Robert Bruce, a Scottish missionary to Iranian Muslims in the late 1800s, wrote home to his supporters, ‘I am not reaping the harvest; I scarcely claim to be sowing the seed; I am hardly ploughing the soil; but I am gathering out the stones. That, too, is missionary work; let it be supported by loving sympathy and fervent prayer.’
If only Bruce could see Iran now. By God’s grace, we find ourselves in a season of harvest:
- Hundreds of thousands of Iranians are turning to faith in Christ.
- Operation World continues to name Iran as having the fastest growing evangelical church in the world.
- Despite continued intense pressure from the Islamic regime, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 1,300 years since Islam came to Iran.
Evangelism requires courage and wisdom, as the New Testament is banned literature; and yet bold evangelism does carry on and the church grows—rapidly.
Although the numbers are growing, the opposition continues. Police continue to arrest Christians and charge them with ‘acting against national security’. House churches must worship quietly and vary their meeting schedule in order to stay under the radar. Evangelism requires courage and wisdom, as the New Testament is banned literature; and yet bold evangelism does carry on and the church grows—rapidly.
While bringing the gospel to Iran remains a priority, the question now is not simply one of witness, but of discipleship. Nearly all new believers are from a Muslim background. Many come with deep wounds or in the midst of strained relationships. Some carry over addictions from their former life. How do we disciple such a vast number of new believers, particularly in a hostile environment such as Iran?
While there is an explosion of conversions, these new followers of Jesus are still often isolated individuals who do not personally know many (if any) others who have made this same decision. They may have met Jesus by reading the New Testament, through satellite TV programming, or by the witness of family members outside the country. They may be living anonymously as one among millions in large cities or living in small village communities with limited resources. Wherever they are, they have fallen in love with Jesus and have decided to follow him. However, they are trying to learn ‘follow-ship’ under familial, social, and political pressures working against them.
In considering the tools to make widespread discipleship possible in an efficient way in a closed country like Iran, digital technology readily comes to mind.
As a ministry devoted to strengthening and expanding the church and its health, Elam Ministries (https://www.elam.com/) is committed to fostering a culture of deep discipleship in the rapidly growing Persian-speaking church. In considering the tools to make widespread discipleship possible in an efficient way in a closed country like Iran, digital technology readily comes to mind. Technology can offer unique features of secure access, particularly in connecting with those who have been isolated by restrictive governments and societies. However, as with all things, technology has its strengths and pitfalls. As we apply technology to the discipleship process, we need to harness its usefulness thoughtfully to this specific purpose, while maintaining clear eyes to its shortcomings—all within a desire to deepen relationships rather than further isolation.
A recent example speaks into this question of discipleship and technology. In 2009, Maryam was part of the protests on the streets for reform in Iran. The government’s response to demonstrations has been repeatedly harsh; it is a dangerous business to protest.
Indeed Maryam was soon on the run as police began to break up the rally and pursue participants. She suddenly found herself pulled into a house offering shelter for those fleeing the police. Two significant occurrences coincided for Maryam within this home:
- She met Hamid, another protestor who had found refuge there.
- She saw a cross hanging in the hall, which signaled her first encounter with a Persian believer. It was a new concept to imagine an Iranian could be a Christian.
Her relationship with Hamid continued and flourished, as did her piqued interest in Christianity. Maryam and Hamid married, and continued to research Christianity together, but finding information in the controlled environment of Iran proved very difficult.
However, the young couple had friends who travelled. In 2017, one such friend on a trip to a country neighboring Iran met a Christian, Mojdeh, handing out New Testaments and took one back specifically for Maryam and Hamid. This ‘souvenir’ thrilled them. They devoured the words and wanted to know more about Jesus. They were so thirsty to know more that the couple traveled themselves that December to find Mojdeh and the church to which she belonged. As Mojdeh shared the gospel with Maryam and Hamid, they gave their lives to Christ in this foreign country. Then they returned to Iran.
During Pentecost 2018, Maryam and Hamid visited Mojdeh again—this time with seven others whom they had led to the Lord in Iran. They all needed Bibles. Today Maryam and Hamid have a growing number of new believers meeting regularly in their home—but they have no immediate access to a mature believer nearby who can disciple them.
Without someone to guide them, how does this small fellowship move from an infant faith to being mature believers who can disciple others? How can they move from a fellowship to a functioning, reproducing house church?
There is no substitute for presence as we grow together into Christlikeness.
