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04 July 2014

Church growth: the real story

Church growth: the real story

Small pockets of Christian communities are flourishing in unexpected places. Lucy Cooper finds out more...

Despite all the talk of the UK Church experiencing rapid decline, a greater story is woven into the changing demographic of churches up and down the country. Instead of the focus being on whether the UK church will survive, statistics suggest we would do well to concentrate on the strong points of those areas of the Church experiencing rapid growth, and ask how this could be replicated.

The recent London Church Census commissioned by London City Mission found that between 2005 and 2012, two new churches opened every week in the capital - this is 728 new churches in total. According to the report, a third of these churches were set up due to a rise in immigrants to the UK wanting to start their own smaller churches or fellowships to cater for their particular nationality, culture or language. The rate of growth of these smaller denominations between 2005 and 2010 was a staggering 36 per cent and it is expected to grow by another 14 per cent before 2015 comes around.

Elam ministries, which was founded in 1990 by senior Iranian church leaders to train and equip Iranian Christians to reach people from their own country, believes there are half a million Farsi-speaking people in the UK, with church growth among them 20 per cent a year. Estimates suggest there are between 2,000 and 3,000 Iranian Christians in Britain, compared with a 1,000 eight years ago and just 100 a decade before that. With the highest rate of professed conversion from Islam to Christianity in the UK among Iranians, the rates of conversions and baptisms are staggering church leaders, and churches are reaching out for help to deal with the influx.

The majority of Iranians in the UK are asylum-seekers and due to the government asylum seeker dispersal policy are found scattered around the country with hubs in cities including Birmingham, Glasgow, Brighton, Manchester, Newcastle and Cardiff. They are likely to be befriended by fellow Iranians or have friends there.

The trauma of seeking asylum can mean individuals rethink basic questions of personal identity and belief and the young, less fixed in identity, are more likely to convert than the older. 

Having left the strict regime in Iran, "a high proportion are disillusioned with Islam as a result of their background or experience," says Malcolm Steer, one of the pastors and the only non-Iranian leader at the Iranian Christian Fellowship (ICF) in Chiswick, London. "Among other ethnic groups with strong Muslim backgrounds we have not seen as much breakthrough as we do among Iranians", he said.

Reza Jafari, church worker at Elam ministries, agreed: "Many are disillusioned because their identity has been shaped by Islam with deception and fear. But many Iranians are coming to church.

"Some of them may come initially to get support or for a letter to help with their case with the Home Office," he continued. "However many are sensitive to the gospel and we are now experiencing revival. I've encountered hundreds of Iranians who, after six or seven months and despite the original reasons of attending, testify to the work of the Holy Spirit and speak about their love for Christ and desire to grow in truth."

Elham moved to London from Iran when she was 25 years old. She said: "Growing up in an Islamic country meant I had no other options presented to me, just the Qur'an. But when I came to the UK I was introduced to church by my friends. People were kind and I knew that what I found there was truly of God."

There are three particular models of such churches;a mono-ethnic Iranian church that ministers principally in the Persian language of Farsi and is led mainly by Iranians, a British church which integrates Iranians into the life of the church, and smaller Iranian fellowships which, while being part of a British church, have their own sub-gatherings in Farsi.

Examples of this third type can be seen at Hexthorpe Methodist in Doncaster, Holland Road Baptist Church in Brighton and Mount Pleasant Church in Swansea, where Fari Boosheri is an elder. "We relate with our Iranian fellowship in Farsi and many can't speak a word of English when they first arrive". We provide translation and explain so they can make a connection when they come to the main English services.

"Our fellowship meetings are geared to Iranians, to enable them to feel at home and to understand what Christianity is. However, we also want them to be involved in church and community life as a whole. If they live in Britain they need to be part of British life. Let's break cultural barriers and be a church for all nations. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek," added Fari.

Elam ministries, through its director Sam Yeghnazar, is part of the One People Commission, and supports approximately 45 British churches including an Anglican church in Wakefield which sees nearly 20 new Iranian faces every week.

Reza Jafari warned of a potential of pretence among Iranians: "There are 99 per cent of converted Christians who still have chains and bondages holding them back and they need discipleship. The Iranian church is very young, less than 50 years old. It is wide but we can learn from British Churches who are thick in theology and less likely to pretend to be religious," he added.

Elam's vision is to see Iranian believers integrated into British churches, rather than forming separate Iranian fellowships. To facilitate this, Elam provides training and support to believers –British or Iranian, leader or church member –who have it on their heart to reach out and disciple Iranians in their local area.

Malcom Steer argues that due to many knowing little English, it is not so clear cut: "If we do not have an Iranian context which takes into account their language and cultural background, how can they begin to get a grasp of the Christian message and understand concepts like the Trinity, atonement or the divinity of Christ".

"We've seen cases of Iranians in British churches who thought they were Christians, got baptised and when we met them we realised they had not understood the gospel," he added.

Elham added: "I prefer to go to an Iranian church with the familiar music, because it's in my first language I can understand it better. But I go to English-speaking churches because I find that topics are often repeated or it doesn't go deeper than a story. I love it when a talk is relevant to my everyday life, like about how I should deal with problems."

Reza Jafari concluded: "It is wonderful to see breakthrough but we have a way to go yet. Christians in the UK need to learn more about the Muslim background and perspectives that these converts are bringing into Christian life. We need British churches to become the great commission by reaching out to Farsi-speaking people."

For more information on Elam ministries please visit www.elam.com


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