Women are playing a crucial role in what is one of the most unexpected stories of our generation: the growth of the Church in Iran. Dr Mojdeh Shirvanian from Elam Ministries has served the Church in Iran for over thirty years. Here she identifies three ways in which this is happening.
Before the Iranian revolution in 1979 there were a few hundred Iranian Muslims who had turned to Jesus Christ. Now there are so many nobody knows: some say a hundred thousand, some several hundred thousand, some a million. And wherever you turn in this Iranian house church movement you find women are very active and centre stage.
In the last six years my team and I have ministered individually to over 500 Iranian women during week-long residential conferences. I have come to know the new Christians of Iran well and I have no doubt that women are the driving force of Church growth in Iran.
1. As converts: women are very open to the Gospel
Our impression from working with the churches in Iran is that more women are coming to Christ than men. This puts them at the heart of church growth.
With their self-worth in tatters, many women in Iran are on the edge of despair. A woman is legally less valuable than a man; many live under the iron rule of their husband or father; some are married off as teenagers; some suffer abuse; others the humiliation of a husband taking a second wife.
With such despair women are open to any message that gives them hope. As I write, I can see the faces before me of women who have turned to Jesus as a last hope.
I can see Nargess* who was rejected by her family and was sick and dying. Then someone told her about Jesus and asked her to pray in his name to be healed. She did, and Jesus healed her. She had a vision of Jesus and His love and acceptance poured over her when she was feeling so vulnerable, unloved and rejected.
I can see Shokouh, who lived and worked in the streets since she was fourteen as a prostitute. She was invited by one of her friends to a house church and there she heard the message of God’s love and forgiveness and gave her life to Christ and God’s grace has changed her life.
Or there is hard working, highly educated Mehrnaz, married to a university lecturer. Outwardly successful, inwardly desperate because her husband betrayed her and said he was only staying with her for the sake of the children. She started watching Christian TV. And soon she was overwhelmed with the message of the Gospel. On the day she gave her life to Christ in front of the TV set she danced like a drunk for joy.
Forced to marry when she was 14 … her marriage was a betrayal that became a nightmare
And I see Lila, who was forced to marry when she was 14. For her poor parents the marriage was an act of economic survival: for Lila it was an act of rejection and betrayal. And it was a betrayal that became a nightmare, because Ali, her groom, was a petty criminal, a gun and drug smuggler; and a man not averse to using physical violence. He beat his teenage bride.
After Lila had brought a baby girl into the world, he tired of her and drove her away. She had no interest in her bullying husband, but yearned to see her daughter. Ali stopped her.
Lila remained on the boundaries of her husband’s life. This was safer. For Ali became more and more violent. He raped another woman; threatened to shoot his own father; tried to burn a friend alive; and twice poured petrol over their daughter, threatening to set her alight.
Lila was utterly distraught. Christians were led to Lila and gently brought her into a house church. With little understanding, but a deep desire for love and acceptance, this abused woman gave her life to Christ.
Iran’s Nargesses and Mehrnazes, Shokouhs, and Lilas are turning to Christ. That’s why I am convinced that women are at the heart of church growth in Iran.
But then when they come to faith they can’t keep Jesus to themselves. They are also at the heart of church growth in Iran because they make great evangelists.
2. As evangelists: a natural ministry for women
As soon as Lila came to faith she started sharing with other women. She witnessed to Golnar who was sold by her father when she was just twelve to an older man so he could buy drugs. The buyer was also an addict. She became pregnant when she was thirteen. She gave birth to a son – and then her husband forced her to go to the streets as a prostitute to make money to supply his drink and drug habit.
When Lila met Golnar she was in a very bad state. She had no hope and lived in guilt and shame. Lila shared the gospel with her and shared her testimony. Golnar was touched but was frightened to give her life to Jesus. After a while she had a wonderful dream of Jesus who told her: “Follow me”. She gave her life to the Lord and needed help to get out of that miserable life.
Or there is Mehrnaz, the wife of the university lecturer. She started praying for her husband. Though the only thing in her mind was to get a divorce from him, reading the word of God about loving the enemies she knew she had to humbly obey God and forgive and love her husband. Her husband began to change and he was the second person in her family who gave his life to the Lord. Being reconciled in their marriage, they joined their forces to witness to their families. In the beginning they faced a lot of coldness and ridicule. But today at least 17 members of their families are Christian.
Iran’s women don’t just evangelize at home. The stories of Mariam and Marzieh who were with Elam became widely known during their imprisonment in 2009 and then through their book, Captive in Iran. They came on our training course and then returned to Tehran, working as fervent evangelists giving out New Testaments all over the city.
And they – and other women – have been ready to pay the price. On 26th of June I had a letter from one of the women who has been to our conferences. I call her Naghmeh. This is what she wrote: “Thank you for praying for me. The prayers have been answered and my situation has been clarified. After all this time of waiting my sentence has been announced for sure and on Saturday I start serving my four-year sentence. Please pray that I will rejoice in prison and bring joy to the inmates there. The will of God is always good.”
“On Saturday I start serving my four-year sentence … pray that I will rejoice in prison and bring joy to the inmates there”
Naghmeh is in prison because she is a keen evangelist. She cannot but witness to what God has done in her life and the way He has changed her. She has led many women to Christ including her own sister.
A constant challenge for women evangelists in Iran is the need for Scriptures. Mehrnaz, the wife of the university lecturer, did not have her own Bible for six months. She would write out the verses from the TV. I praise God for the million New Testaments Elam Ministries has poured into the Iranian church situation, and trust you will join me to pray and even give for the next million.
Finally, women are taking a leading role in teaching and ministry.
3. As teachers and ministers: especially for other women
Women are very active in teaching and encouraging in the house churches. Mehrnaz is not only an evangelist. She feels spiritually responsible for all in her family house church which is growing. And Lila? She has planted two house churches. She is the spiritual mother of at least twenty others.
Elam has always had training leaders at its heart. So some of these women leaders attend our three-month residential course where I often teach. That’s a great help. Many then go on to play a leading role in planting and leading churches.
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But women need special times alone – away from the men – and that’s been my main job for the last six years, hosting conferences to help the likes of Lila and Shokouh and Mehrnaz. We show them their beautiful and unique identity and value in Christ and their divine authority to take up an active role in the church. We also look at difficult issues that especially impact women – so they can move on to minister to others: issues like abortion, incest and marital problems.
I feel very privileged to be able to minister to my fellow Iranian sisters at such a time as this. The church in Iran is growing, women are playing a leading role, and I count myself blessed that God has allowed me to play a small part in this.
Dr Mojdeh Shirvanian, Elam Ministries Women’s Conferences. SAT-7 PARS broadcasts several TV series made by Elam Ministries, including Women’s World. Find out more about their work at www.elam.com
*Most names of women mentioned in this article have been changed