By Tat Stewart
In 1978, over 55,000 Americans were evacuated from Iran due to the events that led up to the Islamic Revolution. But in the summer of 1979, just five months after the dramatic return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, I landed in Tehran with my wife and two children. As we walked into the airport, we were gripped by a sense of tension as we were greeted by long rows of young men in camouflage military uniforms all holding semi-automatic weapons. This was not the Iran we had known growing up, and we were soon to find out just how radically different everything was.
My wife Patty and I both grew up in Iran, which familiarized us with the Iranian culture. We learned to speak Farsi as children. We had left Iran while still in high school and did not anticipate returning, but God had other plans for us. Our return was the consequence of a direct invitation from the Evangelical Church of Iran to serve as the pastor of the Community Church of Tehran. This church was an expatriate church of over 600 members before the Revolution, but now we learned that a small remnant of only six members was left.
The Iran we entered had just gone through a tumultuous Islamic Revolution where the once thought invincible Pahlavi dynasty had been overthrown. Since then, there really was no new government in place. Instead, each neighborhood was governed by a “Komenti” (a neighborhood vigilante group). During the daylight hours everything looked normal, but as night fell over Tehran, gunfire could be heard, and it was generally deemed ‘not safe’ to move around the city. We rented a nice apartment from one of the elders in our church and settled into leading worship on Friday mornings in English at the Community Church and attending youth group meetings as a youth adviser in the four Iranian congregations we had in Tehran.
Something very significant happened spiritually in Iran in 1979. It was as if God opened the windows of Heaven and poured out His Spirit upon this dry and thirsty land. A land where Godly workers from America and England had labored for over two hundred years with little fruit was now changing before our eyes. We did not recognize it so clearly at the time, but looking back over the past forty years we can now see the beginnings of the “Great Awakening” that the entire world has now witnessed. Back then, it was estimated that there were 3,000 protestant believers in the whole country. Today, I have heard anywhere from half a million to eight million. The truth is, we really do not know! But what we do know is that Christianity is growing faster in Iran than in any other country on earth. This is my story of what I witnessed in 1979-80 that were the first fruits of this Great Awakening.
A THIRST FOR CHRIST AMONG MUSLIMS
Having attended Iranian churches throughout my childhood and youth, my impression at the time was that most of those who attended those churches were not from a Muslim background; most members were either Armenian, Assyrian, Jewish or Zoroastrian. When my family began attending the downtown church, we were confronted with two new realities. First, each Sunday we were learning of church members who were immigrating to Europe or America. The idea of an Islamic government was of great concern for many – what kind of future would it mean for them and their children? So those who could were leaving. But as Christians were vacating their pews in their churches, Muslims were filling them. Women wearing “chadors” (head to toe veils) were now seen in the congregation. I began hearing of people knocking on the doors of the church, inquiring about how to get a Bible and the times of the services.
There are several reasons for this and I can only touch on it here, but it turns out people were having dreams and visions of Jesus. One lady who had gone through a painful divorce shared her story with me. She was visiting a friend and saw a strange book on the coffee table and said she felt this great desire to read it. She asked her friend what book it was. “It’s the ‘Ingil'” [Persian for “Gospel”]. “Oh, can I read it?” she asked. “Well, you can have it for one day, but you must bring it back since it is the only one I have.”
She went home and began to read it, and she had this overwhelming desire to meet the author. That night she had this dream. She saw herself with her head on the lap of a man in shining white robes. As the man placed his hand on her head, all the pain and sorrow drained out of her heart. She asked the man if He was Jesus and He nodded his head and the dream ended.
The thirst for knowledge of Christ that we saw in 1979 has only grown more intense over the past forty years. Iranians are searching the many Farsi Christian websites and watching Christian satellite channels like SAT-7 PARS. They are hearing the testimonies of their fellow countrymen who have been delivered from drugs. They are witnessing dramatic answers to prayer and amazing healing all in the name of Jesus. This is a window God has opened during our lifetime, and it behooves us to disciple this fast-growing church.
A YOUTH REVIVAL
Patty and I had two experiences in 1979 that forever changed the direction of our lives. The first one was our experience with attending youth group meetings in Tehran. We had four congregations and I was asked to circulate among them and begin to bring Biblical messages. Now in my experience of leading young people in America, if you can hold their attention for fifteen minutes, you are doing well. So, I prepared my short devotional and attended the first meeting. I labored through my message with my rusty Farsi and, to my surprise, captured the full attention of the twenty or so sitting in front of me. I ended with a prayer. No one moved. Then one of the older boys said, “Is that all you have? We have been waiting for a teacher for a long time. Please don’t stop.” Needless to say, I was not prepared to say much more.
