My little video screen is tracing the 15-hour flight path home from Dubai to Atlanta. Interspersed with the other repeated pictures, in English and then Arabic, I see a jet with an arrow shooting from it—toward Mecca. We’re three hours from landing, so we’ve left Mecca far behind—6,475 kilometers (10,423 miles), to be exact. In this plane full of diverse nationalities, including many Arab people, perhaps a good number are feeling a pull back toward that city that represents the heart of their faith. But I have seen in Dubai that many hearts of people from many different nations are being pulled toward the home that we find in Jesus Christ.
I wrote those words while returning, at the end of January, from a second visit to the United Christian Church of Dubai, having spoken at their biennial women’s conference. UCCD is a thriving international congregation led by senior pastor John Folmar and a team of pastors and pastoral interns, all of whom share a relentless focus on the biblical gospel. They are seeing the gospel transform hearts. After a week among the people of this church, I returned with a few observations that might both encourage and challenge those of us on the other side of the world from Mecca:
1.) Our UCCD brothers and sisters articulate the gospel clearly and often. Having arrived a couple days before the conference (held at a hotel outside the city), I was able to attend several events at the extensive church center in the Jebel Ali area of Dubai. First came the women’s Bible study, ably led by Keri Folmar and a whole team of leaders. Small groups gathered all over the church to discuss a passage from James, and then all the women came together for an effective concluding teaching from one of the leaders. Almost like a bell ringing repeatedly, the message of God saving needy sinners through the life and death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ was articulated, to help explain what James means by faith . . . by the crown of life . . . by being brought forth by the word of truth. (The faith/works tensions in the book of James, by the way, felt less “tense” when embraced in clear light of the gospel as constant reference.)
It was evident, especially in the small group, that many different stages not only of learning English but also of learning the gospel were represented. This church has become evangelistically minded because they have so many seekers among them. Of course, they continue to have so many seekers among them because they are evangelistically minded. It was challenging to hear this same bell ringing in every church gathering I attended—not as just the opening notes of a song, or as extra notes supplementing the song, but as the most prominent part of the melody all the way through. They really want the gospel clear, both for the many who are coming to understand for the first time and for all of them who are living surrounded by a culture dead-set against Christianity. They are not condescending by repeating the essentials of what God has done for us in Christ; they are living on those essentials.
2.) Our UCCD brothers and sisters are glimpsing the fulfillment of God’s promise to draw all nations to himself. We know from Scripture that this is what God promised to do; it’s thrilling to see it happening so vividly. In the Bible study group I mentioned, I joined a circle of women who had come to Dubai (mostly for business-related reasons) from England, South Africa, Eritrea, Colombia, Mexico, India, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and the United States (we were the minority!). The women’s retreat represented the same kind of diversity on a larger scale, with a more colorful assortment of clothes and faces and stories than in any group I have ever visited. At my table were two young women who had grown up with Muslim parents and put their faith in Christ, not without significant family struggle. The UCCD family is a warm and loving one partly because so many without their own extended families have come to value and depend on the body of Christ. Being there, you can’t help feeling you’ve stepped into Isaiah’s picture of all the nations streaming together up to the house of the Lord. To see it happening is a faith-building experience. One sees as well God’s providential gathering of these nations in a place where they receive strong biblical teaching, so that many can then be sent back to their homelands to spread the good news.
3.) Our UCCD brothers and sisters are faithfully living out the life of the local church. I loved having the chance to see, there in Dubai, that my ministry among the women was not an exciting diversion, different in quality from the normal life of the church. In fact, one of the reasons we had such a good time together opening the Word (looking into pictures from the gospel of John) was that the women and the whole congregation are being trained to know and study and love the Bible, week by week. In the all-church Bible study I attended, Pastor John wrote on a white board the next verses in their study of James (good coordination between the women’s study and all-church study!). He then proceeded to examine and mark up these verses with help from the gathered group—looking for main idea, repeated words, logical connectors, etc. How refreshing!
It wasn’t dramatic, like a feast with exotic flavors. It was more like a healthy, home-cooked meal served up by one who knows just what will nourish and strengthen the ones he’s responsible to feed, week by week. It was the bread of life, and it tasted good. The group was able to develop applications from the concrete life of the church; they clearly digest and live out the Word in practical ways together. The people of UCCD have not tried to invade the Muslim culture through a series of dramatic events and appeals, as have many groups more oriented toward various versions of the “prosperity gospel.” This church has settled in and lived faithfully as the church, preaching and teaching and living out the Word. In the Friday morning worship service (held on the Muslim holy day, as that’s the day businesses close), the sermon was from a passage in Leviticus, part of a whole series from that book. God’s holiness, and God’s provision through the sacrificial system and ultimately through Christ, were explained with clarity and received with evident joy. What a challenging example of the church at work.
4.) Our UCCD brothers and sisters keep track of us! By “us” I mean the faithful body of Christ doing God’s work both in the states and around the world—and visible especially through a group like The Gospel Coalition. John Folmar knows the TGC folks well, having left a lawyer’s career to study under Albert Mohler at Southern Seminary and to train under Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist. He’s made it a point to bring speakers like Don Carson and Mark Dever and others over to Dubai. The UCCD congregation is encouraged to read widely and well, with a remarkable assortment of solid books provided in their Bible Society shop. At the retreat, I was interested to meet a woman who lives and works with her husband in Pakistan; they had met me via TGC’s blog, seen the retreat advertised on UCCD’s website, and decided that she should make the three-hour flight to Dubai to attend. It was a joy to see her refreshed by the fellowship, loving the teaching of the Word, and making all kinds of helpful connections with various other attenders. Dubai isn’t so far away! In cyberspace reality—and, most important, in God’s reality—his people are all interconnected, all one, all over the globe. I am grateful for another chance to see and experience that oneness.
Mecca’s side of the world was left far behind, and I’ve re-entered a cold American winter! As often happens, however, after an overseas trip, I feel a pull toward that place—toward those UCCD sisters, especially, with whom I got to be the church, for a little while. They showed me the church at work, in a sweet, strong, steady way. They encouraged me to continue the work of the church here, in the paths God lays out before me. I hope these observations will pass on a bit of the challenge and encouragement that our UCCD brothers and sisters passed on to me. Soli Deo Gloria!