When the whole world is knocking on the church door

  • In NEWS
  • September 15, 2022
When the whole world is knocking on the church door

Process leading in partnerships with local churches


By Kenneth Kühn


Article summary: The leader of Elam Ministries’ work among the Persian-speaking population in Europe, describes the experiences and strategies of pioneering a new branch of the organisation’s work in a European context. Paul’s vision of uniting Jews and gentiles in Rome has inspired a strategy of assisting existing local churches in evangelising and integrating converts from a Muslim background. Kühn presents four phases in the transformative process of the church towards developing a ministry that is inclusive cross-culturally. Furthermore, He depicts how Elam as a mission organisation is practicing “situational leadership” in its mutual partnerships with local churches. The article was first published in the magazine Ny Mission by the Danish Mission Counsel in an issue discussing the changing role of mission organizations in relation to the globalisedworld.



Elam Ministries was founded by Iranian church leaders in England in 1990 with the stated purpose: “To strengthen and expand the church in the Iran region and beyond.”  Ever since the mission has been supported by churches in the West. It seeks to further the growing movement of converts to Christianity in Iran and other countries in the region with Persian-speaking people groups. The main focus has been on bible translation and distribution, translation of literature, media ministry and training courses that facilitate discipleship, leader development and church planting.


In 2015, Europe was surprised by a massive wave of migrants, including a large number of Persian-speaking refugees from Afghanistan and Iran. This segment was marked by frustration with Islam and a corresponding inclination towards religious re-orientation. In the aftermath of the influx many refugees began knocking on the door of the churches in Europe (Jørgensen 2020). Consequently, Elam established a new department in 2016, aimed at working among the Persian-speaking population in Europe. This priority has led to a shift in our work and our self-understanding and a development of new strategies. The renewal is obviously an ongoing process.


Paul and the Romans as a mirror of renewal


As leader of Elam’s work in Europe I have been forced to wrestle with fundamental questions about the role of our organization: How can we most effectively reach our target audience of the newly arrived Persian-speaking refugees with the gospel and how should we conduct our mission in a Western context with a Christian cultural heritage?


In my reflections I found quite some inspiration in recent research on the apostle Paul, as it insists on reading Paul contextually – not only as a systematic theologian but also as a mission strategist and a change agent in the emerging multicultural church. Although I do not necessarily agree with every doctrinal conclusion, I gained valuable insights, for instance in the commentary article of Gitte-Buch-Hansen, with the title that translates: “The Heirs. Romans 9-11 as cognitive therapy for blended families.” The exegetical starting point is that Paul writes to the Romans with a double missional intention. Firstly, he wants to unite the separated groups of Christ-believing Jews and gentiles into a new identity and thus achieve unity across the barriers of different cultural paradigms and divergent theological distinctives. Secondly, he wishes to mobilize the unified church to serve as a base for his next mission campaign that is supposed to reach into Spain. An implicit perspective in this interpretation is that participation in God’s cross-cultural mission continuously transforms the self-identity of the church. In other words, the church is not only the agent of God’s mission but to a very high degree also the product of this participation.


The metaphor of cognitive therapy for blended families appears to be an appropriate depiction of the apostle’s aspiration for several reasons. First of all, the task of the church goes beyond merely showing hospitality in relation to other people groups. The aim of the mission is that the foreigner, who represents a minority culture in the context, moves from being a guest to becoming an integral part of the church family. Furthermore, this integration is possible only through a process of change that implies cognitive work. The aim of the apostle is to help the church succeed in this transformation through his exposition of the gospel and the planned visit to Rome.


The Pauline vision of uniting Jews and gentiles in the fellowship of the church has become essential for our way of leading Elam’s work in Europe. The strategy of Elam in the region of Iran is to train new believers for ministry in order to raise disciples and plant Persian churches that we then supervise. In contrast, our strategy in Europe has become to assist existing local churches in evangelising and integrating the new Persian believers into their congregations. Thus, the spiritual legacy and resources of the churches can serve the spiritual formation of new believers with a Muslim background. Reversely, the Persian converts can bring new life and mission zeal into the church congregation.


