Heavy lifting: Iranian coach becomes Converge church planter
Church planting & multiplication
Reza Pezeshkian has clear memories of his favorite lift from his days as a competitive weightlifter. Before he ever became a coach with Iran’s national team, Pezeshkian loved the snatch lift.
He can still sense the motion years later: slowly bend the knees into a squatting crouch. Straighten the back, regulate breathing. Grip the high-grade steel of the six-foot long barbell.
Focus the mind.
Keep the chin up, the eyes straight ahead.
Then, he’d snatch his personal record ― 330 pounds ― straight off the floor. Pause the barbell’s upward arc at the waist, then powerfully explode the weight over the head, finishing with the arms fully extended.
“I miss lifting weights,” Pezeshkian said. He always thought ― no, no, he dreamed ― that weightlifting would provide opportunities outside his native Iran, where he and his wife, Jamileh, raised their children in Rasht.
Rasht is in northwest Iran, about 30 minutes from the Caspian Sea and four hours by car from Tehran. Jamileh owned a daycare until nine years ago, when they left Iran. Pezeshkian was the coach of the national weightlifting team. He traveled with the team to competitions inside and outside Iran. As he traveled, Pezeshkian often wondered if coaching would be a way for him to leave Iran and settle in another country.
“God did bring me to another country, and he put me in a coaching position,” said Pezeshkian. “But not for weightlifting, for his Word.”
He, Jamileh, and their adult children ― son Kamyab and daughter Kimia ― left nine years ago for Turkey. They lived there as refugees before arriving in Washington state. Living in Turkey led the now 54-year-old man to a surprising friendship.
When the coach meets the King
“I didn’t really follow Jesus, Jesus followed me,” he said about what God began in Turkey. Pezeshkian said he was never the type of person to speak out for someone else or advocate for somebody else’s cause. While in the refugee camp in Turkey, where his family lived for more than three years, Jesus started changing the coach’s priorities and perspectives.
He attended a church one time in Turkey. After that, he started listening to preaching online and reading the Christian Scriptures on his own. Within a few months, he believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Lord of Heaven and Savior of all humanity.
Now, having faith, Pezeshkian approached the Christian life somewhat like the snatch or another of his favorite lifts, the clean and jerk. When he last lifted regularly, Pezeshkian gradually developed the strength and coordination to clean and jerk more than 400 pounds. Getting that strong required a commitment to serious training, a significant investment of time toward a singular goal.
Discovering how to serve in the local church
That training and ability, and his steadfast spirit, gave him the willingness to start small. Of his time serving God in Turkey, he simply says he was “doing his part.”
Leaving Turkey to resettle in Washington state, Pezeshkian slowly applied his growing faith to serve where he could. In some ways, he was growing stronger, finding the spiritual strength, balance and agility to attempt more and more for the Lord.
It was during that time God gave Pezeshkian a strong compassion and an unexpected opportunity. Across western Washington, a unique group of people who need what the Lord has given the former coach are all around him.
Roughly 10,000 Farsi speakers ― most of them from Iran ― live within 15 miles of Pezeshkian’s church. But there isn’t a church focused on sharing Christ with those people.
At first, when arriving in Washington, Pezeshkian was able to preach a few times at what became his home church. But since then, he’s developed a high-impact, online ministry to preach to Farsi speakers on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and YouTube.
Pursuing ministry passion with social media in Iran
That ministry is intentional for the people on his heart because many Iranians face a lot of government restrictions. Those barriers hinder the communication of Christ’s identity and work for humanity.
“There are a lot of Iranians who are looking for God,” he said. “The Word says, ‘how can they believe if they haven’t heard?’ It’s my job to speak so they can hear.”
Pezeshkian says it’s not uncommon for one person a week watching online to receive the saving grace available by faith in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
“Iranians love to seek out truth and find God,” he said. “Their heart is very open toward the true God and finding Him. But they need to hear.”
Moreover, Pezeshkian knows the history of Iran includes the events recorded in the book of Esther. In Iran, King Cyrus made tremendously benevolent choices toward Hebrew people.
King Cyrus was ruling Persia after they defeated Babylon. It was during that time the Jews were a conquered, exiled people under Babylonian authority. But Cyrus, upon gaining power, allowed Jewish exiles to return to the Promised Land to renew their faith and culture.
To Pezeshkian, this long history with God’s activity among Persians has one conclusion: “God wants to reach the Persian community.”
Taking his ministry into the local community again
So does Pezeshkian. To help even more Farsi speakers know Christ, Pezeshkian started a Bible study at his church in the Puget Sound region. Every month, he is having 20 to 25 Farsi-speakers coming to the Bible study. There they hear about the eternal King who wants to reach them.
When Pezeshkian’s pastor shared with Converge Northwest district executive minister Nate Hettinga that so many were regular attenders, Hettinga thought a new church could happen.
