Our guest blog comes from Jamie Haxby
Stripping the Church
In Iran, the church is growing at an extraordinary rate in what is most likely the greatest awakening in all of history. They have no centralised organisation, no bank accounts, no buildings, no official recognised status. On top of this, the majority of their leaders are women from broken backgrounds, ex-drug dealers, ex-prostitutes or former radical Islamists.
Let’s be honest, before lockdown, many of us spent time, at least wondering, if not carefully planning, how to make our church look slightly more appealing, have slightly better worship music and more engaging preaching. Meanwhile in Iran, with almost nothing, they make our efforts look like a complete joke.
Just before lockdown, we watched the film, ‘Sheep Among Wolves Volume 2’ by FAI studios: it’s the incredibly moving tale of the way in which God is turning Iran, a radicalised Islamic country, upside down. ‘What if I told you, all the mosques inside Iran were empty?’
As we ended the film, some of us in tears, we knew it had changed us; little did we know how much it was preparing us for lockdown. The inspiration to know that with no building, no centralised meetings, no physical face-to-face interaction, no coffee, no worship band, no PA setup or stage, we had everything that we needed right there in the scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s fair to say, God is stripping the Church of a lot of the rubbish that’s contaminated us. Whilst COVID-19 has been extraordinarily painful for our communities, it’s fair to say that in the midst of that, I have loved the freedom it has brought to our church ministry, and I can’t wait to see what will happen when we are unleashed again.
Here are three things God taught us from Iran for this time.
Lesson 1 – Make Disciples Not Converts
In Iran, they have this process called DMM; this is the way they do ministry: they don’t plant “churches” in the way we might describe them in the west, but they create DMM – Discipleship Making Movements. The way it works, is that once they meet an unbeliever, they don’t start by explaining the mechanics of the gospel, they start with ‘come follow me’ and they teach that person how to follow Jesus. Once they have done this with two or three people in a community, they consider that to be the start of a church plant.
This is hard to replicate, being from a CU background, my initial reaction is to get people to fill out a feedback form and tick ‘count me in’. How do we disciple people, both individually and collectively, before that moment?
One way we have done this, is at a city-wide level. As soon as public gatherings were banned and all the festivals cancelled, we called people across the city to volunteer to help vulnerable people get prescriptions and shopping, and had an overwhelming response. Within a week, our initial post on Facebook was shared nearly 300 times, reached 20,000 people and 1400 people joined a Facebook group asking to help.
We developed a system (more on this in a minute) to link volunteers to people needing help and quickly starting processing requests for shopping and prescriptions. On some days, we are hitting 30 requests a day, and amazingly some of the more urgent requests were being answered in under an hour by willing volunteers.
Most of these people were not from our church, or any church. We were leading the way in showing huge numbers of people something of what it means to follow Jesus, in some small way leading them in an apprenticeship to him. James 1:27 says that true religion is caring for the orphan and the widow. If Zondervan brings out a COVID-19 translation, it’ll probably say: ‘true religion is caring for those on the shielded list’. This true religion is what we are teaching our city.
Further to that, we’ve now partnered with the local authority COVID-19 helpline, who choose our volunteer system over many others, including the NHS GoodSAM system, to become the exclusive place they make referrals from across the district. This was a ministry that didn’t even exist a few weeks ago. It’s amazing and beautiful to be in this position of leading the way, creating disciples first not converts.
To be really clear, I’m not saying that this counts as people becoming Christians, or that they will all come to our church when this ends and make commitments, but I am saying that we are now leading the way in the city to show people what it looks like to follow Jesus. Teaching them to be kind and compassionate, bringing together the community.
No doubt this will be followed up with thank-you meals and award-giving to volunteers in the months to come when we are allowed to do such things. We’ve formed many relationships and connections in the process. We might not see the eternal fruit of this for a few years to come, but wow, God is moving.
Lessons 2 – God Uses Anyone
One of the things Nay said in an earlier blog post, Church Uploaded was that we need to be open to new leaders and using people in new ways. You see exactly the same thing in the Iranian Church, the most unlikely people doing the most extraordinary things.
Credit where credit is due, our amazing volunteer system only got off the ground because one of our guys, Tim Morris, stayed up all night and designed it from the ground up. I kid you not, the local authority said the NHS system or any other system they tried didn’t ‘hold a candle’ to what he managed to develop with his desktop computer in his parent’s dining room. Don’t get me wrong, Tim is a fantastic guy and super talented, but I did not see that coming at all.
We were even more surprised to be asked by someone from the BBC to feature in an article they were writing;
In Iran, it’s prostitutes and radicalised Muslims that are planting churches, in Lancaster, it’s Tim Morris in his parent’s dining room putting the Church at the centre of the COVID-19 response. God specialism is turning things on their head.
So two key things we’ve learnt: firstly, your best leaders in this time might be the most unlikely people; secondly, as an existing leader, you might be the most unlikely social media influencer. However, in both circumstances, the same thing is true: God can use anyone.
So firstly, think outside the box with who you ask and appoint quickly. We’ve appointed a YouTube ‘pastor’ and an Instagram ‘pastor’: people to take a lead on these platforms to innovate and find ways to use them to create new disciples. We’ve even got one of our youth hosting a vlog on Instagram Stories describing life in lockdown, it’s been a hit! Just give people an opportunity.
