What is community? Lessons from the Church in Iran

breaking bread together

ICP trainer and church planter Sara Mohi recently spoke on the topic “What is community” at LIFE! Rotterdam. Here is a translated excerpt from her message. Notes taken by Theo Visser. Translation into English by Mardi Anderson.

When we gather, we celebrate supper with different breads, to emphasize that community is varied. We always tend to partake in what we know, our own bread. But now, very consciously, we take another piece of bread to emphasize that we are all a part of the multicoloured body of Jesus.

When we start a house group in Iran, we always put out an extra empty seat. Even if we are two people, we have three chairs. We pray for that empty chair: “Come home. You belong to the family of God. Lord, who is this child of yours? We pray that everything that prevents this person from coming would be released.”

And when that person joins our community, do they feel like they are coming home, or are they just a number? We drink tea together. We have a meal, something to eat and drink together. We celebrate ‘Koinonia’ (the Greek word for ‘community’) with that person first, not as an after-thought.

Community is all about relationships; I need people who can lovingly point out my mistakes. People who can say, “I see God at work in you and I stand by you.” A community is not results-oriented but is focused on Jesus as King and His work in people’s lives.

Our community is made up of people who are on a long journey to conformity to Christ. We have come into contact with snipers who have killed people, pornographically addicted people, even some who have beaten wives and kids. We have had to deal with great evangelists who were two-faced at home. We offer everyone safety. We continue to pray together, encourage each other, and commune together.

We also help each other to stand in our destiny. Community is helping each other to determine ‘who am I and what can I do?’. Members of the community give each other scriptures as encouragement, or buy things to help meet each others’ needs. We help with kids and errands and problems. We offer homework support. Practice and failure is the climate for growth; it encourages humlity and servant hearts. 

Prayer and testimonies keep community healthy. What we experience with God, we owe to God to share with others. We allow everyone to share testimonies, especially of the day-to-day things. “We prayed together last week. Now I could finally speak to my father.” It is great practice. It fills us with hope and faith. It encourages everyone to keep asking God, together. It encourages everyone to be uninhibited! We pray together for miracles, for salvation and for forgiveness.

A community is a welcome place for the spiritually lame and blind. For those who find it difficult to pray or read the bible, we say, “Come on, let’s do it together.” There is growth.

Our group in Iran started with 3 people and grew much bigger. Someone learned to play the guitar; he was encouraged by the group, and now he plays great. We baptize people in our bathroom. In the beginning, if we didn’t have a bathroom, we would fill a tub with water and pour it over someone because we thought you had to be really soaked from the water. Under the bed, we keep a cross that we take out when we celebrate church together.

Community doesn’t have to take a specific shape. It can look like a regular part of life.  After a meal is shared, we share God’s word. When we have a baptism, we dance and eat cake! In Iran, we like symbols. As a sign that someone belongs to Jesus, we throw a red scarf around them as a sign that this person is covered in the blood of Jesus. Your typical way of celebrating becomes the community’s way of celebrating!

We do everything together. We cry and laugh together, and share our lives. From our group, 15 small communities have emerged! There are different breads, torn apart yet gathered together. Ecclesia. All part of the multicoloured body of Christ, our King!

One year on… Meet an ICP trainee and ADVANCE! conference attendee

Gebed

Are you considering attending the ADVANCE! conference in 2022? Meet an ICP trainee and ADVANCE! conference attendee Jorge Monsalve.

Jorge attended the ADVANCE! conference in 2021 and was called to participate in the ten month ICP trainee program that followed. Please enjoy hearing his first-hand experience, one year on, of what participants could expect during the first year after the ADVANCE! conference.

Tell us a bit more about yourself, your motivation, background, formation.

My name is Jorge Mario Monsalve Guaracao (short: Jorge Monsalve). I was born in Colombia in 1993 and moved to Europe in 2016 to study nanotechnology. My occupational background is in engineering. I currently work for a research institute in Germany, developing electroacoustical microchips. The drive for professional development used to be very strong in me, until God helped me realise how void I was, pursuing that and not having him. It was in university that I discovered what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, “leaving my nets and following him”. Since then, God’s love transformed me to pursue his kingdom first.

