The growth and resilience of an indigenous Iranian church has been one of the most remarkable signs of God at work in the Middle East in recent decades. An online seminary and a partnership with SAT-7 are playing an essential part in discipling these emerging churches. Wazala spoke to one of the pioneers of this programme.
Despite increasing restrictions upon Iran’s few permitted churches and open persecution of the country’s underground church networks, thousands are exploring Christianity and coming to faith. Estimates vary but Dr Merhdad Fatehi, an Iranian pastor and theologian, says the number of people involved these unregistered groups is at least 200,000.
“They are at different points on their journey of faith,” he says. “Some have an experience of Jesus and love him but have little knowledge. So many groups are forming inside and outside Iran. Within a year you have a group of 20 or 30 meeting in a kind of extended family.”
Yet this rapid numerical growth is “both a cause of rejoicing and a cause of concern”, he says. With young believers quickly cast in the role of leaders without any previous Christian background, there’s a real danger of “weird teachings and practices” emerging. An accurate grounding in the Bible and Christian theology is vital for these groups to grow into healthy bodies that nurture true Christian discipleship.
Without it some are straying into Unitarianism – not recognising God as a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Others, coming from a background of legalism, risk either “seeking specific direction in every situation – how they should pray, what they should eat, or going to the opposite extreme of following no ethical code and relying entirely on the prompting of the Holy Spirit or doing what they feel is right.”
These are threats that Mehrdad is keen to counter as the Executive Director of the Pars Theological Centre and as a regular broadcaster on SAT-7 PARS, where the station is working with Bible scholars to run its own “Seminary on the Air”.
Last year the Pars Theological Centre stepped up its activities when it launched a long-planned website to give online training to new leaders in the Iranian church. And when he met with over 20 Iranian Christians in Wales this Spring, some 16 were already following the online course and saying “what is happening is so exciting!”
The site is complemented by short, intensive teaching conferences, like the one in Wales for UK-based Iranians. Here students meet trainers and other new leaders to learn face to face. “These teach two courses usually,” Mehrdad explains, “One academic, one more character-building, focusing on the spiritual side.”
Lastly, to put all this into practice, church-based training supports leaders on the ground. “In Iran we work with different networks of underground churches, who recommend students who are already serving. More experienced leaders are appointed as mentors to supervise their studies. Every week the students watch lectures and discuss questions.”
A strong relationship with SAT-7 means that programmes can be accessed in homes right across the Farsi-speaking world, as part of the “Seminary on the Air”.
“SAT-7 has been very helpful,” Mehrdad says. “They have promised they will provide a sort of Open University slot as we make more programmes.”
The first course Pars has offered online and through Satellite TV is “Christian Disciplines” based on Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline, translated into Farsi. The group of lecturers developing the courses all “want students to know theology isn’t separate from spirituality,” he explains.
One course is recorded every three months. Other courses being offered at present are Principles of Discipleship Training, Orientation to the Old Testament and Christian Worldview. This “takes creation, fall and redemption as its three core ideas and applies them in areas like politics, art, sport, business”.
The high value leaders place on this is measured by the enthusiasm of those who attend the intensive courses, like the one Mehrdad led in Wales. It “was very encouraging,” Mehrdad says. “They were so eager to study, so enthusiastic and committed to their studies, ready to sacrifice time. I’m coming to the conclusion that what happens in the diaspora is important for the impact they can have on what happens inside Iran.”
There the risks are great. “Mostly it’s the leaders who’ve been targeted by the regime though many Christians are interrogated and services closed down,” Mehrdad says. “The government is also bringing down the internet speed, so we have to send some materials into the country in other ways too. Please pray for the safety of those attending and for students and lecturers,” he adds.
• Give thanks for the combined impact of the PARS Theological Centre online distance learning materials including TV broadcasts, conferences and local supervision.
• Pray for the security of all the men and women involved and for wisdom as they serve faithfully despite threats of interrogation and imprisonment.
• Pray for the continuing development of courses and their impact in sharing the love of Christ and balanced, Christlike witness to the people of Iran.
The Pars Theology website can be found at www.parstheology.com
Watch video and learn about SAT-7 PARS
SAT-7 PARS programmes are the only way many Iranians can hear the Christian message, enjoy regular Bible teaching, worship, and discussion about living the Christian life. Your donation will help us continue this service.