It can’t be THAT hard, I reasoned, paddle in hand. I’d once managed to stand-up paddleboard (SUP) across a Canadian lagoon, so paddling around a man-made island on the Arabian Sea should be practically similar—right?
Ditching my shoes, I waded into the saltwater, stepped atop my noble craft, and pushed away from shore. Piece of cake.
The sea, smooth as a Persian turquoise, glided underfoot for several minutes, my confidence mounting with every paddle stroke. That’s when I hit the windy side of the island.
*Whap. Whap. Whap.*
The choppy water sent wave after wave lurching sidewise against the SUP. And despite my best efforts to correct my course, the wind seemed bent on introducing me personally to the island’s cement seawall.
The board tottered under my feet like a three-wheeled skateboard.
But I’m still standing. Ha.
Suddenly, the ocean leapt to engulf me in a blender of salt and bubbles. Classic.
After drying off, I noticed how my impromptu swim vaguely symbolized the reason I’d come to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the next stop on my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days interviewing Christian students. You might say, I wanted to document how students worldwide keep their feet grounded on God’s truth while navigating the choppy waters of secular education.
Being a Christian in the UAE
So far in my travels, I’d interviewed Christian students in the secular West, the mystical East, and the persecuted church. How did these students’ experiences and insights compare to those of Christians in the UAE, an officially Islamic nation which is almost 90% comprised of people born in other countries?1 To find out, I began by asking local Christians about UAE culture. As one young woman told me,
I’ve heard many people, from many cultures, say they get really, really lonely in this city. Most people come here from different countries, looking for work. The hours are so long, most people can’t go to church because of their jobs. They slowly lose touch with the church, grow cold spiritually, and become lonelier and more depressed. Meanwhile, temptations here are strong, drawing people away by many other distractions.
Business, loneliness, work pressures, lack of Christian connections, I reflected, sounds like the lives of many university students.
“What’s it like to be a Christian here?” I asked her.
“Islamic laws here are strict,” she replied, “but much more lenient than in neighbouring countries. There’s a good amount of freedom to worship and minister in strategic ways, but we do have to respect Islamic religion and laws.2 My church has gone through serious questioning from the government, but we’re able to fit in here.”
Official churches do exist in the UAE, she explained, but mainly on controlled “compounds.” These compounds, I later learned, are school-like buildings that may host over 50 church congregations, which hold weekly services in different languages in different rooms at various times between Thursday and Sunday.
The congregations’ diversity testifies to the UAE’s multiculturalism, and to the reality that most Christian students here are “third culture.” Neither fully immersed in their homeland’s culture nor the UAE, third culture students encounter a unique array of challenges and opportunities on campus—perhaps like international students do anywhere.
The Need for Discipleship
When I asked a third culture business studies graduate what his advice would be to another Christian student like him, he replied,
First, I’d say, “Wherever you go, it’s important to have a proper basis [foundation]. Without a proper base, you can’t build a building. You might look fancy on the outside, have a Bible app on your phone, and have flashy lights and a band at church. That’s all great, but the big question is how you’re applying all that spirituality to the rest of your life. Are you actually keeping up your spiritual walk, taking time to be with God, and thanking God throughout university? Do you get the opportunity to help and pray with others who are struggling? How are you showing what love is?”
This advice, I realized, highlights students’ need to maintain strong spiritual foundations or a close personal walk with God. Training students how to do this, of course, is a matter of discipleship–something I’d heard many Christians mention, but few really explain. But that changed when I visited the office of a local young adults’ pastor who detailed his church’s student discipleship model.
Intentional Student Discipleship: a Case Study from the UAE
“Between the time youth stop high school and start working,” he began, “the church loses a lot of young people. I’m not saying that numbers are everything, but they tell a story: there’s a disconnect, a leak in the pipeline somewhere.”
Crossing to a whiteboard, he drew four boxes with arrows leading from one to the next. He then proceeded to explain what he believed Christian growth should look like.
When a Christian young adult walks into the church, they’re in one of these boxes, or stages. When we meet young adults, we want to move them forward through each stage. The first stage is believing in Christ. The second is belonging to a Christian community—feeling like part of a family of believers. The third is becoming disciples of Christ. At this stage, we meet with students separately, help them open up, and show them what following Christ looks like. The fourth stage is being sent. In this step, we want to place students in the perfect ministry for them to serve God according to their strengths.
He drew an arrow from the last box back to the first one, representing the point where the disciples become disciple-makers. “The cool thing about this is it keeps going around and around.”
His point, however, was that he believed many ministries leave students stuck in the first stage by focusing on making converts instead of making disciples.
“Once someone says ‘I believe,'” he explained, “we’re totally complacent with that instead of giving them a challenge every single time we meet, telling them, ‘This is where you are now; how can we help you move forward?‘”
Discipleship and Apologetics
One especially prevalent—and perilous—way ministries may keep students from moving forward as disciples is by neglecting to help them develop strong intellectual foundations.
“Not only are more and more young people questioning their faith,” the pastor said, “but we are also not equipping them enough to stand firm when their faith is questioned. For example, many youth groups might tell students, ‘don’t ask how God created in 6 days, because that’s not important.’ But the first question they get from a nonbeliever at campus is, ‘Really? You believe God created the world in 6 days?’ They don’t have a logical answer, because they didn’t get one in youth group.”
That’s the same point a university chaplain in Canada made, I remembered, right down to using evolution as an example. Notably, though, equipping students to tackle tough questions is more than a “youth pastor responsibility”; it’s the combined job of students, parents, pastors, and Christian communities. And that highlights students’ need for strong interpersonal foundations or a godly support network, including family, friends, and older mentors.
Discipleship and Older Mentors
While students I’d met in almost every culture had voiced their desire to connect with older mentors, not many people had suggested how churches can help students build these intergenerational relationships. This pastor, however, offered some practical examples. Once a month, for instance, the church arranges “Man Cave” nights complete with pizza and guest speakers, to connect young guys with older Christian men. The goal is not only for the men to encourage each other (and to snarf carbs), but also to find mentors. In fact, the pastor informs each speaker ahead of time that a younger man could approach him and ask to work together more closely in the future.
Previously, the pastor had also been involved in a church’s initiative called “Hold on to Twenty,” where 20 business leaders agreed to meet with one young person for one hour each week for one year. This way, the business leaders helped prepare students in their final years of university to enter the workplace better equipped in matters of both career and faith.
“The business leaders were always available,” said the pastor, “but the students sometimes weren’t. So, there needs to be initiative from both sides. Still, it’s a simple thing that any church anywhere can implement.”
The Moral of the Story
By underscoring students’ needs for mentorship, apologetics, and personal time spent with God, believers in the Islamic UAE affirmed the same interpersonal, intellectual, and spiritual foundations that I’d been finding had helped Christian students in other cultures keep their faith. But here, locals also offered practical examples of how churches can help students develop these foundations—especially through mentorship.
Ultimately, mentorship allows students in lonely places to navigate secular education’s choppy waters alongside a godly adult who has charted a similar course. The journey might not be easy, but if they do it together, it will certainly be safer than paddling alone.
What other insights would Christian students reveal in the next Islamic nation I would visit?
Stay tuned for Part 18!