Churches in the United Arab Emirates: Lights in the Desert
Through the faithfulness of Christian doctors a generation ago, God gave churches favor in the eyes of the rulers of a nation in the heart of the Middle East. Through the recovery of one church, now many healthy churches are springing up in this desert country.
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“You loved us before we had oil.”
That’s what the rulers of the United Arab Emirates said when land and license was granted to evangelical churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
This kind disposition toward was fruit born from the first missionaries who established a maternity hospital in the UAE over 50 years ago, years before money from vast oil wells transformed the desert into the gleaming cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Those who toiled in that hospital helped to drastically drop the infant mortality rate among locals; in fact, many of the founding rulers of the UAE as an independent nation were born there. And so churches, forbidden in Saudi Arabia and unusual in the Arabian Peninsula, abound throughout the UAE.
There are few countries in the world with the demographics of the UAE. Less than 15 percent of the country’s population are citizens. The remaining 85 percent looks like a United Nations delegation. Because of this, it’s an astounding opportunity for the gospel. And if current trends in the cities of the world continue, Dubai and its churches may be a harbinger of things to come.
But are the churches healthy?
SAD STATE OF MANY INTERNATIONAL CHURCHES
The sad reality is that of the hundreds of churches in the UAE, most are merely ethnic enclaves built to import whatever the majority’s home culture. And cultural churches produce cultural Christians.
In the blur of cultures and the pressures of a fast-paced city life, churches often devolve into the “church of the lowest common dominator.” They tend to have a hard time distinguishing what’s biblical from what’s cultural, what’s primary from what’s optional. With apologies to Acts 29 churches, most churches in the UAE are Judges 22 churches—where everyone does “what is right in their own minds.” Worse, other churches are more cult than church, full of classic heresies or permeated by the prosperity gospel.
These are the sobering majority trends for churches in the UAE.
ONE CHURCH RESTORED, GREAT GOSPEL FRUIT
When our team first arrived in Dubai 15 years ago, we found an open door for student work. But we couldn’t find a healthy church for our students to attend. So we joined the United Christian Church of Dubai and hoped for the best.
By and large, the people of UCCD were good people. Humanly speaking, all that followed stands on their shoulders. But as is common in the UAE, they hadn’t rooted themselves in biblical church principles.
For example, at one point the elders preached through Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose from the pulpit―clearly expositional preaching wasn’t a priority. On another occasion, I remember a person becoming a member who testified more to the work of Norman Vincent Peale than the Lord Jesus Christ, leaving me questioning the church’s understanding of conversion and meaningful membership. Then one of our good pastors quit over seemingly intractable conflict among the elders.
But in God’s kindness, he transformed UCCD; today, it’s not the only healthy church, but one of ten or so churches that have either been planted or are being planted across the UAE. They’re all cross-centered fellowships, filled with a vibrant vision to reach their communities through the proclamation of the gospel. They’re all seeking to be healthy churches.
THE POTENTIAL OF PATIENCE
In most churches committed to the Bible, there’s a semblance of the marks of church health 9Marks promotes, and I suspect many church leaders would affirm them if explained. However, putting these marks into practice is bit more difficult. It takes years for a church to grow to a point of being able to practice all the nine marks.
And yet, I recommend two marks every church should start with: a robust understanding of membership and regular expositional preaching. These are key to church revitalization. So, all those years ago, that’s where we started chipping away at UCCD.
We also had to get the right person in the pulpit. For UCCD, that man was John Folmar. After the church hired John, he began to develop biblical eldership, where previously there had been confusion between diaconal roles and the work of elders who teach and shepherd the flock. Finally, after a number of years and with great care, we began practicing church discipline, which had never been practiced before.
The church had come to a place where it was strong and growing, so much so that it was able to launch Redeemer Church of Dubai. Redeemer has since become a partner in planting other healthy churches, following Paul’s model of entrusting the gospel to trustworthy men who will teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).
People tend to pray for the safety of the church in the Arabian Peninsula. The reports from CNN and Fox News certainly paint grim pictures of stark realities. But as one pastor in the UAE says, “Don’t panic, plant churches!”
Pray for safety if you wish. But more importantly, pray that the churches in the UAE will continue to grow in health and plant other healthy churches. Pray they will outshine the bad churches that already exist. Pray they will continue to find favor from the rulers so that the display of God’s glory through healthy churches can continue in that region.