Of further relevance is Paul’s belief that the united church can become a base that sends him on to further mission outreach. Likewise, the spiritual formation of Persian-speaking Christians in the West plays a crucial role in the growth and health of the church in the Iran region. In our digital age local European churches with Persian speaking members can become directly involved in reaching out to the millions of Persian-speaking Muslims in Iran and Afghanistan that are longing to hear the gospel.


Obviously, this strategic renewal of our work has made the leadership task inherently more complex. Internally the task has been to facilitate learning that helps our Iranian team members relate reflexively to European culture, language and church life. Also, we have had to construct training activities that effectively connect the participants to the local church and not to us as a mission organization (elameuropetraining.com). Externally, the task has been to build relationships with local church leaders to form mutual partnerships and assist the churches in the necessary process of transformation.


Four phases of transformation in the local church The concept of transformation implies in my view a holistic perspective of both spiritual and human factors. Fundamentally, the participation of the church in God’s mission depends first of all on the Holy Spirit who calls, equips and leads it. The Spirit often works sovereignly and independent of human initiatives but at the same time His work integrates with ordinary cognitive and pedagogical processes that we as humans are responsible for.


This holistic understanding underlies the way I will describe the transformation process of the church in the following section. It is based on experiences from our work in reference to the well-known model of “situational leadership.” In a somewhat simplified manner the process can be explained as a development in four phases: A phase of pioneering, a phase of crises, a phase of learning and a phase of consolidating (Hersey 2008).


The early pioneering phase, is signified by excitement and high motivation. The church experiences a self-reinforcing growth of new Iranian and Afghan attendants that come with open hearts and hunger for understanding and receiving the gospel. A number of core members in the church get busy organisinginterpretation, baptism preparations and practical support for the refugees. Conversion stories and testimonies of divine interventions are spreading encouragement and new energy in the church. The flip-side of the pioneer phase is that often the church is serving without any previous experience in cross-cultural ministry and thus a low level of competency without being conscious of this precondition. However, the implied challengesare outweighed by the dedication and thankfulness of the engaged church members.


The second phase is characterised by crises. It is a time of realisation where the church begins to understand the complexity of cross-cultural ministry. It becomes painfully conscious of its low level of competency as problems occur. As a result, the ministry workers begin to identify the need for innovation in central aspects of the church practice such as faith education, pastoral care, preaching, spirituality, community building and ministry involvement. They also realize that accommodating to these needs will challenge fundamental identity markers of the congregation. In this phase some churches choose to resign or downsize the mission engagement whereas others decide to continue the transformation process.


The third phase is marked by learning. The ministry workers have processed their frustration, shift their focus to learning and qualify their efforts to see Persian-speaking converts grow and integrate into the church. In other words, the church consciously seeks to appropriate necessary competences in terms of cultural understanding and relevant tools to increase the effectivity of the ministry.  Consequently, the work stabilisesand the church succeeds in building a core group of Persian-speaking believers. At this point the desire to identify and train Persian-speaking leaders often is voiced as pertinent.


The fourth phase can be described as consolidation. The church has developed leaders of the Persian speaking group that has the necessary understanding of their cultural background. The high competency level is rooted in actual experience and enables the leaders to organise the congregational life so it accommodates to the cultural diversity. As a result, attention is directed more towards equipping and involving the Persian members in the mission of evangelisation, disciple training and utilising the gifts of the spirit in ministry. The focus is on multiplication and there is an increasing sense of actual integration and unity across cultural barriers.


Servant leadership in partnership The role of Elam in Europe is focused on building mutual partnerships with local churches to assist in the transformation process that we described above. This objective has significantly affected how we present ourselves as an organisation. In the classic model of mission, churches function as financial bases. In this scenario, it is important for the mission organisation to highlight its resources and achievements. However, in the new partnership model a strong emphasis on competencies and results can intimidate the church. Another concern is a sense of caution that characterises certain parts of the European church. The marginalised role churches have played for decades in the modern secular society and the following stagnation have caused some to develop a protectionist mentality. Such congregations may be quite hesitant to enter into partnership with a mission organisation that is rooted in a foreign culture and working across multiple protestant denominations.  For these reasons the renewal process for our team in Europe has been an exercise in developing a humble and service-oriented approach in both our communication and our work to build trust in our partnerships.