Tell us more about your experiences during the ADVANCE! conference? In what way did it inspire you?

I was inspired by getting to know all these people that are sharing Jesus in their contexts. I was very glad to see the vision of ICP to expand God’s kingdom here in Europe, not being passive but “aggressive” (actively reaching out to the lost). Also, the experience of intercultural worship left a beautiful mark in my heart. It is amazing how we can come as we are before the throne of God and worship him in our diversity.

Why did you decide to take up the training program?

I wanted to be part of this movement and do church planting here in Germany. In the months before the ADVANCE! conference I was re-considering my motivation to stay in Europe, far from my family. Just staying here because of my job wasn’t enough reason to be here. In the conference, my passion for evangelism was kindled again, and I now see a great opportunity to serve God in the city where I am, following the vision of ICP.

What is your experience so far with the training of ICP?

I was enriched by the contents of the course and the group discussions. The group environment is very encouraging, because you are in contact with people who have the same motivation and similar struggles. Little by little you start absorbing the values that define the intercultural missional communities.

Can you share what God taught you throughout this year regarding the missional work you are involved in?

I have learned to depend more on God, to pray more, to trust him more. Church planting is not like an engineering project, where you have a budget, a team and a time limit, and you can achieve the goal by being disciplined and making rational choices. In ministry, we absolutely depend on God to move his hand and work in us and in our neighbours. It takes prayer and patience to build a team and let God put in them a clean motivation. It takes prayer and patience to build relationships with non-Christians and point them towards Christ. “We are God’s fellow workers” as Scripture says—and that is also the most exciting part, to see God work.

Please share a highlight of what happened during your missional work last year

The highlight is so far our Alpha course. There were many obstacles that I could not have solved on my own, but God opened the doors every time. First, the team. I was doubting whether my small group was willing to switch the format to an alpha course and share about Christ with non-Christians. To my surprise, after praying and discussing together, they were willing to do so and so we had our first “green light”. Second, the guests. This was the most uncertain part. I prayed for many people and had deep conversations with many friends. When we decided the starting date, there was no certainty as to who would come. Thank God, a couple (soon to get married) confirmed and we had a group to start with. They valued the conversation topics very much and are still coming. Further guests have later joined our group.

Why should others participate in the ADVANCE! conference?

If you’re exploring church planting, the conference will give you a deeper insight on what our motivation at ICP is and what our vision is. It was important for me to meet the people in person and see what their values are. These are things that you don’t notice on the website. The conference was also a great time of Christian fellowship, seeking God together, eating together, and getting to know each other.

What are your plans and dreams for the coming years?

I plan to start a Discovery Bible Study group as a follow-up from the Alpha course. In fact, I decided to move to the neighbourhood where we did the Alpha course because there are many refugees there from all over the world. I dream of planting an intercultural, missional church in this neighbourhood and then sending missionaries to plant churches in other multicultural neighbourhoods here in Dresden.

ADVANCE! conference attendee, Jorge Monsalve

Learn more about the ADVANCE! Conference 2022.

Diversity and the Church: The Family of Many Colours

As I listened to ICPs Theo Visser talk to Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel in a recent webinar about how Alpha can be used for intercultural church planting, Nicky spoke so passionately about diversity. Diversity has been a global buzzword for the past few years, and rightly so. There should be much talk about representation and inclusion, and the church should be leading the discussion on this! But the sceptic in me wasn’t sure if their conversation was heading in a ‘culturally-relevant-for-the-sake-of-relevancy’ direction, so when I heard the word, I’ll admit that I almost tuned out momentarily.

However, what Nicky said next not only shut down my scepticism but encouraged me to reflect on my own experience of diversity.