Discipleship: Life on Life
The incarnation remains the model of discipleship—Jesus called His disciples to be with Him (Mark 3:14). Discipleship works person-to-person on location in real time over a length of time. There is no substitute for presence as we grow together into Christlikeness.
However, that commitment does not preclude using technology to foster and strengthen spiritual growth for people like Maryam and Hamid whom we encounter. In fact, technology can be uniquely useful in this context, drawing together—albeit virtually—those who are otherwise isolated.
To minimise the limitations of technology, we evaluate the usefulness of the various technologies through the same grid that we consider all training efforts. Borrowing from LeaderSource’s ConneXions model of the four dynamics of effective learning, we apply these criteria to technology: how does it foster the spiritual, relational, experiential, and instructional dynamics of discipleship?
Evaluating the tools
Perhaps the clearest strength of technology comes through instructional content. High-quality content can be delivered through documents, video clips, websites—in fact, technology is remarkable for volume and variety in delivering content.
Additionally, to have this content readily available through technology takes the pressure off the disciple-makers who may or may not be seasoned believers themselves. At the current rate of growth among the church in Iran, the ratio of Christian leaders to new believers is highly disproportionate—and the gap continues to widen. The task of day-to-day discipleship cannot feasibly be carried out by the few trained church leaders alone.
Creating a discipleship program delivered through an internet portal supports those disciplers who are but 2-3-year-old believers themselves as they journey alongside new believers. Not only does this offer structure and focus, but the portal also helps ‘curate’ content to direct new believers to helpful resources. After all, the volume on the web can also be a liability, as both helpful and detrimental material proliferates.
Technology can enhance relational communication. We tend to use technology even with those in close proximity; and although by far the ideal is to have the discipler in the same city, that is not always possible when a new believer truly knows no other Christian in their location or if connecting them to another believer poses a security risk. Clearly applications that convey facial expression and tone of voice in addition to words will foster relationship. While we must not be lulled into false imaginations that it is ‘just as good’ as face to face, it can still be effective.
Technology provides the possibilities of real-time experience as well. It is beneficial to watch a pre-recorded worship event and worship along with it. However, the level of engagement grows when live worship is aired so that the worshippers join in real time even if removed in place. Similarly, a key part of experiential learning is the accountability provided by another person regularly checking in to see how one’s Bible reading, prayer life, and evangelistic efforts are going. This, too, can be done over technology.
All these aim towards spiritual growth. Truly the Holy Spirit is present when a refugee in Europe prays over Skype with his mother back in Iran whom he has won to Christ. An internet Bible study read and discussed together can renew our minds. Sharing a song on Telegram, texting a word of encouragement and listening to a teaching from a website all use technology to lead the discipler and disciple closer to Jesus.
For all the contributions technology can make, it can also be problematic. To utilise technology, you have to have a device that gives secure access. In our context, a remarkable number of Iranians own smartphones, but certainly not all. So, while the poorest are not necessarily bereft of discipleship, they are left without the assistance of digital technology. For those who do have devices, strength of internet/cell connection can be weak, or interrupted by hostile governments. Technology can also create its own security issues.
Technology does not disciple people; people disciple people.
Technology does not disciple people; people disciple people. So when the Iranian government closes down the Telegram app, as was the case last May, discipleship does not cease because it is based on relationship not on tools. Discipleship uses technology.
When considering ways to harness technology for evangelism and discipleship, it is helpful to remember the following points:
- Measure tools for their usefulness towards discipleship goals: facilitating instruction, relationship, and experience towards spiritual ends. If the technology in question diminishes rather than enhances relationship, it may ultimately work against one’s goals.
- When particular technology fails due to inherent limitations or external factors, our goals do not change, just the means. Never grow too dependent on one technological platform. It is good to have multiple contact points with those you serve.
- The greatest investment is in people. It is tempting to view people as statistics or numbers when you look at the scalability that technology allows. Guard against this thinking. Keep the person behind the technology always at the forefront of your thinking.
Maryam, Hamid, and those they have reached for Christ are no longer left on their own to struggle forward in their walk with the Lord. Several mature believers from a neighboring country have come alongside them via technology. They are using technology to provide instruction on their new identity in Christ and Christian life; they are relationally engaging with these new believers to encourage them in the face of persecution; and they practice with them the spiritual disciplines that will foster further growth. While technology continues to support them, a little collection of believers—a church—is born, and, as they are discipled, they go and make disciples.