Principles for reaching the Iranian / Farsi diaspora

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in the number of Iranians moving to the UK. How do we reach these people with the gospel? This article lays out some key principles.

When we start trying to reach Iranians we can quickly become overwhelmed by how different things seem.

‘Help! How do I share the gospel with someone who’s been forcibly divorced by his father-in-law, who needs to prove to the secular British government that he’s a real Christian, and who’s been living in a hotel room for eight months?’

So firstly, be encouraged:

The most important things are the same

The most important things when seeking to reach Iranians are the same as the most important things when seeking to reach anyone:

  • We bring the same gospel into contact with the same human condition; we hope to bring everyone under the gracious rule of the same Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Despite numerous genuine and pressing needs, the core of our method is the same; sharing the gospel message, with words.

The gospel is the power of God to save, no matter who you’re speaking to.

When faced with the unfamiliar things, remember the familiar things. The gospel is the power of God to save, no matter who you’re speaking to. If you know the gospel, then you’re equipped to reach Iranians.

Some things are different

Having said that, here are a few general observations about reaching Iranians in particular:

  • Many Iranians that we meet are already convinced that Islam is bad. We haven’t had to do much explicit apologetics against Islam.
  • However, that doesn’t mean Islam isn’t affecting things. Sometimes Iranians instinctively see things through the lens of their Islamic background. More commonly though, Iranians struggle with ideas because they react strongly against their Islamic background (e.g. the idea that God judges, or that God expects us to listen to his commands).
  • In the minds of many Iranians, the UK is a Christian country. Therefore, they assume that what they see around them is Christianity. We have often had to demonstrate how Christianity is distinct from what they see, say, on a Friday evening in Glasgow City Centre.

Challenges Caused by Asylum Applications

Most of the Iranians you come across will either be applying for asylum in the UK or will have recently received it. This creates a set of particular challenges when trying to reach them:

Before receiving asylum

Asylum is granted if the Home Office believes it would be dangerous for the applicant to return to their native country. Many Iranians use Christian conversion as the basis of their claim. It’s therefore difficult to disentangle interest in the gospel, and even profession of faith, from asylum applications.

Some show an interest in the gospel simply because they want to strengthen their case (baptism really strengthens their case). Others will be interested because they are genuinely coming to faith. Some will come for the first reason, and stay for the second.

Iranians at this stage are likely to be short of money, but most of all they feel the lack of dignity that comes with not being allowed to work. Depression is fairly common for people at this stage of the asylum application. In the middle of all of these needs, many will naturally look to the day they receive asylum as their great hope. Our challenge is to show them that the only hope that will last is the hope that comes through Jesus Christ.

…remember to keep the declaration of the gospel at the core of your work.

There are many good things you can do to help Iranian asylum seekers – do lots of them wholeheartedly – but remember to keep the declaration of the gospel at the core of your work.

After receiving asylum

When Iranians receive refugee status they suddenly become very busy. They have to move house and are often left homeless for a while. Most of the available jobs have antisocial hours (at exactly the times when you might try to run an event for Iranians). Some move to a different city to be with family or friends, or in the hope of getting a better job. 

At this stage, those who have shown interest for asylum reasons will disappear pretty quickly. Many of those who seem to have genuinely believed will also struggle to keep meeting with you.

Try and maintain contact. Maybe find out where they are working (often takeaways or barbers). If they work in a takeaway, then go there for food. If it’s a barber, maybe try it out for your next haircut.

…don’t be distracted from the fact that Christ himself is who they need most.

Despite all of the real and pressing difficulties, don’t be distracted from the fact that Christ himself is who they need most.

Be Realistic

It is very exciting when an Iranian professes faith. The Lord is doing amazing things, bringing Iranians all over the world to know Christ. We should praise him for it joyfully.

However, you may find that many come, and many leave. Trying to reach Iranians can be a fast-paced re-enactment of the parable of the sower:

‘Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.’ (Matthew 13:5–7 [NIV])

It’s good to be aware of this reality going in.

Don’t Become Cynical

In my experience, many of those who profess faith fade away soon after.

When that happens once, it’s bearable. When it happens over and over again, it’s easy to get cynical. Be realistic, but don’t become cynical!

We have said goodbye to many Iranians in our years of trying to reach them. But we also have wonderful Iranian brothers and sisters who are rooted and established in their faith, who are growing, and who are taking up their own ministry faithfully.

Plan for the Next Steps

In our experience, once you start reaching Iranians, more Iranians will come. Our biggest struggle has not been reaching Iranians, but working out how to disciple them well once they have come to faith. Here are some questions to think about ahead of time:

  • How will you prepare new converts for the moment they receive asylum? How will you get them ready to face the sudden flood of pressing concerns that threatens to choke their faith?
  • Are you going to integrate Farsi-speakers with English-speakers? If so, how?
  • How will Farsi-speaking Christians contribute positively to the life of your church?

In the Power of God, for the Glory of God

Some things are so foundational that we feel that they go without saying, but forgetting them would be the sentence of death for our work with Iranians. So they seem a fitting place to end.

…humbly rely on the power of God. He alone can save.

Firstly, humbly rely on the power of God. He alone can save. Do not forget to pray. Know your Bible and persist in teaching it. Secondly, we do all for the glory of God. So remember to praise him for everything he does. Reject methods that don’t honour him. And know that even the seemingly insignificant things you do for his glory matter.

David Ely

David Ely is Minister-in-Training at The Tron, Glasgow, where he leads a Farsi-speaking congregation.