A few days later, I was to speak at another youth group, and I was comforted by the fact that I could use the same message that I had just delivered. To my dismay, all the young people who had been at my first meeting were there too. That is when I realized I was in real trouble! I tell this story just to illustrate that God was doing a new thing among the youth of the Church.
The second event that was transformative for Patty and me was our experience in a national youth conference that I organized in the summer of 1980. It had been a turbulent year for us. In November 1979, the American Embassy had been overrun by the students who claimed to be followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and 53 Americans had been taken hostage. It is hard to put into words the effect this event had on the 200 plus Americans who were living in Tehran at the time. Remember there was no Internet or email in those days, and the Iranian government had cut off all phone connections to America, which kept our families in the dark as to how we were doing. We had also weathered the attempted rescue of the American hostages which got stuck in the desert, during which time six American service men were killed. By the summer of 1980, we were living day to day under great pressure regarding our future in Iran.
In June of 1980, Patty and I and our two children packed our bags and drove to northern Tehran to what was then called “The Garden of Evangelism,” which was a wonderful Christian conference center. I had spent months preparing for this conference and had selected six youth leaders to assist me in leading Bibles studies and counseling the attendees. The time I spent with these young leaders was very strategic, as God used each one of them in amazing ways. There were 97 young people who attended the conference from five different cities in Iran. We faced many challenges like having only one shower for nearly 100 people. Also, there were food shortages, so some shops had limits to how much they would sell. I remember that I had to go to a number of bakeries to buy enough bread to feed everyone. But in spite of these challenges, it was a life-changing conference. I had prepared lessons from the Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to the Romans. As we got into the week, the students only wanted to study the Word and pray. Though most of them came from Christian homes, their thirst for God was overwhelming.
The last night of the conference, I decided that we needed to do a bonfire, as you can’t have a youth conference without one. We gathered around the fire and I gave each young person a 3 X 5 card, telling them to ask God if there was anything in their life that was keeping them from complete surrender to Christ and offering their life in service to Him. After about half an hour of prayer and singing praises to God, I gave them this challenge; “If you are ready to completely give your life and future to Christ, come forward and drop your card in the fire.” To my amazement, every single young person did just that. Many with tears streaming down their faces prayed and the heavens seemed to open up as Christ was in our midst. That night, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life ministering to the people of Iran. I knew God was doing a new thing in Iran, something my parents and previous generations of Christian workers had only dreamed about. And now Patty and I were eyewitnesses of the beginning of a great awakening that would spread across Iran and around the world.
A FRONT ROW SEAT
Patty and I returned to the US in 1980 after being accused of being spies and having our pictures on the front page of a daily newspaper in Tehran. Months after we left, the war with Iraq began.
Now forty years has passed, during which time we have been involved deeply with Iranians. Patty and I have planted two Iranian congregations in the US, where we have seen over a hundred people come to faith in Christ. I have taught over a 100 hours of discipleship training teaching on SAT-7 PARS, which has been watched by millions of Iranians. I am currently pastoring an Iranian congregation, posting my Sunday sermons in Farsi each week on social media and responding to questions and counseling the needs of Iranians all over the world. Patty sings Farsi hymns, which we tape and post on social media as well. Most recently, I was involved in an Internet Church providing teaching and a time of worship for those with no physical church to attend. We are so blessed to be able to share in this Great Awakening going on in Iran.
This article was first published as a series of two blogs on the SAT7 USA website https://www.sat7usa.org/category/blog.
Tat and Patty Stewart have been ministering to Persian speakers around the world for the past forty years. Tat is one of the founders of SAT-7 PARS, as well as being an on air teacher on Christian discipleship. He is Editor in Chief of “Shaban Magazine,” which is designed to provide theological and pastoral guidance for the emerging Persian church. Tat is also the Founder and Executive Director of Talim Ministries which provides mentoring and Christian literature for Iranian church leaders. Tat and Patty have served for over twenty years as World Witness missionaries (currently serving as volunteers). They have been married for over fifty years and have two children and five grandchildren.