Hettinga is always eager to discover and support new churches. Hettinga was in current role with Converge Northwest for a month before he met Pezeshkian and his wife last February.
“Both Reza and Jamileh are very winsome and you fall in love with them rather quickly,” Nate said. “We have a lot of confidence that God’s hand is on him and on this process.”
Becoming a church planter with Converge
That confidence continues to grow now that Pezeshkian has begun Converge’s formal process to plant a church. First, he participated in an online church planting pre-assessment called LeadershipOnRamp with Neil Tibbett. After that event, Tibbett became Pezeshkian’s coach for planting a church.
Next for Pezeshkian and Jamileh was completing a more involved church planting assessment. At that time, Converge church plant leadership heard Pezeshkian preach and got to know him some for who he is.
“This is one of those stories where, as you peel back the layers, you realize this is a significant leadership couple,” said Hettinga. “And they don’t carry themselves like that. There’s a great deal of humility.”
Before the second assessment ended, Reza was asked to pray. The powerful moment that happened during prayer only added to Hettinga’s growing enthusiasm for this new church.
After the prayer, Hettinga said, “Everybody was in tears. There was just a sense of the power of the spirit of God. [Reza’s] got this booming, resonating voice that, it just communicated authority and confidence and the sense of God’s presence with us.”
Pezeshkian and his wife attended Church Planting 101, a church planting training course, in November. Now, Pezeshkian’s working on a written church plant proposal and creating his church’s leadership structure.
In mid-December, Pezeshkian and his church planting coach Neil Tibbett created a shopping list. This list will inform a digital baby shower with a list of things needed for the Farsi-speaking church. Pezeshkian plans to name the church Eternal King Church.
Where God’s help is needed
“Church planting within an ethnic people group is challenging,” Hettinga said. “This will need to be bathed in prayer, especially because Reza’s going to be reaching immigrants who’ve left their countries.”
Pezeshkian explained more that the Farsi speakers have a lot of their own practical needs. That makes it challenging for a church plant to have the tangible support needed in the early years.
But the congregation that is already hosting the Bible study for Farsi-speakers has agreed to share their building for Sunday services. For a Converge congregation that could be asking ‘how to support church planting,’ Hettinga said this generosity and partnership is Exhibit A. The church sharing their building is a generous congregation sharing what they have to serve God’s purposes.
A major initiative for Converge in this season is that each church would be seriously involved in church planting. Converge leaders and members have begun saying ‘each one, start one’ as they seek this goal together.
That can mean a church would serve as a mother church, sending out several of its members and a pastor to start a new congregation. But, just as valued, is what the church helping the Farsi congregation has done. The prayer is that each church would help start new churches, even though that help looks different in each congregation and new church.
“We have to have eyes to see the opportunities that are right in front of us,” added Hettinga.
Having a church to meet in right away will be a huge boost to the church’s vitality, Hettinga said. Pezeshkian will be able to focus more on ministry at a crucial season for the young church.
Even more importantly, many Iranians are used to Islamic leaders asking for money. That creates a strong, negative association in the hearts of Iranians if they are asked for money in the United States. Pezeshkian understands why many American churches operate and communicate about finances. But the history of Iranians with Islamic teaching and practice means he really needs the church to be different.
“They need to know that Christian leaders aren’t expecting you to give money,” he explained.
In a Persian church, another difference is the format of a worship service. Farsi speakers often expect to gather as a community and spend time in relationship while in the church building. They would spend about an hour praying, worshiping and receiving instruction through Scripture. Then, Pezeshkian added, they would embrace their love of talking and coffee to sit around talking to each other and meeting new people.
“God didn’t just bring me here to get the best life. God has work for me; he brought me here to speak to Farsi people to let them know God’s word,” Pezeshkian added of the church’s purpose.
Long term, Pezeshkian and Hettinga hope this is the first of many Farsi-speaking churches in Washington. Hettinga believes, for a leader of Pezeshkian’s character and competency, there’s potential for a movement of Farsi churches to begin. Such a movement of mother-daughter churches could help reach those 10,000 people.
A church for Farsi speakers, a leader who God could use to start a movement of churches within the Farsi-speaking community, may be an answer to prayers for God’s will on earth. Thinking of Pezeshkian, Hettinga said a movement is, “not even possible unless you have a leader like Reza.”
God didn’t just bring me here to get the best life. God has work for me.
So Pezeshkian is planting his church with deep faith in the eternal King. And he’s doing it in a way that expresses his training and temperament from years as a coach.
He’s caring more about others than himself. He can do the work, but he wants to coach as well. He’s got the right posture; he knows the motions. He’s developed the faith, the hope and the love, the strength and the grip, the balance and the breathing.
“God brought me here to speak to Farsi people, to let them know God’s word and teach them,” he said.
Eternal King Church can be supported in prayer or by financial support. More information is available by contacting Converge Northwest.
Ben Greene, Guest writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.