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.”

  • Tim

    Praise God for open doors for the gospel! Are there services at these churches that are in Arabic?

  • Grant Pemberton

    I have a cousin who is currently doing missionary work in the UAE at the moment. Is there anyway you could send me more contact info to help connect them? The family is fluent in English, Arabic, & Hebrew.

  • Josh Manley

    Tim – Great question. The language of commerce and instruction here is English. We speak English with our local friends. There is an Arabic speaking evangelical church that meets in Dubai. God-willing, once we have a building, we can house an Arabic speaking evangelical church there as well. Thanks – Josh

  • Hope Henchey

    This is so exciting! I love how God has made such fertile soil in the desert! I am so encouraged hearing about His work in Dubai. Thanks for sharing this Trillia. It really stirs my heart for the nations.

  • Alien & stranger

    I don’t know whether that is allowed, but I do know there are churches for the various ex-pat communities from different countries. Friends who were in Oman for a year attended either a Philippino or Indonesian one (I forget which). Conversion is a major problem when it involves Muslims. However, it is a fact that many Muslims are having dreams or visions pointing them to Jesus Christ, and the Lord orchestrates divine appointments for them. There are reports of many Muslims who have come to know the Lord, but it’s a very difficult situation because it has to happen “under the radar”, because of the “religious police”. One has to be very careful not to name names or places.

  • Alfred Randall

    I am not trying to be pejorative or say it is bad that we are planting churches there or that we shouldn’t, but I wonder if some of the people quoted realize that these places were once more Christian than even Europe was. Take Iran for example. Christianity is far older, and some of the churches still in use are far older, than the current state religion of Islam there. None of these people are unreached people groups. Same thing with northern Africa. St. Augustine was from, and lead, part of the north African church. I think it would surprise people to know that a lot of these groups have been reached, and they actually rejected Christ a long time ago. Again, not to say they shouldn’t be re-evangelized, but sometimes I think people think these placed have never been reached. Give it a few more decades and we will have to evangelize again to Europe. They are well on the road to being apostate, if they aren’t there already.

    • Alien & stranger

      Alfred, every generation needs to be evangelised. So just because the people of a country were once Christian (and I don’t think people are as ignorant of history as you seem to think), it doesn’t mean that they continued to be so, especially when they were overrun centuries ago and Christianity was largely wiped out, even though some remnants remained. Europe is already mostly post-Christian, but as always, God has his holy remnant. Every country needs evangelising now. We can never sit back and say the job is completed.

    • James Johnson

      Alfred, I don’t know of any Christian heritage on the Arabian Peninsula, where this church is. I’m sure you know Iran and northern Africa are not part of the AP. As a lover of history myself, I would be interested to hear about it if you do know anything specific.

    • karen

      true, and thank you for pointing it out, it is helpful for one such as I who works with a truly unreached group in SE Asia. Unreached, resistant, and neglected. But the Lord loves them. There is a national church but it’s small weak and ingrown. Jesus loves his bride, but she’s not very healthy. And she isn’t interested in our sub group, which is lower class and considered dirty, even to all but the deepest believer (usually 2nd generation, meaning they never engaged in animism – or the local religion, making them much stronger) 2nd gen believers are few. I only know 2 -

  • Chris Smith

    Praise the Lord! We were sad to see Josh leave, but we’re so glad to see the Lord blessing the work there.

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  • Klaus

    Very encouraging to read your article and the comments. Having just returned from a short visit in the UAE, I would like to add that God is using a lot of brothers and sisters from India, other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, some from South-America and Europe as well. – One gets the impression that God only uses those three dedicated pastors along with their families to build their respective churches. Knowing two of them, I believe they are the first to acknowledge the role of equally dedicated team-members/ elders aroung them. To me THAT is one of the great miracles and encouragements in today’s CP work!

  • Gerin St. Claire

    Is there any way for folks in the States to give toward the mission over there (specifically thinking about the building)?

  • Sascha Baer

    Dear Gerin,
    Thanks for your interest in wanting to give to this effort.
    please contact me at sascha[at] for further information about this.

