Come Help Build the Church on the Arabian Peninsula
When the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah, recently said it is "necessary to destroy all the churches in the region," I wondered: Does that include our church here in Dubai?
The Grand Mufti, Saudi's highest Islamic authority, was in nearby Kuwait, supporting legislative attempts to eliminate the churches there. He invoked an ancient hadith, an official Islamic teaching saying "there are not to be two religions in the Peninsula" and concluded, "Kuwait is a part of the Arabian Peninsula and therefore it is necessary to destroy all the churches in it."
The sheikh may threaten to destroy churches here, but Jesus, the Sheikh of sheikhs and Lord of lords, promised to build them, and he is doing just that. There are encouraging signs among English- and Arabic-speaking congregations in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. In view of the massive ministry needs and opportunities here, more followers of Jesus should move to Arabia to plant their lives, build solid churches, preach the gospel and reach the nations.
Why haven't you moved to Arabia? Here are some mistaken perceptions preventing people from moving into the Grand Mufti's neck of the woods.
1. There are no churches on the Arabian Peninsula---so why plant my life there?
Actually, there are local congregations in all of the Gulf states, including places like Aden, Yemen, Muscat, Oman, and Dubai, U.A.E. Many of these are English-language congregations since English, as much as Arabic, is the medium of business in many of the Gulf states. These churches are demographically diverse, reflecting the culture at large. In our church in Dubai there are people from more than 60 nationalities.
To be sure, most of the church-going folks are expatriates (foreigners) and not locals. And many of the churches here are weak in their doctrine and living. But the best way to reach the nations is to build healthy churches where Christians are growing and increasingly motivated to reach out with the good news. And you can do that even in the most resistant regions of the world.
The crying need here is for stronger churches and pastoral training. In most of the large cities of this region, expatriate churches already exist, but they are woefully underequipped. The Bible is not central in their gatherings, the gospel is not clear in the people's minds, and their witness is weakened as a result.
By training pastors we can change the ecclesiastical landscape in a generation. At our church, we have trained church leaders from Syria, Egypt, India, Kashmir, Kazakhstan, and other nearby closed countries. We have also planted Redeemer Church of Dubai, a thriving congregation reaching people on the other side of the city.
More opportunities are coming. Just recently, the Sheikh of the northern-most emirate in the U.A.E. (just 60 miles from Iran) granted land for an evangelical church building in his emirate. So we need to gather a church there, and then we need to establish a visible presence that makes sense to the locals, who compose half the population there.
2. It could be dangerous out there---better to stay at home.
True, church buildings in this part of the world are exposed for all to see. They stand out like an island in an ocean of neighborhood mosques. But that's the idea---a city set on a hill, a visible community of people who know Christ and live in counter-cultural obedience, serving the people and investing in relationships for the long run. The local people here typically appreciate genuine Christians, and many of them are interested in learning more about Christ. We want to be as public as we can be.
It's true that "proselytizing" is illegal in the Gulf countries, and that the blanket distribution of tracts will get you arrested and deported quickly. But, actually, I find it's much easier to talk to a Gulf Arab about Jesus than it is to talk to another American about Jesus. Muslims claim to revere Jesus as one of their prophets, and their culture and language are infused with religion, so it's simple to talk with them about religious things, correct misunderstandings, and proclaim the good news.
It's also true that some Western believers were recently murdered on the Arabian Peninsula, but this is the exception, not the rule, for life in Arabia, because it is in the best interest of governments to protect expatriates. Local believers, of course, risk their lives to follow Christ. We must count the cost, too.
The opportunities for gospel advancement afforded by vibrant church life in unreached areas far outweigh any risk. Realistically, Western believers who reach the local people with the gospel will probably face only threats or deportation; others may lose their lives. The indigenous people who follow Christ will suffer more. But even if Arabia gets more hostile, even if believers begin shedding more blood for the sake of the kingdom, Christ is worthy of being proclaimed, especially to people groups who, like the Gulf Arabs, have not yet responded to him. As I tell our people, our church being closed down by the government is not the worst thing that could happen to us. No, the worst thing is that we would be a non-factor in the advancement of the kingdom here.
3. Churches don't reach the unreached people---they only get in the way.
It is true that many "international churches" have the reputation of being irrelevant, tepid communities more interested in replicating their culture back home than in penetrating the indigenous people with the gospel. It's also true that many nominal Christians scandalize the indigenous people by living more in step with Hollywood than with Jesus, thereby confirming the common Muslim perception that Christianity equals worldliness. But that's just more reason to move out here---to reform existing congregations or plant new ones: Preach the Word, administer baptism and the Lord's Supper, exercise church discipline, love one another, and reach out with the gospel.
The church is the ordained instrument for reaching the nations, and any missions strategy that forsakes the existing church is misguided. Don't think of frontier missions as only one-to-one, cloak-and-dagger evangelism. No, the church is already here, publicly making inroads among the local people. Local assemblies are already meeting in places like Doha, Dhahran, and Dubai, and many churches in this region are looking for pastors. The church is the means, or as Charles Bridges put it, "the mirror that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe."
When Samuel Zwemer came to Bahrain in 1890, he first established a church---consisting of the believers on his team---and began reaching out to the locals with the good news. That church still gathers today, and local people of Bahrain are becoming eternal beneficiaries of the faith-filled work of Zwemer and the generations that followed.
We're looking for faithful, humble men and women to come and join us in the effort to penetrate the region with the presence and power of the gospel, and we're holding out the local church as the bridgehead for operations. But these churches desperately need to be reformed, new ones need to be planted, and this will take the investment of many lives. Pray with us. Come and join these churches, strengthen them, support pastoral training here, plant your life in Arabia for a few decades. Come and plant a church or reform an existing one. Even in frontier missions contexts, the church remains "the manifold wisdom of God" (Eph 3:10).