Pastor John, you are back home in Knoxville after a lengthy trip to the Middle East — your first trip to the Middle East. Can you give us a summary of your travels and share with us some of the things you did along the way?
It was a three week trip, Tony. We went to Ethiopia first and spent a week there — spoke in four churches and did a Bible conference with Jason Meyer who has replaced me at Bethlehem. It was thrilling to do the tag team preaching with Jason in a conference on 2 Corinthians and to be a part of the churches there and see what God is doing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
I was so encouraged in several of these churches at how God is at work and saw the importance of the sovereignty of God. I also saw the cry of the Ethiopian church to help them train pastors, because the spread of the gospel is huge in southern Ethiopia. Probably 80 percent of the pastors there have no theological training. They are very good at evangelism they were telling me, and yet the need for ongoing training and equipping and deepening of the leadership for the sake of the people is just huge.
So I would just encourage any listeners to give your life away in Bible teaching, pastoral enrichment, and world missions in this way.
The Harvest Is Plentiful
Then we went over to the United Arab Emirates, which is on the gulf of the Arab peninsula. So the peninsula that has Saudi Arabia in the middle of the huge mass, and then Kuwait up at the top, and then coming down to the horn there is Qatar and UAE, and then around the corner is Oman and Yemen. These are the gulf oil states.
All kinds of revelations were happening to me about things I did not realize here. Basically, these countries are more friendly toward the United States, and just across the Persian Gulf to the north and the east is Iran, and Iran is the adversary both of the US and of these states.
And when you think of the Islamic surveillance on the people in the UAE where I was, I was told they are not worried about Christians. They are worried about radical Islam who could upset the balance of good relationships between them and the United States who provides so much of their help in the oil drilling and the selling of their oil. The UAE is a hugely rich land.
The country forty years ago was sand. Today Dubai is probably the most modern city in the world. It has got the tallest building in the world. There are 450 skyscrapers, meaning over forty stories tall. It has got huge malls. It has got sophisticated infrastructure, and all of that is largely provided by the expertise from the West. Therefore, they don’t want those relationships messed up by the Muslim Brotherhood coming in here and producing another Arab Spring.
So when the Arab Spring happened in the other countries and the people rose up and started to throw off their leaders, the wealthy leaders in UAE upped the salaries of all of their emirates and made everybody happy, because they produce about three million barrels of oil a day, each of them worth about a hundred dollars. This country is owned and led by a benevolent dictatorship of about seven sheikhs who are the landed, powerful families, and one of them is the main one.
So they have all of this money, and they have used it to make their people very happy. They have built these huge cities, and they are built on sand in more ways than one. I mean, a lot of people look at the Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest building in the world, and they say, “This is like the tower of Babel.” And it is because they built it to make a name for themselves. The word khalifa is the name of the sheikh who provided the money to finish it when they ran out of money in Dubai.
So it is fragile in the sense that it is oil money and the expertise is coming from elsewhere so that about 85 percent of the people who live in the UAE are from outside that country. Therefore, the expertise and the manpower, both at the lowest levels of labor (which are almost like slaves), and the highest level of expertise in the high rises are coming from outside UAE. So what they have is money, but they don’t have a lot of expertise. They are trying to rectify that with a lot of education.
An Open Door for the Gospel
The upside of that for missions, Tony, was just phenomenal. The Christians are not looked at disrespectfully there. The sheikhs have provided land in several of the emirates in order that the Christians might build churches on them. They know that since 85 percent of people are coming from outside the country to work there, they need to provide for them and make them happy. They know lots of them are Christians, so let them have churches.
Well, that means that there are — I talked to several people about this — probably a thousand churches in Dubai. Now there are only, you know, half a dozen of those that are landed and provided for by the sheikhs, but the sheikhs and the authorities know that these churches are there. They know where they meet, when they meet, and they are just turning away and letting them be.
What is against the law in UAE is proselytizing. And if you ask people, “What does that mean?” you get a lot of different answers. One Christian will say it means paying a Muslim to be a Christian. Another will say it means giving them a Bible if they don’t ask for it. In other words, it is a pretty ambiguous law, and the reason I think it is ambiguous is because they are happy to leave it ambiguous so they can kick out anybody they want and keep anybody they want. So there is amazing freedom.
