One of the joys I have in my new appointment is the presence of an Iranian congregation. They meet on Sunday afternoons on the premises of one of my churches. I have been asked to develop closer links with them. This was already beginning under my predecessor, who worshipped with them nearly every week. The Iranian congregation’s lay pastor is in the early stages of Methodist Local Preacher training.
I go as often as I can, and it’s a fascinating experience. There are only a dozen or so who attend each week, and they are warm and friendly. Not only do I experience their warmth, I notice how they treat one other visitor. There are a number of people in our area with serious mental health issues, and some of them regularly visit our services. One chap in particular often comes to the Iranian service. They sit him down with a coffee and do their best to chat with him. Frequently, Michael will leave early during the worship, and they are not offended. They understand, and give him a quiet, but cheerful farewell.
Worshipping at their service is difficult for someone like me who cannot speak or read Farsi. (Although one or our two musicians who attend to help with the worship is learning!) The young woman who leads worship has a beautiful singing voice, and I can appreciate that. However, I haven’t the foggiest what they are singing, except on the rare occasions when they seem to be singing a translation of a worship song originally written in English. The other week, the tune was unmistakably ‘You Are Beautiful Beyond Description’.
When the pastor preaches (or when he talks in other parts of the service), his wife provides a basic translation into English for the musicians and me. The very first week I went, she was unable to come, so that was fun! However, the pastor indicated which Bible passages they were reading, and gave a one or two-sentence summary of his sermon.
My early reaction to this experience was to think, “Whom will they reach? Their likely clientele will be very small, and some of the existing congregation travels several miles to be at this service every week. So how will they grow?”
However, I then realised they were not so different from many established English-speaking congregations. Effectively, we already have thousands of ‘niche churches’ in this country. Our language, practice and culture are so beyond the understanding of many unchurched people that they would struggle to integrate into them. And some of our folk travel several miles to attend worship at the church they love.
More positively, there is a certain case for niche churches in a diverse and fragmented culture. (Thinkers like Michael Moynagh have advocated them.) They will inevitably be small, and they must still express Christian unity with disciples from other backgrounds, otherwise the human reconciliation aspect of the Gospel will not be expressed.
Moving back to the negative, one danger of a niche church is that it becomes a private chaplaincy. I have seen churches for expatriate English speakers abroad function like this. They become like little embassies – where the territory is that of home, not the disturbing country, and the congenial company is a shelter against reality. Come to think of that, plenty of regular churches are like that. It needs regular and persistent challenging.
My Iranian friends have a special opportunity to reach out into their community. We have our unique opportunities, too. Within our diversity, we need to celebrate our unity in Christ as a sign of hope to the world that reconciliation is possible.
And that last point isn’t meant to be an idle theological platitude. Our six-year-old son Mark is aware that Iran as a nation doesn’t like the UK. He was worried at first that I was going to share fellowship with Iranians, because he thought I was going to share with some enemies. I had to explain to him that these Iranians were different from the government in their native land, and that Jesus made us one. Given the levels of racial prejudice I have sometimes found in churches as well as in our society generally, this call to express Christian unity across racial and cultural boundaries – and especially across such a boundary as this one – is vital for Gospel witness.