Referencing Paul in Ephesians 3, he said that diversity is the manifold wisdom of God, ‘polupoikilos’ in Greek, meaning ‘much variegated or varied, manifold, marked with a great variety of colours’. Nicky drew parallel to Joseph’s coat of many colours, the only time that this Greek word is referenced in Hebrew in the Old Testament. So, where we hear these words in Ephesians – a phrase I’ve often been confused by – Paul is instructing the church to manifest the varied and integrated diverse wisdom of God in the church; Gentiles heirs together with Israel, members together of one body.

He even went on to say that when we pray ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, we are actually praying directly for diversity in the body of Christ!

I am the youngest of 6 children. My family was formed out of a ‘yours, mine and ours’ setting – I am the only child from my mum and dad together, and my siblings were all brought to our blended family from either my mum’s first marriage or my dad’s first marriage. My dad’s first wife was European. My mum’s first husband was of UK descent. To add to this, my mum and her husband had adopted two indigenous Australian children. So my five siblings and I are a glorious multicultural tribe – one brother is Maltese, one is Aboriginal, my sister is part-Aboriginal and part-Melanesian, my brother and sister who I shared a womb with are Scottish and our mother was Jewish, which means I am Jewish also!

Our mother was the glue that held us all together. She shaped my view of what ‘family’ is and looks like, and how every person is made in the image of God. I grew up never knowing anything different to this. Skin colour, race, and racism were not on my radar. But I am very aware that my story is unfortunately not everyone’s story.

There is no place for racism anywhere, but especially not in the family of God nor from members of the family of God. Blatant, casual, any form of it is vile and ugly and totally contrary to the very commission Jesus gave to his disciples. Just like my upbringing in a ‘polupoikilos’ family – a family of many colours! – where I never knew any different, our churches should represent a blended family where the members look beyond the exterior and form a bond of choice, of one heart and one mind and one name. A family where it is so natural to be diverse we don’t know what it’s like to be anything else!

Heaven will be an eternity spent with brothers and sisters of every tribe, nation, and tongue, worshipping and praising our Lord God Almighty. So why should Heaven only ‘start’ when we step into our eternal home? Why couldn’t we bring Heaven down and start the party early by forming and enjoying intercultural churches that embrace culture, variety, and a shared love for the Lord?

If, according to Nicky Gumbel, we are praying for diversity in the church when we pray ‘Your will be done,’, it begs the question: what does a diverse church family look like? In many ways, it will look like a wide range of cultures coming together to form a unified group with a common mind and common value system, worshipping one God.

However, that is where the similarities can and should stop. The expression of worship should be a mosaic of language and style. The prayer might even, from time to time, resemble an upper room experience! It would be colourful to say the least because let’s remind ourselves: Joseph’s coat wasn’t called ‘the bright purple coat’ or ‘the loud red coat’. It was striking and different and vivid and interesting to look at…just like our churches should be.

Of course, merging a variety of cultural worldviews is bound to have its challenges. My siblings will tell you many stories about the complexities of growing up in a non-“nuclear” family. It was more than just the looks from strangers as eight of us varying in age, shape and colour would pile out of the family van! I could talk to you at length about the struggles I faced being the only child from our shared parents, difficulties mostly related to feeling stuck in the middle, or the pressure I felt to be the peacekeeper; I was the ‘missing link’ as one of my brothers liked to tease! My indigenous brother and sister have their own stories about what it was like growing up as adopted children in a ‘white’ family. And all of us, our parents included, felt the strain at times of what it meant to fuse together as one, each bringing their own hurts and unmet expectations, rejections and foreign ideals to the blended family table.

Families are made up of imperfect human beings, but a church family should be a place where, despite the imperfections, all people find a sense of belonging and community, and, according to Nicky, the church should be representative of the city or area where it is planted.

Perhaps we could go even further to suggest that the church could celebrate being made up of a larger population of multicultural members; people who find themselves disconnected in many ways to their surroundings, but whose central source of belonging comes from a shared faith in Christ.

What would our churches and missional communities look like if they were to become a diverse patchwork of vibrant fabrics and colours, knitted together to form a magnificent cloak or a richly ornamented robe!? What a glorious sight that would be!