Church Planting in the Desert: Relatively Safe and Immediately Strategic
Tucked away in the desert of the Middle East is a land known for its lavish buildings, bustling economy, and international culture. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), located along the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, borders Saudi Arabia and Oman. In a day you can reach Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran—some of the most war-torn countries in modern history. Some may be surprised, then, to learn the UAE is relatively safe and definitely peaceful. What may be more surprising, evangelicals have enjoyed a public presence here since the early 1960s.
One such church, started in 1962, is the United Christian Church of Dubai. UCCD, the longest-tenured evangelical church in the country, hired as pastor John Folmar of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in 2005.
Sharing about the decision to uproot his family and move a 20-hour plane ride from everything they had ever known, Folmar told me:
God says, "My name will be made great from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets" (Mal. 1:11), but there are many people groups who have not yet acknowledged Jesus as Lord. The UAE borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, 70 miles from Iran—one of the last bastions of resistance to the gospel. When the pastoral position at UCCD opened up in 2005, I jumped at the chance to live and minister here, so that we might help reach the unreached with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Folmar served as a pastor for Capitol Hill Baptist from 2003 to 2005 before moving to UCCD. His church now welcomes more than 600 people from about 60 different countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America, Europe, and Australia.
Folmar is joined in ministering in Dubai with his wife, Keri, and their three children.
But they are not alone.
They have been joined by Dave Furman and his wife, Gloria, who on February 12, 2010, planted Redeemer Church of Dubai, one of the newest churches since the 1960s.
"The Lord is doing incredible things in places we would least expect," Dave Furman said. "The rulers in our country are very generous, and we're thankful for the opportunity we have to worship freely here."
The UAE, unlike neighboring countries, enjoys a relatively safe environment and stable political climate.
"While no place is ultimately safe, and there is a lot of conflict in our region, by God's grace there is great political stability in this country," he explained. "Again, we're grateful to the Lord and to the rulers of this country for this blessing."
Moment of Opportunity
The churches led by Folmar and Furman aren't formally linked. Each is governed independently. But they share a common vision to spread the gospel in their region. In February 2013, Folmar called Josh Manley, an elder of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, to inform him that the ruler of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), an emirate of the UAE, was prepared to grant land for a new evangelical church. Folmar asked if Manley would be interested in moving to the UAE to plant and pastor this church.
This was an obvious open door the Manley's knew they must step through.
"I'd always thought of a church in this setting as particularly strategic," Manley said. "One has the opportunity to pastor and preach while in the heart of the unreached world. Presently, there are only seven evangelical church buildings on the entire Arabian Peninsula, and land hasn't been given for this purpose in 15 years. All of these factors weighed heavily on me."
Not much in their lives could have pointed to a future in the Middle East. Manley and his wife, Jenny, were aides in the U.S. Senate when they met and eventually married. He served as an aide on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Jenny was the Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi. While in Washington, D.C., they met Folmar at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
"The Lord allowed me to work out my calling to ministry within the context of that particular local church where I had opportunities to teach and preach, disciple younger men, and be discipled by more mature men in the faith," he told me. "Over time, my heart moved more and more to the ministry of the Word in the local church. We've known much joy since embarking on this path."
From budgets to management, the gifted couple dropped their political careers for Louisville, where Manley attended The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 2009 to 2012 while serving at Third Avenue Baptist. Now in the UAE, the Manley's have launched Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) Church. They began regular services in March.
Eternally Secure Truth
Uprooting their family, Manley explains, doesn't look much different for them compared to other church planters—except for the laws. He explains:
I've done a great deal of meeting believers, talking with people about the plant, and seeking to raise awareness about this work. Yet one has to be careful here to appropriately honor the laws. . . . I've had to navigate where we'll meet until the building is complete and ensure that wherever we do meet is legal. I cannot take the right to free assembly here for granted like I'd be able to in the States. And since the government has invited me here, it's important the church meet in a government-approved venue.
Though many associate hostility with the Arabian Peninsula, Manley says his new neighbors show more interest in Christianity than some in the West.
"I anticipate the plant here will be a slow work in which believers learn what it means to be committed to the local church under the preached Word and are equipped for the many opportunities around them," he said. "And there are many opportunities."
Though they've been granted land, RAK Church is currently meeting in a convention center until they can raise enough funds for their own building.
"A building in one sense is priceless since the land itself has to be given by the government," Manley said. "You can't buy land for this purpose in this part of the world. Obviously, a building facilitates much ministry. In this part of the world, it affords stability, recognition, and even legitimacy in the eyes of the local people. It also provides a valuable center for resources and training. Thinking long-term about this region, opportunities like this one should be seized upon and stewarded with great care."