This profoundly challenging film explores the rise of the world’s fastest growing church, in Iran. Upon watching, my initial reaction (deliberately overstated) was that there is virtually nothing that Iranian Christians can learn from Western Christians, and conversely nothing that we cannot learn from them. They are in a very different place to us.
The Iranian awakening has become a rapidly-reproducing discipleship movement that owns no property, has no central leadership, no Bible schools or seminaries, no denominational leanings, no bank accounts or charitable status. But it is on fire for Jesus in a way that puts the Western Church and many (if not most) Western believers to shame.
In this feature-length documentary, producer Joel Richardson and director Dalton Thomas introduce us to Iran’s underground believers, their stories and their approach to discipleship.
Church of ‘Nobodies’
On the way, we meet some Iranian church leaders with extraordinary stories – a former hacker and meth cook; a former drug runner and now businessman; a former atheist and failed suicidist; a former radical Shia extremist; a former prostitute. They are the epitome of the broken, the hurting, the hopeless – the ‘nobodies’ of Iranian society for whom Jesus came to bring healing and hope (see Luke 4:16-21).
Islam dominates the skyline in Qom, Iran
In the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, these believers have seen the worst devastation in Iran’s 5,000-year history. Ayatollah Khomenei in particular (the original leader of that revolution) and the mullahs in general have been outstanding recruiting sergeants, evangelists even, for the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible is personal – Allah of the Koran is not. So when believers tell their testimonies to others in a personal way, unsurprisingly they respond positively. The believers find out about their needs, share with them and start to disciple them, even though the non-believers are not really aware of what is going on. After a few such conversations, they are encouraged to tell their friends and if there are more than a couple, a new church will be started.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Iranian Church is that it is a disciple-making movement (DMM), wholly focussed on producing disciples who are willing to lay down everything, including their lives. Non-believers are discipled to convert, not converted to become disciples.
In the West, discipleship is about mentoring believers to become Christ-like within the Church and after profession of faith. In Iran, the DMM disciples would-be (i.e. not yet) believers towards salvation. From their first interaction, they learn how to thank God, how to pray to God, how to minister to each other and how to read the Word, understand its authority and obey it.
This method reflects what Jesus did with the 70 disciples and his 12 apostles. They cast out demons, healed and proclaimed the Kingdom of God before they actually believed. Jesus was thus letting unbelievers lead other unbelievers to him and to the Kingdom, which is exactly what the Iranian DMM seeks to mirror. The Iranian leaders featured in the film have no doubt that the Gospel can and will take on – and defeat – Islam in Iran.
The Iranian leaders featured in the film have no doubt that the Gospel can and will take on – and defeat – Islam in Iran.
Women of Valour
Not having any buildings, the Iranian Church is necessarily focussed on how the living stones (people) are the habitation of Jesus, rather than physical structures.
Their leadership is based on Ephesians 4 and all are to be involved in ministry. Many of the leaders are women – women who have been subject to much pain and hardship in their lives. Sexual assaults are common in Iran. Whereas in the West the focus of ‘women’s issues’ is on rights and absolute equality, the female Iranian Christian leaders take a very different approach, laying down their lives for Jesus, aware of the possibility of being raped for being caught as a disciple. Their focus is on grace, mercy, forgiveness and thankfulness – with the film giving one instance of a woman forgiving an erstwhile rapist having read Genesis 3 and God’s forgiveness of Adam and Eve.
This passion for Jesus stands in sharp contrast to the humanist feminism that so many Western women, including some in the Church, demonstrate. These (female) Iranian disciples have had to rely on Jesus and the Holy Spirit to a degree that few in the West have had to; yet they are fully submitted to their husbands and to the church order.
Central to their redemptive theology is the belief that Israel is of great importance, and that they are called to be present when dark times overtake Israel, in the years before Messiah returns. This dovetails with their experience of suffering and martyrdom: they are persecuted by the Islamic authorities but are kept spiritually sharp and clean by having to depend on Jesus.
It would be nice to think that we in the West were fully aware of the dead religion in our faith, that we had taken suitable counter-measures and that as a result we were not affected by the ease, affluence and power we have. That is not the case: while we are (currently) materially fortunate, there is a huge spiritual cost to our privileged position. Our lethargy and indifference may actually be a greater threat to our eternal destinies than any persecution. We have much soul-searching to do.
Indeed, the film allows the Iranian Church to bring a great challenge to us in the West: Jesus’s timeless message is spreading like wildfire and belongs to everyone – certainly not only to the dying superstructures and denominations of yesteryear.
Jesus’s timeless message is spreading like wildfire and belongs to everyone – certainly not only to the dying superstructures and denominations of yesteryear.
Challenging Our Complacency
In the coming years, we (who put Jesus above all else) are going to need to share resources and look after each other. We (who put Jesus above all else) will need to lay down our ministries, or they may be taken from us. But in the years ahead, we will also see Iranian disciples lose their lives both inside and outside of Iran – some in Israel, some elsewhere, for the sake of the Gospel. How will we in the West respond? With compassion, prayers, love and resources to help them as needed?
Will we seek to learn from what they have had to experience – and for some, will we follow their lead? Or will we remain in our narrow and parochial tribes here, never having really understood God’s purposes, whether for Israel, the nations or the Church? Will we settle for being genuine and believing converts, but never true disciples, compromised by the spiritual lethargy around us? Will we miss what God is doing – both ‘over there’ in Iran and also in the lives of the ‘nobodies’ wherever we live?
A Weapon Unleashed
Most readers of Prophecy Today will believe in the importance of Israel: she is currently in Iran’s strategic and military sights, seemingly for destruction. Shia Islam believes that it can and will destroy her. But in the Iranian Church, the God of the Bible has unleashed a weapon of the greatest spiritual challenge to Islam.
These Iranian disciples will pay whatever price is needed for their Messiah and his people. They need our prayers and support. Though perhaps longer than it needs to be, this film is well produced and deeply challenging, with a profound message for the Western Church. It’s a must-watch – and freely available on Youtube.
‘Sheep Among Wolves: Chronicles of the Persecuted Church, Volume 2’ is a full-length feature documentary released onto Youtube at the end of August 2019 (Volume 1 was released in 2015). It can be viewed for free by following this link. Parental discretion advised. Find out more about Frontier Alliance International on their website.
For those who feel that they need to be challenged spiritually, John and Charles Wesley started a Holy Club at Oxford and had 22 challenging questions for disciples to use to hold themselves to account. If you have not discovered these before, you can find them here.