Newly returned from a marathon recording session in Finland of 44 Iranian worship songs, London-based worship leader Hovan Hovsepian-Mehr spoke to Wazala about the importance and nature of worship in the Iranian diaspora Church.
In many ways Christian worship is in Hovan’s blood. His father, Edward, is one of the most respected leaders of the Iranian church and was for many years pastor of the Iranian Christian Fellowship in London. His uncle Haik Hovsepian, as Superintendent of the Protestant churches in Iran, wrote many songs for the growing Iranian church there before his murder in 1994. And Hovan’s cousin, Gilbert, is a widely known Iranian worship leader in the USA.
Today Hovan is following in their steps. He and his brother Tili lead congregations every week at the two London Iranian Christian Fellowship churches, in Chiswick and Finchley respectively. Hovan is also involved with his sister and wife in Setayesh, a touring worship group whose name means “praise” or “adoration”.
But it was a call from God at 17, rather than family example, that made the leading of worship central to Hovan’s life. It came only two years after he had come from Tehran to England.
“I was very confused,” Hovan says. “I was struggling to settle in England and I had this call from the Lord that he wanted me to go back to Iran! For a few months I was praying and fasting to know the Lord’s will and it became clear it was for the purpose of worship He wanted me to return.”
Leading worship in Iran now that all Farsi speaking churches have been closed down: how does that work? “When Iran is eventually free,” Hovan explains, “there will be many evangelists and preachers who will return, but there will be a great need for trained people to lead worship.
“Worship is one of the greatest tools, I believe, to bring people to Christ. To hold meetings where thousands can gather, beside the preachers, you need worship leaders with experience of ministry who know the Bible quite well.”
With this strong sense of calling, Hovan studied music at college and at Kensington Temple’s School of Performing Arts. He followed these with a degree in theology, worship and music at London School of Theology.
“I really enjoyed it,” he says. “It gave me a very good insight into not being limited to the Iranian community. I was part of a worship band that played in many churches.”
Such experience came in handy when Hovan was invited to gather a group for the filming in Finland this year. The 44 songs were chosen and recorded for a 44-episode TV series based on the bestselling Christian book, The Purpose-Driven Life.
“Many Iranian church cell groups use it in one-to-one ministries,” Hovan says, so SAT-7 PARS, SAT-7’s Farsi-language channel, has adapted the book with author Rick Warren’s support.
Hovan’s role was to arrange and lead the band while a technical team from The Messengers, a Finnish mission partner of SAT-7, directed filming and recording. The challenge was to do all this in just four days!
Despite the pressure, “Since we had come with a prayerful heart, we knew the Lord would bless us,” Hovan says. “We also became great friends and think we might do something else together.”
The great Iranian songbook
Hovan explains that the 44 songs are a very small sample of around a thousand Christian hymns and songs written in or translated into Farsi. He estimates around a third are sung regularly and perhaps half are translations from other languages. Some such as “Amazing grace” or “My Jesus, my Saviour” have been translated from English while others have crossed over from Arabic and other languages. About a quarter are Persian songs in western musical styles and another quarter are expressed in more traditional Iranian styles, sometimes performed with traditional instruments like the santoor (dulcimer) and daf drum.
For Hovan, English is his third language after Armenian and Farsi. But as increasing numbers of young Iranians speak English as their first language, Iranian churches are helping people such as Hovan’s wife (who came to the UK aged 4) to learn the language. Farsi lessons for children before church and song lyrics displayed in “Finglish” in services (Farsi words written phonetically in English characters), help them participate fully in the worship. This not only preserves their culture but enables continued ministry to other Iranians, whether in their home country or when they arrive in Europe.
Songs and biblical truth
The lyrics of modern western worship songs are sometimes criticised for lacking theological depth or failing to reflect the full range of biblical truth or human experience. Since most Iranian Christians come from a non-Christian background and are hungry to grasp biblical truth, Hovan agrees it is important that the Farsi “songbook” doesn’t make this mistake.
“I believe the Iranian lyrics are often a little more deep and meaningful,” he says. “They are conveying a teaching or a story, not just an emotion. If it’s all emotional, you don’t teach people anything.”
Although Hovan sees his main gift as musical arranging, he has written several songs himself, mostly drawn directly from passages of the Bible. One highlights Jesus’ invitation to the tired and burdened in Matthew 11:28. “I think a song like that is great in a worship time when people can be ministered to,” he says.
Meanwhile, Hovan says, there is a chance that we may all be enriched by Iranian worship soon: Farsi hymns and songs are starting to be translated into English. Jonathan and Laura Beatham, worship leaders at St George’s, Leeds, a church with a growing Iranian fellowship, have translated several Iranian songs into English. “When you sing these, you will hear a distinct Iranian flavour in the melodies and rhythms,” Hovan says.
O children of the light, let’s join as one and sing
With gladness and with joy, sing to our God and king.
So come before the Lord, The Saviour of the world
Sing thanks to Him and raise your hands in praise
Sing thanks to Him and raise your hands in praise.
Verse from “Ey farzandane noor” (O children of the light) by Haik Hovsepian, tr. © Jonathan
and Laura Beatham
Experience Iranian Christian worship
Setayesh, the worship group Hovan is part of, will take part in Envision, SAT-7’s UK day conference in Oxford on 21 May 2016. Book your place now!
SAT-7 PARS programmes can be seen via satellite in the UK, Europe and Middle East on Eutelsat Hot Bird 8, 13 degrees East, 10.949 Ghz Vertical, or online here
Support SAT-7 PARS
Donate to SAT-7’s channel for Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan.
Watch contemporary worship video “Sheydaye Sheyda” (“Overwhelmed by love”) recorded by Gilbert Hovsepian and Dariush Golbaghi for SAT-7 PARS