This is a story of breathtaking redemption. It’s a tale of how God weaves together many pieces to accomplish His mission of reaching those who are far off with the life-changing news of the gospel. It’s a story of former Muslim leaders now pointing others to Christ. It’s a story of unlikely fruit grown from the faithfulness of short-term trips. And it’s a story of how God is using believers all over the globe to fuel the emerging Iranian church—one of the fastest growing movements in the world.
The beginning of this journey starts with the obedience of a short-term trip sent from The Austin Stone in the summer of 2016. Members of the team spent their time in Europe praying and sharing the gospel in a refugee resettlement area. While God worked in the team members’ hearts, they didn’t see much tangible fruit. Little did they know that the seeds they planted during their time would blossom into an incredible harvest.
“It’s magnificent to me that one week of your time can have an eternal impact over the years that you just don’t get to see sometimes,” said Cheryl Barrett, Director of For the Nations at The Austin Stone. “It’s amazing what God will do in you and through you on a short-term trip.”
When Cheryl and her husband Steve led another Austin Stone short-term trip to the same area a year later in 2017, they were astounded at what the Lord accomplished. In just one year, God started an underground church among the refugees living in the resettlement area, in part because of the evangelism efforts and prayers of the previous short-term team. The underground church started meeting at various parks and refugee centers and soon formed a ministry with the mission of reaching Muslims for Christ. The ministry’s main leaders consisted of a former Muslim Imam who was persecuted by his family for following Jesus and his Iranian disciple named Ahmed*. Cheryl and Steve’s team partnered with this ministry of the underground church to share the gospel with Muslim refugees and watched the Lord use their time to bring those searching for God into the kingdom. “Not that God needed us at all. It’s just because He’s so gracious and does that for our joy,” Cheryl said.
But the story of the group doesn’t end there. In coming years, this same ministry would intersect with Austin Stone goers in another country. The Lord would use that collaboration to build a foundation for the growing Middle Eastern church, helping it thrive despite the constraints of a worldwide pandemic. “God uses every aspect of those steps of faithfulness to draw people into His kingdom. Whether you see it now or later, it is all working toward the advancement of His name being proclaimed where it is not proclaimed yet,” Cheryl said.
The next piece of this story starts with a man named Oscar* who grew up practicing Islam in North Africa. When he was a professional soccer player, a man invited him to a house church and gave him a Bible. As Oscar began searching the Scriptures for two years, he eventually made a decision to follow Jesus. He wanted to share his faith with others, but he didn’t anticipate the persecution that would follow from his own family and those living in his hometown. “You’re no longer part of the community, the family, not part of anything. But God has filled it with other stuff like peace, calm, being loved, being accepted, and being saved,” Oscar said.
After becoming a believer, Oscar later met and married Edith*, who was a goer in his country. Just after their wedding, Oscar and Edith crossed paths with a leader from The Austin Stone who was on a short-term trip to North Africa. Upon learning they had plans to move to Austin, the leader immediately invited them to live with her and her husband—an invitation that Oscar and Edith joyfully accepted. Within three weeks of living in Austin and being connected with The Austin Stone, Oscar and Edith joined a prayer-turned-outreach group focused on Muslims in Austin. That continued to be their focus for years to come as they also trained others on how to be effective in sharing the gospel. “Our last 20 years of ministry we took a lot of small steps. We weren’t always sure of the small steps, but when we looked back over a period it was like, wow. God has really done some huge things,” Edith said.
Three years ago, Oscar and Edith felt God calling them to relaunch as Austin Stone goers serving among refugees in Europe. Today, they work in a strategic region where immigrants seek social services and a stable life, many uprooted from the Middle East and Africa. They serve on a church planting team that runs a community center and cafe which provides food, clothing, homework help, language classes, and even legal aid. Through the meeting of those physical needs, they are also able to share the hope of Jesus Christ, a message that teaches about grace and forgiveness they don’t have to earn. Many of the families they minister to are Muslim. “They are finding Christians with open arms, helping and investing in their lives, showing them love and that they are accepted as they are,” Oscar said.
