With the US embassy siege in Tehran still hanging over them and at a time of food shortages and fear, Americans Tat Stewart and his wife set off to lead a major Christian youth conference in the north of the city in the summer of 1980. In the second of two blogs, Revd Tat Stewart recalls the astonishing move of God’s Spirit that happened there.
My wife Patty and I had two experiences in 1979 that forever changed the direction of our lives. The first one came while attending youth group meetings in Tehran. We had four congregations, and I was asked to circulate among them and to give biblical messages.
I had learnt from leading young people in America that if you can hold their attention for fifteen minutes, you are doing well. So, I prepared my short devotional and attended the first meeting. I laboured through my message with my rusty Farsi and, to my surprise, captured the full attention of the twenty or so sitting in front of me.
I ended with a prayer. No-one moved. Then one of the older boys said, “Is that all you have? We have been waiting for a teacher for a long time. Please don’t stop.” Well, needless to say, I was not prepared to say much more.
A few days later, I was to speak at another youth group, and I was comforted by the fact that I could use the same message that I had just delivered. To my dismay, all the young people who had been at my first meeting were there too. That is when I realised I was in real trouble! I tell this story just to illustrate that God was doing a new thing among the youth of the church.
The second event that was transformative for Patty and me was our experience at a national youth conference that I organised in the summer of 1980. It had been a turbulent year for us. In November 1979, the American Embassy had been overrun by students who claimed to be followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and 53 Americans had been taken hostage.
It is hard to put into words the effect this event had on the 200-plus Americans who were living in Tehran at the time. There was no internet or email in those days, and the Iranian government had cut off all phone connections to America, keeping our families in the dark as to how we were doing. We had also weathered the attempted rescue of the hostages, which got stuck in the desert and saw the death of eight American servicemen. By the summer of 1980, we were basically living day to day under great pressure and uncertain regarding our future in Iran.
Amidst all this, in June 1980 Patty and I and our two children packed our bags and drove to northern Tehran to what was then called “The Garden of Evangelism”, which was a wonderful Christian conference centre. I had spent months preparing for this conference and had selected six youth leaders to assist me in leading Bible studies and counselling the attendees. The time I spent with these young leaders was very strategic, as God used each one of them in amazing ways.
Some 97 young people attended the conference from five different cities in Iran. There were many challenges. We shared only one shower for nearly 100 people. There were food shortages at the time, so some shops set limits on how much they would sell to each customer. I remember that I had to go to a number of bakeries to buy enough bread to feed everyone.
…their thirst for God was overwhelming.”
In spite of these challenges, it was a life-changing conference. I had prepared lessons from the Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to the Romans. As we got into the week, the students wanted only to study the Word and pray. Though most of them came from Christian homes, their thirst for God was overwhelming.
On the last night of the conference, I decided that we needed to have a bonfire, as you can’t have a youth conference without one. We gathered around the fire, and I gave each young person a 3 x 5 card, telling them to ask God if there was anything in their life that was keeping them from complete surrender to Christ and offering their life in service to Him. After about a half hour of prayer and singing praises to God, I gave them the challenge: “If you are ready to give your life and future to Christ completely, come forward and drop your card in the fire.”
“Christ was in our midst”
To my amazement, every single young person did just that. Many with tears streaming down their faces prayed, and the heavens seemed to open up as Christ was in our midst. That night, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life ministering to the people of Iran. I knew God was doing a new thing in Iran, something my parents and previous generations of Christian workers had only dreamed about. And now Patty and I were eyewitnesses of the beginning of a great awakening that would spread across Iran and around the world.
Patty and I returned to the US in 1980 after being accused of being spies and having our pictures on the front page of a daily newspaper in Tehran. Months after we left, the war with Iraq began.
Now forty years have passed, during which time we have been involved deeply with Iranians. Patty and I have planted two Iranian congregations in the US, where we have seen over a hundred people come to faith in Christ. I have taught over a hundred hours of discipleship training on SAT-7 PARS, which has been seen by millions of Iranians.
I am currently pastoring an Iranian congregation, posting my Sunday sermons in Farsi each week on social media and responding to questions and the counselling needs of Iranians all over the world. Patty sings Farsi hymns, which we record and post on social media as well. Most recently, I was involved in an internet church, providing teaching and a time of worship for those with no physical church to attend. We are so blessed to be able to share in this Great Awakening that God has brought to the people of Iran.
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.