In “The Burden of Baggage”, Roy Oksnevad, a church pastor, writer and missionary conducted surveys among different Iranian churches outside of Iran. He presents an insightful look inside the community of first-generation converts. He shows how Iranian culture carries over into the church and impacts both its strengths and vulnerabilities.
Roy Oksnevad (PhD Intercultural Studies) was the director of the Muslim Ministry Program at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and started a coalition of ministry to Muslims in North America. His missionary work has been to Muslims, especially among first-generation Iranian Christians.
The number of Christians in Iran is “without a doubt in the order of magnitude of several hundreds of thousands” despite persecution. Many Iranian Christians are forced to leave the country and establish their own communities outside of Iran. Under the Trump administration, we observed a dramatic reduction in Iranian Christian refugee arrivals in the US, a 97 percent reduction in 2020, compared to 2015.
Mvoices talked with this veteran missionary and writer about his book.
According to your book and your survey, one of the main problems that the first generation of Iranian converts in the diaspora faced was in establishing strong communities that had cultural roots. It is mentioned that there are no cultural or historic reference points. May you explain briefly the importance of this problem? Do you think that presenting the history of Christians in Iran including their achievements can fill this void?
Great questions. Under Islamic rule, Christians and Jews have always been considered second-class citizens. Christians have suffered greatly under the various conquering hordes through the centuries. Historically, and in particular, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Farsi-speaking individuals were not allowed in the traditional ethnic Christian churches, Assyrian and Armenian speaking churches. These churches were restricted to their own ethnic groups. Christians were considered honest businessmen and were viewed favorably in the eyes of the Persians, but interaction with Christians was limited. The explosive growth of the church among Iranians is relatively young, starting just before the Revolution in 1979 and exponentially in the 2000s. Those coming to Christ have little or no understanding of Christianity, and, with the severe restrictions placed on churches and Christian converts, these new believers do not have mentors or mature church leaders to give them seasoned wisdom and direction. The greatest need is for mature Christian leaders to help give direction and training to this movement of God among the Iranians.
A history of Christianity is needed for Christians who were in Iran before Islam. Islamic teaching says that there was only ignorance (Jahiliyah) before the coming of Islam. Teaching the history of Christianity in Iran is important, and various Farsi-speaking ministries offer a course on the subject, but more needs to be done. However, this knowledge of history is not adequate to change worldviews, cultural habits, and the values that shape how people interact with each other. This transformation needs mature believers, who can mentor and disciple the new believers. Mentorship and discipleship happen with life-on-life living to correct immature behavior.
For a history of Christianity in Iran, I recommend two books: History of the Christians in Iran by Zarin Behravesh Pakizegi and Iran and Christianity: Historical Identity and Present Relevance by Mark Bradley. In addition, I suggest reading some of the many testimonies of converts to Christ.
The Iranian Christians in the diaspora are the extension of Iran’s society, and, according to your survey, these communities face many common problems that we see in other places including lack of teamwork. How do you evaluate the changes in these communities during the last four decades? Do you have an opinion on the direction that the Iranian church will go in the diaspora?
Many of the problems I mention in the book, The Burden of Baggage, are about issues that are found in first-generation churches. Second-generation immigrants will carry some of the values of the first generation, but they will also be greatly influenced by the country they now reside in the diaspora. Their language of communication will be what they have learned in the school system, but the heart language may still be influenced by the country of origin. Your question needs a more nuanced answer. Tat Stewart wrote a paper for me about models of Persian churches over the past four decades. They are the Landlord Model, Church Planter Model, Team Model, Iranian Staff Model, the Blended Congregation Model, and the Para Church Model. Churches started by first-generation Iran converts struggle often because of a lack of training and mentorship. Churches that get to see a mature church in action and Americans (or non-Iranians) who get to hear the stories of what God is doing among Iranians provide a healthier model. Churches in which the Iranian pastor learns accountability in finances and time management and is mentored in leadership development do the best.
If Iranian believers split and form their own congregations, you will see these fellowships struggle and fail. I know one area in which several such churches have all but disappeared.
Do you think Iranian Christians in the diaspora are interested in how the Christians are persecuted in their country or in neighbouring countries of Iran such as Turkey? Is there any organized social help for them?
Yes, from the posts that I see, Iranian Christians are interested in the persecution that is taking place among their compatriots in Iran. Also, ministries that are connected with Iranians both in the country and in the diaspora monitor what is happening in the country and pray for them. There are many organizations that are seeking to reach out to Iranians throughout the world. In fact, ministries in places like Japan have Iranians attending their churches. Places like Greece, Turkey and western Europe are ministering and helping Iranian asylum seekers and refugees.
When we talk about the Iranian Christian community in diaspora, there is an important number of these converts in neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, as asylum seekers who live in very unstable situations. Did you conduct your survey among them? If yes, how do you see the situation over there. I learned that some of them who got refugee status and the right to establish in the USA were denied entry into their new home by the Trump administration.
My original idea was to do my survey in multiple countries. However, my advisors told me to narrow my research to English-speaking countries and to do the interviews in English without a translator. I met with Iranians from Scandinavia, Europe, Turkey, and Iran after my initial research. I worked with one Iranian who waited 8 years to get asylum status in the USA. His case was a perfect storm. The presiding judge who heard the asylum case accepted the request for asylum. The judge then retired. Due to budget cuts, another judge was not hired, so his case went to an overworked judge. COVID happened and shut down the courts and then greatly slowed the legal process. The lawyer who challenged the judge’s verdict delayed the process, which was aggravated by the pandemic. All the while, this asylum seeker’s health deteriorated. As an elderly man, he died before he received his papers.