PUBLISHED ON 26 SEPTEMBER, 2016 BY LYNDSEY KOH
Iran (MNN) — Which country do you think has the fastest growing Church in the world? China? Russia? Maybe a country in South America?
Here’s a hint: the official name of the country starts with ‘The Islamic Republic’.
Todd Nettleton with The Voice of the Marytrs, USA reveals, “The Islamic Republic of Iran is actually the place in the world where the Church is growing the fastest, something that would be pretty surprising to most Christians.”
The situation is bursting with irony. The Islamic Republic of Iran is listed on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List in the top ten hardest countries to be a believer. And yet, last year, Iran saw a 19.6 percent uptick in the number of Christians — more than any other country.
“Conversion is illegal, the above-ground churches have almost all been closed down,” says Nettleton. “So it is a country that has worked very hard to eliminate Christianity, and particularly to eliminate Muslim conversion to Christianity. But it’s the place in the world where the Church is growing the fastest.”
The laws that backfire
Why is the Iranian Church going through such a growth spurt?
Nettleton shares, “I’ve had Iranian Christians tell me, ‘The greatest missionary in Iran, the greatest evangelist we’ve had in Iran was the Ayatollah Khomeini.’ This is the guy who took power in 1979, he converted Iran to the Islamic Republic [saying], ‘We’re going to run our country according to what Mohammed would have us do, we’re going to run our country according to the Koran.’
“Now here we are thirty-plus years later, and most Iranians have rejected Islam precisely because of that. The country is run by the Mullahs. The government says, ‘We’re doing everything according to Islamic principles.’ So if the government doesn’t work, if there’s still corruption, if there’s still poverty, then that must mean Islam doesn’t work…. That failure has really, in the eyes of the people of Iran, become the failure of Islam.”
According to Nettleton, the Iranian people are going through honest introspection about what they’ve witnessed in their country, and what that means for their lives…and their souls.
“I’ve heard statistics as high as 70 percent of Iranians have rejected Islam. If you ask them in an honest conversation, ‘Do you believe Islam is the truth? Do you believe Islam is the way?’ They would say, ‘No! Of course not!’…. Then the Gospel comes and they say, ‘Wait, this is true. This is right.’ And I think that’s really the root cause of the growth in the Iranian church we see.”
A challenge to American Christians
All of this poses a thoughtful question: how would the American Church respond if we were in a similar situation? How would Western Christians react under restriction and persecution?
Nettleton reflects, “I think the story of the Church in Iran is an incredibly timely message for American Christians. If you think back to 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini takes power, the Mullahs are now in charge of the country. The natural response to that from the Church there would be, ‘Oh no! This is horrible! This is terrible! The Muslims have taken control of the government. What’s going to happen to us now?’ Now thirty years later it’s the fastest growing Church in the world.
“There are many American Christians who look at what’s happening in our country, they look at the presidential elections, they look at the Supreme Court decisions, and they say, ‘Oh no! The government is turning against Christianity, Christian principles are no longer being honored in Washington D.C., what’s going to happen to us?’”
We can take a cue from our Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ.
“The people of Iran would say, ‘Hang on. Serve the Lord, and see what He does. We’re not dependent on the government, we’re dependent on Christ.’”
To be clear, persecution is not something to be sought after for the sake of persecution. Religious freedom is an ideal to be sought after and advocated for.
But when persecution does enter our lives, we can respond as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 4:12b, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure.”
Therein lies our witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Therein lies our opportunity to share our eternal hope with others who see us responding to hurt and shame in a way that doesn’t make sense to the world.
Nettleton emphasizes, “Our reliance needs to be on God, not on the protections offered by the Constitution, or the political process, or the U.S. government. Now I’m not saying don’t vote, I’m not saying don’t speak out. But understand that ultimately our reliance is on God.”
Pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ currently suffering intense persecution in dangerous places for their faith. Ask God to shore them up with His courage and strength to be a faithful witness for our Savior.