The TV studio hums just a few feet from his church office in northern California, but pastor Hormoz Shariat is still a last-minute arrival to his own show. Behind the scenes are teams of phone counselors and hip young producers.
Waiting behind an Islamic veil 7,000 miles away is an exploding house-church movement in Iran, whose compatriots eavesdrop on the illegal satellite programs produced daily by Pastor Shariat's Iranian Christian Church (ICC).
If there is a budding missional community of Muslim-background believers in America, it is the Iranians. These believers' passion is to reach Muslims worldwide, and they are being energized not by the now-grown children of the Islamic Revolution, but by their bicultural kids longing to discover their Persian roots.
On Sunday mornings in the church's bright sanctuary in Sunnyvale, California, 200 smartly dressed adults worship with traditional tambourines in their native Farsi language. Down the hall, a rhythmic Persian beat fades into David Crowder rock lyrics through a door diminutively marked English Worship Center. Gathered in the dimly lit room are 50 young people with spiked hair and stonewashed jeans.
This house-church plant evolved several years ago when ICC's original youth group began growing their own families and careers. "They weren't comfortable in their parents' Farsi culture," Shariat said. "But they didn't fit into purely American churches either. We were losing them."
His own daughter, Hanniel, announced at age 18 that she was leaving the church her father had painstakingly planted because it was "too Iranian." After two years of self-discovery in American megachurches, a curious thing happened: Hanniel wanted to know her Persian story. She recognized her calling to Iranian ministry, starting with a cliquish youth group that brushed off "FOBs"—those "fresh off the boat" Iranians who emulated their American lingo and style.
"We didn't like the Iranian in ourselves, so we wrote it off in others," recalls Hanniel, now 23. "But we have realized that it's important for us to be who we are."
Hanniel and others convinced leadership to recast the vision for an English service that seemed "too American." They began reaching out to both newcomer immigrants and the main church body—which they are being groomed to replace.
"We know that first-generation churches don't last long," Shariat says.
The two cultures collide in a sanctuary corner, the only available space for the colorfully chic set of a new Farsi children's show directed by Hanniel (which even VeggieTales writers have toured). Last year, several 20-something producers aired the first original Farsi Christian hip-hop video. For now, it's their parents' Farsi-language service that's beamed live via satellite into Iran. But it's the younger generation that's at the helm of the TV ministry. The studio is their portal into a homeland they long to visit. The daily call-in shows relay the stories of peers in Iran, where 75 percent of house-church leaders are 25 or younger. The popular Tuesday program Home Church models a living-room fellowship for Iran's underground audience.
Sitting at the studio's control board one day, Sam patches through callers screened by a team of phone counselors. An Iranian in Poland wants prayer for the embattled leadership of her Muslim-background congregation. A husband in Iran sobs about his Muslim wife leaving home after his conversion. "I've been touched by these shows. I'll never leave God," he says. The line goes dead. For a moment, Sam is frozen. He's longing to find an Iranian Christian wife, too.
Now 22, Sam moved to California at age 15 and was soon lured by the drug-riddled Persian clubbing scene. As the charismatic host of a Farsi entertainment show, he shared studio space with ICC pastors at a secular satellite company before the church had its own. The pastors saw a wayward teen wounded by his father's return to Iran. Eventually, Sam was discipled by several ICC men he moved in with. He's now hosting a weekly show called Why Christianity? He grills pastors with questions his Muslim friends are forbidden to ask back in Tehran.
"I put myself in their shoes," Sam says. "I want them to know I'm not Iranian-American. I'm an Iranian Christian."
The TV-based outreach to Iran is creating a missional heart for reaching California's Muslims. Sam's old clubbing friends have visited ICC: "They want to know where this love I have comes from," he says. His dad has phoned in to say on Christian TV that he's proud of his son.
Ali, 27, dreams that his own Muslim father will unite the family in one faith. The American-born software developer is sitting in a pizza joint after church with 20 friends from ICC, shouting at a televised (American) football game and recalling how an American classmate had introduced his sister to Christ. They had spent years attending an American church, until their mother's conversion prompted a search for a Farsi fellowship. Before walking into ICC one Sunday, Ali had never heard someone pray in Farsi.
"It didn't seem real," he said, his eyes moistening at the memory. "It felt like coming home."
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