Shia Islamic government, Tat Stewart arrived to pastor a community church in Tehran. What he had never expected to see was the remarkable move of God’s Spirit among Iranian people that began in those days of turmoil and continues still today in a Church that is largely underground.
In 1978, over 55,000 Americans were evacuated from Iran due to the events that led up to the Islamic Revolution. But in the summer of 1979, just five months after the dramatic return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, I landed in Tehran with my wife and two children.
As we walked into the airport, we were gripped by a sense of tension as we were greeted by long rows of young men in camouflage military uniforms, all holding semi-automatic weapons. This was not the Iran we had known growing up, and we were soon to find out just how radically different everything was.
My wife Patty and I both grew up in Iran. All our parents were Presbyterian medical workers. Growing up in Iran familiarised us with the Iranian culture, and we learned to speak Farsi as children. We had left Iran while still in high school and did not anticipate returning, but God had other plans for us.
Our return was the consequence of a direct invitation from the Evangelical Church of Iran to serve as the pastor of the Community Church of Tehran. This was an expatriate church of over 600 members before the Revolution, but now we learned that a small remnant of only six members was left.
The Iran we entered had just gone through a tumultuous Islamic Revolution where the once-thought invincible Pahlavi dynasty had been overthrown. Since then, there really was no new government in place. Instead, each neighbourhood was governed by a Komenti (a neighbourhood vigilante group). During the daylight hours everything looked normal, but as night fell over Tehran, gunfire could be heard, and it was generally deemed “not safe” to move around the city.
We rented a nice apartment from one of the elders in our church, and I settled into leading worship on Friday mornings in English at the Community Church and attending youth group meetings as a youth advisor in the four Iranian congregations we had in Tehran.
Something very significant happened spiritually in Iran in 1979. It is as if God opened the windows of heaven and poured out His Spirit upon this dry and thirsty land. A land where workers from abroad had presented a Christian witness for 200 years but seen little fruit was changing before our eyes. We did not see it so clearly at the time, but as we look back over the past 40 years we recognise the stirrings of the “Great Awakening” that the entire world is now aware of.
[Pull quote: “The truth is … that Christianity is growing faster in Iran then in any other country on earth.”]
Back then, it was estimated that there were 3,000 Protestant believers in the whole country. Today, I have heard estimates ranging from half a million to eight million. The truth is we really do not know! But what we do know is that Christianity is growing faster in Iran then in any other country on earth. This is my story of what I witnessed in 1979-80: the first fruits of this Great Awakening.
A thirst for Christ
Having attended Iranian churches throughout my childhood and youth, I had the impression that most of those who attended those churches were not from Muslim background: they were either Armenian, Assyrian, Jewish or Zoroastrian.
When my family began attending the downtown church, we were confronted with two new realities. First, each Sunday we were learning of church members who were emigrating to Europe or America. The prospect of an Islamic government was a source of great concern for many; what would the future hold for them and their children? So those who could were leaving.
But as Christians were vacating their pews in their church, Muslims were filling them. Women wearing chadors (head-to-toe veils) were now seen in the congregation. I began hearing of people knocking on the doors of the church asking how to get a Bible and the times of the services.
There were several reasons for this, but a major one was that people were having dreams and visions of Jesus. One lady who had gone through a painful divorce shared her story with me. While visiting a friend she saw a strange book on the coffee table. She told me she felt this great desire to read it. She asked her friend what book it was.
“It’s the Ingil” (Persian for “Gospel”).
“Oh, can I read it?” she asked.
“Well, you can have it for one day, but you must bring it back since it is the only one I have.”
She went home and began to read it, and she had an overwhelming desire to meet the author. That night she had a dream. She saw herself with her head on the lap of a man in shining white robes. As the man placed his hand on her head, all the pain and sorrow drained from her. She asked the man if He was Jesus; He nodded his head, and the dream ended.
The thirst for knowledge of Christ that we saw in 1979 has only grown more intense over the past forty years. Iranians are searching the many Farsi Christian websites and watching Christian satellite channels like SAT-7 PARS. They are hearing the testimonies of their fellow countrymen who have been delivered from drugs. They are witnessing dramatic answers to prayer and amazing healings, all in the name of Jesus. This is a window God has opened during our lifetime, and it behoves us to disciple this fast-growing church.
Watch for the concluding part of Tat’s blog next month
Revd Tat and Patty Stewart have been ministering to Persian speakers around the world for the past forty years. Tat is one of the founders of SAT-7 PARS, as well as being an on-air teacher on Christian discipleship. He is Editor in Chief of Shaban Magazine, which is designed to provide theological and pastoral guidance for the emerging Persian church. Tat is also the Founder and Executive Director of Talim Ministries, which provides mentoring and Christian literature for Iranian church leaders.