Mystery Worshipper: The Emirati Auntie
Church: Emirates Baptist International
Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Date of visit: Friday, 13 April 2007, 11:30am
The congregation meets in a classic villa that has had some basic modifications done to make it seem more like a proper church, although I hear that they are being asked to find somewhere new to meet. In 2000, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, donated a parcel of land for use by Christian churches; the government seem keen on relocating all Christian bodies there. Or it could simply be the result of the Emirate's voracious appetite for increased rents and luxury apartment blocks. I don't know the full story, but I do know that a number of Christian fellowships are facing eviction notices.
As with most Christian churches here, the congregation are multinational, although there are a large number of Americans at this particular church.
The Jumeriah district is perhaps the most posh area in all of Dubai. The very word "Jumeriah" connotates luxury and wealth, and has been applied to hotels, beach clubs, and even a man-made island. The Mercato shopping mall is right next door to Emirates Baptist International – perfect for pre- or post-church coffee, cinema, grocery or clothes shopping. Churchgoers also appreciate the mall's covered car park, especially in the summer sunshine.
Deacon Paul Runes led the worship, assisted by Steve Knott, who gave the welcome and lead testimony and presided over the prayer time. Pastor Dan Marshall preached the sermon.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service, although the pew sheet called it Second Service. A baptism followed the service, in a pool at a nearby villa owned by one of the deacons.
How full was the building?
Bulging at the seams... and then some! There were people standing in order to be present, and it sounded like the children's church upstairs was likewise blessed!
Did anyone welcome you personally?
What a great start! I was welcomed no fewer than three times! A few people said hello outside in the yard. As I went in, someone handed me the pew sheet and gave me a welcome. And the service started with "Turn and greet your neighbour," so I met about five people without taking two steps!
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were white plastic stacking garden chairs and were squeezed into tight rows, but were quite comfy nonetheless.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was lots of hubbub while people did the meet and greet, and lots of children moving between their parents and children's church, which was being held upstairs. I arrived 15 minutes before the service time and it was already quite full. I heard later that arriving 30 to 45 minutes before the start is the sure way to guarantee a seat.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to EBCI. Stand up and greet your neighbours. C'mon, say hi to those around you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Words for choruses used in the the praise session were on the pew sheet. We also sang one verse of a hymn from the Baptist Hymnal. During the address, Pastor Dan encouraged the congregation to turn to their Bibles, which the vast majority of people had brought with them.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and guitar, though I sometimes thought I heard a clarinet but never actually saw a clarinetist. Perhaps he was hiding somewhere out of sight, or I may have been just imagining things!
Did anything distract you?
I tried counting people a couple of times, but I couldn't see everywhere and it was pretty full. Once or twice I heard the children's church in full voice, but the service was very engaging and I had to look hard for distractions.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship period felt a little prescribed. Deacon Paul gave a softly spoken introduction to each song or chorus accompanied by sustained notes from the piano, though I kind of got the impression someone had said, "Right, then we'll just improvise those five songs, shall we?" But the music and the spirit were genuine and expressive; just my style.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Dan has a dry sense of humour and a very easygoing style. I was relieved not to hear a "platform voice." I felt like he was speaking to a small group of friends. The church was set up in the round and he made a great job of addressing the whole congregation. We even learned about the bedtime routines of two church families – far too long to retell here, sorry.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Dan told us in song what the subject of the sermon would be – he leaned into the microphone and in his best Roger Daltry imitation sang: "Who are you? Who? Who? Who? Who?" (thus revealing himself to be of a certain age). He then showed us who the Bible says we were before Christ, and who we could be after accepting his holiness, with lots of lessons in Greek along the way.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I had a really positive, uplifting time at church that morning and really enjoyed all of it, though the best bit was going along to the post-service baptism.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was a bit of a squeeze, but I guess you can't move the walls. The only thing I found a bit weird was how anxious everyone was to clear up at the end! I like to spend a few minutes in prayer before gathering up my things, but the chairs around me were up and in a stack before I re-opened my eyes. Still, hardly hell on earth.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people smiled, but before I knew what else to expect, I was being herded toward the baptism venue (800 yards by car, typical Dubai). When we got there, there were a few pockets of silence while everyone waited for what was to happen next. I had some conversation with both the deacon and pastor, as well as some others, and all were very friendly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Nothing was offered either at the church or at the baptism, but I guess this wasn't a normal service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Good preaching, intellectual yet with some emotion. I always find this more rewarding than the 100 per cent heartstring stuff. The folk seemed friendly enough and the location is great. If I weren't already established in another church in Dubai, I would seriously consider going on a regular basis.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, yes, yes!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The backyard pool baptism. People making a public declaration of their faith reveals the amazing movement of the Spirit in the Middle East. And Pastor Dan mentioning bedtime routines in his sermon!