Over 60 nationalities live in their neighborhood, located a few blocks away from a government asylum application center. It typically takes one to two years to be accepted, and during that time refugees can learn the local language but are not allowed to work.
“For the most part they live in government housing and are provided a small meal stipend and public transportation. They have a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of needs physically, emotionally and spiritually, so that’s where we come in,” Edith said.
Another plot twist in the story God wrote came through a ministry opportunity Oscar and Edith couldn’t pass up. It proved to be the detail that sparked a church movement in their city. The very week they moved to their new city, Oscar received a meeting request from the underground church ministry on behalf of Ahmed*, the Iranian. Ahmed had moved into an apartment two blocks away from Oscar and Edith and was ready to start an Iranian church in their city. He wanted to know, would they walk with him?
“It wasn’t a surprise, it was like a sign from God,” Oscar said. Ahmed had been living in a different city, at times homeless on the streets, but he had a vision to start an Iranian church plant. Their initial meeting blossomed into a deep friendship and provided an opportunity for Oscar to mentor the young Iranian pastor. The next weekend a handful of Iranians began meeting.
Several months later, a former colleague of Edith’s called to say she was currently with a short-term team partnering with the underground church’s ministry led by the former Muslim Imam. They were headed to meet some Iranian Christians in Oscar and Edith’s city and invited the couple to join them. The short-term team happened to be partnering with Ahmed and the ever-growing church plant as Ahmed led an outdoor service in a local park. The worship services, complete with music and meals, provided the building blocks of a church plant. What Oscar and Edith didn’t initially realize, was that the men and women on the short term trip turned out to be from The Austin Stone. A detail that God orchestrated to provide surprising support.
“We found ourselves with this team of 15 short-term trip people from The Austin Stone who had come to partner with the new church. We were there to welcome the short-term team, but we had no clue the team coming was from The Austin Stone,” Edith remembered. They see the hand of God and His perfect timing bringing together believers from all over the world to partner in the Great Commission of making disciples of all nations.
Today, when Oscar and Ahmed meet three times a week, Oscar counsels him on his growing church, they review Ahmed’s sermons, and celebrate how God is moving despite the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic. Ahmed is currently pursuing his seminary degree online, and Oscar describes him as a gifted evangelist. “Every time [we meet] he brings me new names of people coming to Christ,” Oscar said. “I’m discipling him, and it’s amazing how God is using him. It’s unbelievable.”
Last year they baptized seven Iranians; this year they have baptized nine. They see growth, heart transformation, and community deepening within the church. “Only God can change hearts, so only He can do this,” Oscar said.
The Iranian church is one of the fastest growing movements in the world. Iranians are coming to Christ in unprecedented numbers, and one reason for this is access to Scripture, sometimes through a Bible or through radio and television shows broadcast into the region. Oscar and Edith are also consistently approached by Muslims looking for answers after having dreams and visions of Jesus. Some see a man in white asking them to follow Him; others experience feelings of peace and love in their dreams. “Some of them will recognize it’s Jesus and that’s what’s moving them to find a Christian who can tell them more,” Edith said. “But many of them aren’t quite sure who it is.”
Oscar and Edith are praying more short-term trips will come as they minister among refugees through the community cafe and pour into a thriving Iranian church. “Do something that is big and daring and takes steps of faith. We might not know how it’s going to turn out, but just go for it,” Edith said. They are also praying Americans will come alongside Ahmed to financially partner with him and help him continue church planting work full time. “We’ve just asked God to do more than we can ask, hope, or imagine,” Edith said.
God’s heart for every tribe, tongue, and nation to know the saving grace of Jesus means He’s willing to weave together the faithful obedience of believers all over the world to reach those who haven’t heard the gospel. To breathe life into the Iranian church, God used partnerships between former Muslims who now obey Christ, goers who are willing to follow where the Lord is leading them, and even those who faithfully prayed and give to short and long-term goers.
“Every single role was used to continue to see people coming into the kingdom, and it took all of them to result in that fruit,” Cheryl said. “I love that it’s a collaborative story that uses all the attributes of people not just being western Christians, but world Christians.”
*Names have been changed for security.