I confess I was finishing up my Christmas list in a perfect fashion for a busy mom in a little mountain town: online only on Black Friday, while my kids shouted around the house. But when I went to check my email account, it was a headline that caused my heart to fall: A 26-year-old missionary from Vancouver, Washington, John Allen Chau, killed by bow and arrow on India’s Andaman islands in the Bay of Bengal.
“I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you’…You guys might think I’m crazy and all this, but I think it is worth it to declare Jesus to these people,” Chau wrote in his journal of his previous attempts, the UK Mirror and ABC News report. In one of his first attempts, one of the native children shot at Mr. Chau’s heart. The arrow skewered his waterproof Bible there instead.
USA Today tells us Mr. Chau, a graduate of Tulsa’s Oral Roberts University, was “a wilderness emergency responder, led backpacking expeditions in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, almost lost his leg to a rattlesnake bite and coached soccer for poor children in Iraq and South Africa.”
Chau, bringing gifts of scissors, fish, and a football, paid seven fishermen (who have now been arrested) to take him near the island of North Sentinel, because going to the island was illegal.
To Mr. Chau’s family, Go. Serve. Love extends its prayers and compassionate sympathy for his sacrifice for the name of Jesus. Acts 5 tells us Peter and John “rejoic[ed] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name” (v. 41).
We talk a lot about unreached people groups on this site…and they’ve at last made the news. So it seems appropriate for us to consider Mr. Chau’s death–a millennial who passionately walked into the face of his own death. Let’s consider some of the common arguments in the cybersphere.
“We shouldn’t disrupt ancient tribes seeking to preserve their own sovereignty.”
This Kenyan and former Christian argues missionary work is a child of white supremacy and colonialism–and that Mr. Chau could have infected the Sentinelese tribe with modern diseases to which they hold no immunities.
Allow me to address the last concern first, quoting blogger Garrett Kell:
Most Christian missions agencies take precaution to ensure the physical safety of the workers and those they aim to reach. This is part of loving our neighbor. But believers also know that the spiritual safety of people is of far greater importance. It is the spiritual infection of our sin, which separates us from God that stands as our greatest threat, whether we live on Long Island or an isolated one.
As to the former charge–I invite you to examine Go. Serve. Love’s post, Does Christianity destroy culture? Is it possible it’s actually imperialist to claim that Jesus belongs to any singular culture?
Mr. Kell reiterates,
….The hope of every Christian is that the Sentinelese people will hear the Gospel of Jesus, turn from their sins, believe upon Jesus, and know the forgiveness of Jesus. Please do not hear this as some sort of desire to colonize them. I desire no such thing. The Bible teaches that every culture possesses aspects that displease God and must be put away. But every culture and every person in that culture also uniquely reflects the beauty and glory of God. I long to see how much we could learn from Sentinelese people who love Jesus. Their appreciation of nature, simplicity of life, and healing from hatred would bless and challenge believers around the world!
“It’s foolish to risk your life like that.”
At the risk of resorting to cliche, I find the words of martyr Jim Elliot to be particularly apropos in this case: He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
As Dr. Al Mohler wisely remarks, it seems foolish for our generation to risk anything. Certainly not our lives, or the lives of our children. John Piper similarly writes,
The cause is worth the risk…There are things vastly worse than death. Wasting your life is worse than losing it.
The scandalous message of the Bible is that Jesus intentionally laid down his life for His people… If this is true, and if John Chau went on his mission to proclaim this good news, then he was much more of a friend than an arrogant fool (Acts 4:10-12; 10:42-43). In fact, if the good news about Jesus is true, then all Christians, like Chau, best show love by risking everything to tell the world.
Most of us are familiar with Paul’s words in Acts 20:24, which find an echo in the journal of John Chau: “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
“Was this a wise way to evangelize?”
Like most of us, I’m restricted in my knowledge of Mr. Chau’s heart by what I can obtain through national media. Honestly, there’s only one judge of his wisdom. And I’m certainly not Him.
So I offer only thoughts similar to those of Dr. Mohler, who offered a helpful commentary on Chau’s death, illustrating a few things we’ve learned since the martydom of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and others on January 1956.
As we look at the international backlash of this event and its possible future restrictions on missions to unreached people groups, it’s important to offer our own lives in ways not only bold, but responsive and teachable in light of the wisdom God has granted us from the Church’s experience in missions.
Brazil, for example, has decided to forbid foreign contact with any isolated Amazonian people groups because of previous disastrous events to the people groups and their forest homes. South Korea, too, was required to make significant legislation changes after a 2007 hostage crisis involving 23 missionaries in Afghanistan. As global eyes now swivel to India, what governments could make similar decisions affecting the fates of unreached groups?
It is not merely the courage of our missions decisions that make them wise.
Mohler distinguishes between Mr. Chau’s motivation and his method.
Mohler once sat next to one of Elliot’s murderers who eventually came to know Jesus, and remarks that there are a few distinctive aspects of Operation Auca (Auca being the name of the tribe).
- Elliot, Saint, and their families did not go alone. Jesus sent his disciples in groups of two or more. In the case of Elliot and colleagues–there was an infrastructure in place that would keep martyrdom from becoming the end of the story. They would continue the effort, which was not solitary.
- There was perceived encouragement from the Auca tribes, who were attempted to be reached in their own language. We don’t know if Mr. Chau was able to speak to the Sentinelese in their own language.
(Intrigued? You may find relevant the journey of Bruce Olson, “a 19-year-old genius [who] abandon[ed] his university studies and fl[ew] to South America on a one-way ticket in search of the feared Motilone, or ‘Bari'” people, as Charisma magazine tells the story.
Olson is now 76, and despite a cumbersome methodology, estimates now indicate about 70% of the Bari are believers in Jesus in a contextualized version of Christianity, according to Wikipedia’s page on Mr. Olson.)
Mohler encourages us all to pray for the fruit of Mr. Chau’s efforts. But he also comments importantly that we have learned a great deal about effective missions from the efforts of past missionaries. And most modern missions organizations would discourage this methodology as the most effective way to reach an unreached people group.
Editor’s post-publication note: A commenter kindly directed us to a new interview with Mary Ho, director of All Nations, Chau’s sending agency, which sounds very encouraging about Chau’s preparation for his mission, including his immunization, self-quarantine, and linguistics training. Don’t miss it!