Naturally, our role in the partnerships differ depending on which phase of transformation that a given church finds itself in:


Churches in the first phase rarely feel a need for help. Our role is primarily to celebrate the positive momentum and be generous in offering useful resources. As a leader my focus is to build personal relationships with the church that can lead to a future partnership. This trust is developed mainly through the experience of spiritual fellowship. Often, I invite church leaders to our online team meetings to share about their work and participate in prayer meetings where we intercede together for their churches. Furthermore, we offer visits to the churches by our Persian-speaking team members to contribute to Persian worship leading, teaching, prayer and counselling in cooperation with the local ministry workers.


During the second phase of crises the leadership task mostly is centered on providing encouragement and to strengthen the vision and courage to continue the ministry. It is important to note that not all churches have the grace to prevail. The churches who prevail through a crises typically have members with a clear sense of calling while churches that started ministry to Persian-speakers for more circumstantial reasons has a greater tendency to lose heart. In this phase our team can often supplement the church programs with our training courses in Persian. It is important for us to have local ministry workers lead their groups during these trainings so the church keeps the ownership of the ministry. Finally, we seek to create networks between partners through regional conferences and conversations where Pastors and ministry workers get opportunities to encourage each other, share experiences and at best establish a form of co-operation.


In the third phase the confidentiality grows as the church sees positive results of the collaboration. It becomes legitimate to give advice and recommendations because the ministry workers are in a mode of learning. There is a special need for support in selecting and training potential Persian-speaking leaders as mistakes are often made in the process. In this respect, my leadership responsibility is to draw on the discernment of our Iranian team members as several of them are experienced in ministry in the underground church of Iran as well as Elam’s church network in Turkey. This experience however, must be contextualised in relation to the western culture and the specific church situation. Practically, we offer emerging Persian-speaking leaders to participate in a network where they receive training and advice from our team in understanding European church culture and cross-cultural ministry. Simultaneously they are mentored by a leader from the local church.


In the fourth phase the sense of mutuality increases and the partnership is primarily concentrated on growth and development. In this phase it is a priority to multiply the number of converts that engages in discipleship relationships in the church. It most often happens through the “Safar program,” a tool that mobilises ordinary believers to disciple new converts in one-to-one relationships. Moreover, we often experience that the Persian-speaking members share the gospel with friends and family back in Iran and Afghanistan and goes through the Safar-program with new believers online. Thus, the partnership evolves from being exclusively focused on the local context to being a collaboration that reaches out further. Recently we have started integrating key persons among our partners in the planning of our training and in the development of networks between partners.


In closing It is evident that the picture of mission is changing in our globalised Western society. In response to the waves of refugees and migrants coming to Europe the mission organisations must take on a new role. At the same time the church must adapt from identifying as a sending church that supports mission abroad to become a receiving church that is open to receiving support from mission organisations to fulfil its calling to serve other cultures in its immediate context. In Elam it is our ambition to fulfil the role of being a tool of the transformative work of the Spirit in and through the church by establishing trustful partnerships signified by spiritual unity and ministry collaboration where we contribute with resources, know-how and the spiritual gifts that we have been entrusted. The potential of such mutuality is that individual churches engages directly in cross-cultural mission both locally and globally.





Buch-Hansen, Gitte

2015           ”Arvingerne. Rom 9-11 som kognitiv terapi for sammenbragte familier” i Paulus Evangeliet, Nye Perspektiver på Romerbrevet. Larsen, Kasper B. & Engberg-Pedersen, Troels (red.), Frederiksberg: Forlaget Anis.



                   Training & Ressources for Iranians & Afghans in Europe. https://www.elameuropetraining.com. Hentet: 20.04.21.

Hersey, Paul; Blanchard, Kenneth H; og Johnson, Dewey E.


2008           Management of Organizational Behavior – leading human resources. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Jørgensen, Jonas

2020           ”Mødet med det fremmede” i Ny Mission nr. 39: Hvad er Mission?, 31-40. Kbh.: Dansk Missionsråd.



                   “What is Safar”, https://www.safar.org/#section-start/whatis. Hentet: 20.04.21.


Box: Kenneth Kühn


Kenneth Kühn leads the work in Europe for the Iranian mission organisation Elam Ministries. Until the spring of 2016 he was pastoring a local Danish free church belonging to the Apostolic Church of Denmark.

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