I preached in Abu Dhabi, which is the capital, in the national theater. It was about half full and up at the top were these white robed authorities making sure I didn’t diss Mohammed or do something that I shouldn’t do. I preached the gospel there clearly — in terms of a propitiation and a substitutionary atonement, the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the necessity to believe on Christ — and they were listening to all of that.
So here you have a whole line of Muslims who heard the gospel because they provide for Christians. We had to advertise that event as for Christians. Well, the guy told me the day before, “I am bringing six of my Muslim friends with me.” So I know that the gospel is being heard by the local Muslim people.
Vision for a Bright Future
Here’s one other observation. I was just so thrilled with the kind of vision that some church planters and pastors have, in Dubai in particular, but across the emirates. I am thankful for John Folmar. What an inspiration he was to me. He is the pastor, or one of the pastors, at the UCCD, United Christian Church of Dubai, and that church has had a reformation, a theological transformation, in the last nine years. He has had a vision for filling the region with gospel-preaching churches.
So they planted a church across town called Redeemer. They planted a church in Ras Al Khaimah. They planted a fourth church in a nearby emirate. So there is a vision for filling the region with gospel-preaching churches. In those churches are the most diverse gatherings of people that I have ever preached to. I have preached in two churches there, and both of them had between sixty and seventy different nations in the service.
Those people then work here for a season, and many of them go back to their countries, and all those people work hand in glove, usually, with local Muslim emirates. And if you go to JoshuaProject.net there are 28 Muslim peoples unengaged in that region, and this is at least one remarkable way of reaching them.
So the trip, Tony, was just incredibly encouraging to me at what God is doing there and was an education about the Middle East affairs that I hadn’t realized, and it just caused me to assess my own life and want to throw it out to everyone else. One of the missionaries we have had there for almost twenty years said, “John, if you can just find me people, it would need to be men in this case, men who have been in their careers in engineering for five years and have them send me their CVs, I can put them to work here teaching engineering in a school and they would have contact with Muslim students every day.”
The Cross Conference
That’s wonderful. It sounds like this trip was wonderfully productive. How providential that the Cross Conference on missions is right around the corner.
Well, it is interesting that the Lord would ordain that I spend three weeks overseas just a few weeks before the Cross Conference, because my sense of its strategic importance has skyrocketed.
Tinder Box of Potential
I mean, in principle I will always know that when you gather students together, historically you have a tinder box of potential for explosive world impact. God, in the last several centuries at least, has done amazing things through students when they have gathered together for mission deliberation, agitation, education, and outreach.
So it has always been high, but having seen what God is doing — and this is just one little pocket; I mean, if you went to different places you would have the same thing happen — makes me want to hold out to students a possibility of dreaming a dream in missions.
One Place, One People, One Glorious Cause
I sat beside the leader of SIM, I believe, in Ethiopia and asked him, “In my last ten years, if God gives me ten years, what could I do that would help you?” He thought for a minute and he said three things. I will just mention one. He said, “Send us, if you can, missionaries with lifetime commitment. It is hard to accomplish long term goals with short term commitment.”
So one of my dreams, Tony, for the Cross Conference is to hold up the beauty of a life laid down and poured out in one place for Jesus. I think the mentality for the past decades has been that in America everybody will have five different vocations. We are very mobile. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a good thing, moving a lot. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but what it does is minimize the beauty and the power of staying at something.
In missions, it takes a long time to learn a language. It takes a long time to be at home in a culture. It takes a long time to win trust. It takes a long time to see things strategically from inside of another world. If you go there with a sense of, “Oh, I will give a couple of years and then, you know, I will be off to do another thing,” it is not the same.
So that is one of the excitements I have, that maybe God would be pleased in our day to turn that whole mindset around so that young people could start to say, “It is a beautiful thing. It is something I really aspire to — to lay down my life and give myself in one place to one people for one great, glorious, eternal cause.”