Contending for Christ in Dubai

Remarkably, great opportunities for the gospel have opened up in the Gulf State

Although Thabiti Anyabwile pastors a church in the Cayman Islands, he has had deep involvement with the growing church in Dubai. He has taken part in a number of Christian / Muslim debates there. Recently he spoke to EN.

EN: What is your family background and how did you come to Christ?

TA: I grew up in what’s commonly called ‘the Bible Belt’, the south-eastern United States, known for its culturally conservative nominal Christianity. Like most people, I considered myself a Christian simply because I grew up in ‘a Christian nation’. But I knew almost nothing of the Lord and his gospel.

Things worsened as a senior in high school. After being arrested for a crime, I began going to church with the hopes that the trouble would blow over and I could get a fresh start. The church didn’t faithfully and clearly preach the gospel. So, I continued with my moralistic view of things and my project of self-improvement. When I inevitably failed, I grew cynical about Christianity, believing it to be a delusion and false.

In my second year at university, I converted to Islam. The initial appeal included its simple claim of one God and the outward discipline of the religion. It was perfect for a self-righteous young man like myself. I became something of a Muslim apologist, an opponent of the cross, and an increasingly angry young man.

My heart grew more cold over the years of practising Islam. Until one Ramadan, up early for the fast to read the Qu’ran, I was suddenly aware that what I was reading could not be true. The Qur’an admitted too much on the one hand (the gospels as signs or revelation, the virgin birth, references to Jesus as Messiah, references to the Holy Spirit) and yet denied too much on the other hand (the deity of Christ, his crucifixion, etc.). That created a crisis for me. After a year of searching for answers, I threw my hands up in unbelief and rejected all religious claims.

I continued that way for about a year. Then a few months following a miscarriage, my wife and I attended a local church in the Washington, D.C. area. I’ll never forget the exposition of Exodus 32. It remains one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard. It was law and gospel in the finest sense. By God’s indescribable grace, my wife and I were converted to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ on that Sunday morning.

EN: Tell us about the spiritual state of Dubai and how you got involved there.

TA: The Lord first granted me the privilege of visiting Dubai in 2005. I accompanied another brother as he interviewed with a church about the possibility of becoming their pastor. Originally, I was simply along to carry his bags and keep him encouraged.

But almost immediately Dubai enchanted me. There’s a strange confluence of Arab and Western sensibilities. The wealth of the region is well known. More building cranes are erected in Dubai than most of the rest of the world combined. Though things have slowed, when I first visited, Dubai was at the height of rapid growth materialism.

Dubai represents an important opportunity for the gospel. There exists an unprecedented openness as a result of the diversity of peoples and cultures and the influx of economic interests. With the great number of expatriates coming and going, the emirate represents a strategic sending station for the Good News into the wider region. Churches are being planted and God has been pleased to grant them growth. When I first visited six years ago, it seemed the church was in poor health, unfocused, and perhaps too insular. Now, there’s a fresh vibrancy, boldness, joy, and risk-taking zeal for the glory of our Lord. There is much work to be done there, but there’s great work already underway.

EN: Can you explain something of the debates in Dubai with Muslim leaders and how they came about.

TA: The Christian-Muslim dialogues in Dubai began through an amazing act of providence. When I first visited Dubai, the work among university students was just underway. Campus workers found there were perhaps two Christian students on campus. They began to reach out and disciple those students — both of whom were suspicious of the Westerners’ interest in them. But, in time, the campus workers convinced the students to risk something never attempted before in that region — apply to be an official Christian organisation on campus. The students were understandably fearful.

But, in the end, the Lord granted them courage to take a risk of faith. In God’s rich kindness, one of the area universities granted official permission for the Christian fellowship club to meet on campus. Those two young students became the nucleus of a new work and the first officially recognised Christian campus organisation on the Arabian peninsula.

Not long after they were granted permission to meet, they began hosting a Bible study through the Gospel of Mark. Normally sparsely attended, one day the room was filled to overflowing with young Muslim students. Uncertain about the change in interest, the campus worker simply continued the study through Mark. Part way through, two young women in full burkhas peered through the door. They eventually announced that a scheduling error had occurred. The Muslim organisation was scheduled to meet at the same time — originally in the same room — but had been moved. They asked if the campus worker could redirect those students to the Muslim student association meeting. He promptly apologised for the mix-up and made the announcement. Not a single student moved! They remained to hear more about the Lord in Mark’s Gospel. that began a relationship between the two groups which quickly grew into discussions about a possible Christian-Muslim Dialogue.

Again, in God’s unique timing and providence, I was slated to be in Dubai in a few months’ time. So, the organisation was kind enough to invite me to participate in the dialogue. Ironically, my counterpart was another African-American who had been raised in a Christian home, but later converted to Islam. He was now a resident Imam and something of a minor celebrity on college campuses. Here we were, two African Americans a long way from home on the east coast of the United States, discussing our respective journeys and the counter claims of Islam and Christianity.

The Lord blessed the event with peace and an opportunity to preach the gospel publicly for the first time ever on that campus. What an immense privilege to unfold the message of salvation in Christ alone through faith to an audience full of Muslim students and administrators who likely had never heard a Christian explain the faith at length. We distributed a number of Bibles and the work gained favour with the administration and momentum with the students.

Since that first visit, I’ve had the privilege of visiting Dubai to engage in such discussions every two years. At my last visit earlier this year, there were student groups meeting on about seven campuses and a leadership conference involving 70 campus leaders! That’s a long way from the two nervous and nominal Christian students just six years ago! The work there has advanced with remarkable depth as students have come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus and been discipled in his word.

EN: What is your take on how the church should best seek to share the gospel in the Muslim world?

TA: Well, honestly, there is no secret or unique way to share the gospel in the Muslim world. There are challenges and there is, in some cases, persecution. But the task of sharing the gospel is the same wherever one lives.

What Christians in the Muslim world —and everywhere — need is renewed confidence in the power of the gospel to save (Romans 1.16). Sometimes we’re too concerned about apologetics, contextualisation, and strategy. Those things have their place. But it seems to me that many people invest so much in those issues that they never really get around to building relationships and sharing the Good News. We seem to think that the power lies in persuasion and technique. But the power of the gospel is encapsulated in the gospel message itself. That means we simply need to be faithful in sharing it and prayerfully trusting God to make dead men live again. The gospel is enough if we’ll share it.

Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Grand Cayman.