Secondly, just get out there yourself on social media, you can be an influencer too.
The key is to forget about it being professional and slick, you’ll never win on that front anyway, and people value authenticity. Just hit Facebook LIVE and trust God.
We’ve been doing that almost every day. I’ve done devotional thoughts live on Facebook from the treehouse in my garden amongst other weird places; it’s never well-produced: it’s just shot on our phones, but it does engage with people.
Let me stress, we are not a big church, we are not well equipped with tech equipment, quite the opposite. But we are creating 8000 engagements a week on Facebook alone: this is comments, likes, shares, reaching 50,000 people in the last 28 days.
The result has been many new people watching on Sundays and telling us that they have been watching, people getting in touch asking us to phone them up to tell them about Jesus from a variety of backgrounds. There are some amazing testimonies starting to come to the surface.
Lesson 3 – Just Be Bold
I was really moved by the story of one Iranian in the film who came to the USA to escape persecution in Iran. However, she decided to return to Iran as she felt like the spiritual threat was greater in the USA than in Iran; what a wake-up call for us in the west, that those in Iran would consider the persecution we face worse than theirs.
This only makes sense when we realise that death, even martyrdom, is not a great threat in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s this bold trust in the resurrection that is giving confidence to the Iranian Christians to approach others and tell them about knowing what might happen to them.
It’s for this reason that we’ve thrown everything at making sure we are not hiding. There is no right or wrong with how you choose to do Sunday mornings, but our personal choice was to be as high risk as possible.
Every Sunday, we have gone live on Facebook as a group, with a service leader, preacher, worship leader and occasionally guests as well. Initially, we used Zoom to do this, but then we moved to StreamYard which is a far superior platform for this. (*See note below on StreamYard)
The result is, firstly, because it is not pre-recorded, there is nowhere to hide: it is real, authentic, unedited and unfiltered, with real-time audience response and a sense of community. Secondly, it’s basically street preaching, but with a rent-a-crowd from Church.
Some would laugh at the fact that this is facing up to spiritual persecution in our age, but let’s be honest, it’s social media that curates much our cultures ideas, and the platform is totally geared towards feeding the idols of hyper-individualism, the same idols that Iranian women ran from in the USA. By going live on Facebook, we are basically doing church right in the middle of the temple of Baal.
Not only that, but we can easily underestimate the courage it takes to share your church’s live stream on Facebook, especially for those not from a Christian background. Many people have 1000+ keyboard warrior-ready friends on Facebook, all waiting to give their opinions and thoughts; sharing the live stream so they can all watch, is actually fairly daunting for some. Who isn’t scared to share their faith with all of their friends and family, past and present all at once?
But we’ve got to be unafraid. Whatever you are doing on a Sunday morning, at some point during the week, give digital street preaching a go and encourage people to share it.
We get somewhere in the region of 800 people dropping in and out of the service throughout, some staying for less than a minute, some staying longer, but all catching snippets a bit like they would on the street. 10s of people are telling us that their friends are watching and are engaged, some telling us that they will come on a Sunday when things go back to normal. It’s unbelievable, the service itself is pretty rubbish, the only thing good about it is Jesus,which is partly intentional.
Our challenge in recent weeks has been thinking about how we turn these two-minute viewers into disciples. We’ve been following updates from Nona Jones on this, she is Facebook’s head of faith and is rapidly rolling out new features for churches, including discipleship tools for Facebook groups. (see some of her work here:
One of the things we’ve tried, is Zoom meetings straight after the service: we head into two Zoom meetings, one for 1-1 prayer ministry (using breakout rooms) and one for post-service refreshments (grab a coffee and just catch up with people). Amazingly, we’ve even had new people coming for prayer ministry in recent weeks. Again, be bold and try something.
Another thing we’ve tried is contacting people from all over the country and asking them to do podcast interviews with us that have an evangelistic edge. Again, we’re just trying something and experimenting!
So far we’ve had people talking about suffering, anxiety, weight lifting, home schooling and most recently Greg Downes talking about rediscovering humanity during COVID19. You can watch that latest one here.
We have everything we need
I’m so excited by the impact that our church is making at this time, but I want to stress that this has nothing to do with us. The one good thing about our leadership team is that we are unafraid of mistakes, but that’s only because we have made so many we kind of got used to it.
Truth is, there is a silver bullet for making disciples but it’s not a new program or ministry. The silver bullet in Iran and the silver bullet during COVID19, is a simple and child-like trust and belief in the power of the word and spirit. That Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell (or even just our own front doors) will not prevail against it. So learn from our brothers and sisters that have been underground for years; give new leaders a chance, believe God can use you and be bold.
*StreamYard allows you to broadcast live to Facebook and YouTube simultaneously, so everyone can watch, it then displays comments (when you bring them up) on screen from viewers on YouTube and Facebook simultaneously, so everyone gets to engage wherever they are watching and so there is a sense of community across platforms. You can also add custom lower third announcements, overlays, scrolling tickers, custom backgrounds and a whole host of different layouts.
At Community in a Crisis We’re passionate about building #relationalonlinechurch during #COVID19. Visit our facebook page or on Twitter. Register here for our training materials, recordings and events. We have training on; Offering hope in a Crisis – Evangelism in the local church, Multi-Platform worship training for worship leaders and Getting your church online through Zoom.