  • Lillian

    This is great, but I always find it astonishing how Christians in the United States and Europe know nothing about Christians of the middle East, (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and above all Egypt). Do you know that there are over 10 million Egyptian Christians? Do you know that the Evangelical Church in Egypt, especially the biggest one which is found in Tahrir Square, is just amazing.. the presence of God fills the place to the extent that it had to go outside its walls against all odds. Do you know that the Orthodox Church there (and it’s the majority of Egyptian Christians) date to Saint Mark when he evangelized in Alexandria and the 5 countries of North Africa, as the bible says? Do you know that this Orthodox Church has faced extraordinary persecution which started during the Roman Empire and has not ended till now and that they never gave up their faith in Christ. In fact, one day in history, the Arab governor of Egypt challenged them to move Mokattam Mountain as it is written in the bible and the whole Christian community fasted and prayed 3 days and Mokattam Mountain was moved and a church was built where this miracle happened. What I mean is although the Orthodox Coptic church may seem different from the Egyptian Evangelical church , it is still full of our Lord’s glory.. and its people are full of faith.
    Why am I writing all this, because it hurts me to see Christians from all over the world that know nothing about Christians of the Middle East or maybe they think of them as tribes or sects that are in conflict with their natives. Christ’s Church is One and we need to know, care and pray for each other.

  • Denny

    I lived in Qatar from 1980 to 1994. My dad and family were thrown out / deported because we had allowed the church to function from our home. Dad wasn’t the pastor, just allowed the Sunday evening worship at our home. Things are different now.
    The point I am trying to make is that churches have been there right from the time eastern believers (from Kerala, India) started working there. Churches were run by people who worked under tough working conditions (people are not especially nice to you if you are from Asia) and then come and rejoice in the fellowship of brothers and sisters as they worship the Risen Lord. Miracles and people devouring the Bible from cover to cover was common.

  • Anonymous

    Although this article is interesting and I know that God is going great things in Dubai and the UAE, something that bothers me about this article is how it fails to mention the other churches in Dubai. Now I know that both Redeemer and UCCD are connected to the Gospel Coalition, but there are other churches doing just as much work for the Kingdom in Dubai. I can think of at least two other major churches in Dubai as well as a countless number of other churches.

    I know it is not about who does more work or a matter of one church is better than the other, ultimately all the churches strive for the same mission and I do not want to say anything negative towards that mission or in any way bad mouth any church. My concern with this article is that it seems biased. I may be taking this completely wrong but I wanted to share my concerns because I know I am no the only one who feels this way, and not just because of this article.

    As I was saying, this article seems biased and almost boastful towards these groups of churches that are in fact linked, unlike the article says. Redeemer is a sister church to UCCD and the teaching staff and elders are comprised of people who once attended UCCD.

    Anyways, my issue again is that this article makes it seem as though Redeemer and UCCD as well as the RAK church are the only ones making an impact in the UAE. This however is not true, there are several other churches are making an impact as well.

    My other issue with the article is that it makes it seem as though it is only Muslims that these churches try to reach and from my experience with these churches and being in Dubai, this is very much their mindset. I do agree that the number of Islamic followers is rapidly increasing they do need to be reached, but I believe that it is not about one group of people. I think that when you become so focused on one religion, you lose sight of the reality of the world. That reality, particularly in Dubai, is that there are un-reached people of every religion, especially atheists. Dubai is comprised of about 20% or less locals, the rest are expats from around the world. If you focus on Muslims alone, there are so many others that you miss the opportunity to share the Gospel with.

    My point is that there are un-reached people everywhere. Our job as believers is to spread the Gospel to everyone. When we bring others to Christ or do work for the Lord, it is not about our own glory or boastfulness, it is for the good of the kingdom. We are too be used as tools for God to use to further His Kingdom and bring glory to him, not us. Be mindful of the way in which you share stories such as this. God is doing incredible things in the UAE but no matter what you do here on this earth, ultimately it is all God’s doing, not us and we need to remember that.