[Editors note: Since writing and publishing this article more information has been released about John Chau’s sending mission organization and his preparation for his work in North Sentinel. You can read that here. Another recent piece worth reading for context and consideration is Ed Stezer’s article with The Washington Post.]
I couldn’t believe my eyes as I read the headlines in the New York Times about John Chau (26), who died attempting to reach North Sentinel, one of the last untouched indigenous inhabited islands in the Andaman Sea off the coast of India. He went with the intention of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. After several attempts to reach the island by kayak, and getting chased away by arrows, he decided to attempt an overnight stay and ended up being killed. The fisherman who took him, saw, from a distance, his dead body being dragged on the beach with rope.
The people who live there have speared and murdered anyone who touches foot on the island; because of this, the Indian government strictly forbids anyone from visiting, cautioning outsiders to “leave these people alone.”
The story feels like it was ripped from the headlines of 1956, when Jim Elliot and his team were speared and murdered for attempting contact with the Auca Indians in Ecuador. Jim Elliot and his team are largely regarded as heroes in evangelical missions and church history. Will John Chau (labelled an “American missionary” in USA Today), be regarded as the same?
The story feels bizarre and is hard to process. Why would such a young man go alone, under the cover of darkness, defy local authorities, to try to reach people who have zero interest in contact with the outside world? Was his death preventable? Why didn’t he attempt to go with the support and protection of a missions agency?
There are some really big questions with this story.
There are other big questions being raised as well. The world is debating the moral implications of interacting with the Sentinelese. The Indian government has declared that no one should attempt contact with them to keep their culture “preserved”, and also to protect their immune systems from modern microbes. But shouldn’t these children be able to attend school? What about medicine and the benefits of modernity? Is an “unfettered” culture better?
Albert Mohler’s podcast on the story was helpful to listen to. The motivation of Chau is admirable. Taking the gospel to unreached ethnic peoples in the world and wanting to display love and care, both practically and spiritually, is at the root of the biblical concept of missions, and has been the heart of many missions organizations throughout history. Jesus commands us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28:19. The word “nations,” translating as “ethnos”, means a tribe, nation, or ethnic people group. Christians, followers of Jesus, are to go into all of the ethnic people groups of the world and share the gospel: the hope, freedom, and eternal life that is found in placing one’s faith and trust in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.
Is this a message worth dying for? Scripture says yes in Acts 7:54-60. The hundreds and thousands of martyrs throughout history would say yes. Jim Elliot and his team would say yes. The thousands of current Christians and missionaries who live in dangerous places in the world, and who die daily for their faith, would also say yes. Jesus himself died on a cross for crimes he didn’t commit, defeating the power of sin and evil, so that people could be reconciled to God. Chau, from Washington State, said yes as he wrote in his journal, which was delivered to his parents upon his death.
This is why this story is hard to wrestle with as a Christian who believes in missions. Chau’s motivation for what he did was very much right, and in line with biblical truth. But his methodology and how he did it, raises questions.
How do we GO best? Is there wisdom in how we go?
This is where Chau’s story differs greatly from Jim Elliot’s. While Jim and his team died in their attempt to make contact with the Auca’s – they died as a team. The history of missions and the biblical framework for missions has taught us well: do not send people in alone. In Luke 9, Jesus sends his disciples out together to preach the gospel and minister in towns. In Luke 10, Jesus sends out the 72 to go two-by-two, together to search for “persons of peace” to help support them as they minister in each town.
While the Apostle Paul did minister individually, the book of Acts and his letters in the New Testament describe his missionary journeys and travels as surrounded with companions. They worked as a team as they entered new towns, shared the gospel in cities, and built house churches.
Jim Elliot, along with his wife Elisabeth, went as part of a larger team with a missions organization. They also spent years studying the culture and closest languages to learn how to transcribe and learn this new unwritten language. When the men died after initial contact, the women stayed behind to build trust with “people of peace”, before they were able to go again to make contact with the tribe. With the support of their team, they saw massive spiritual fruit from their long-term labours. The man who actually killed Jim ended up following Jesus.
While secular society will say otherwise, we shouldn’t critique Chau’s willingness to risk his earthly life in order to help bring spiritual life to those who desperately need it. We should, however, be cautious about following his model and process. The history of missions, and even the Biblical framework of missions, does not support lone rangers. There is deep wisdom in going as a team, with training, experience, and bringing the gospel in a culturally contextualized way.
This doesn’t stop the potential loss of life and the response of others. There still is great personal risk involved with sharing about Jesus in many parts of the world. Yet, the risk alone shouldn’t prevent us from the mission. The risk should warrant a wise and thoughtful approach of going in teams, with the support of people (especially local, indigenous people) who have more experience.
Although Chau died from his attempts to make contact and extend love and a gospel message, we don’t know the end of the story. We can pray that long term spiritual fruit will come from his endeavours. We can pray for Chau’s parents and family who are processing the loss of their child.
We can pray that through this tragic event that has attracted international attention, authorities will make wise decisions about how to make successful contact with these people. We can pray that bridges to the gospel will form, for open hearts, and a desire to know true peace and hope.
As we engage in missions within Power to Change, both home and abroad, we can pray for wisdom in how we go as teams, and how we contextualize the gospel to the cultures and people we are trying to reach. We can also pray for indigenous people to come to believe in the gospel so that they can share their faith more effectively with their own peoples.
We can entrust our efforts and results in the hands of a sovereign God who can take even our worst mistakes and transform and redeem them into beautiful fruit. We can’t ask for safety; we were never promised this. But with courage like John Chau, and with applied biblical wisdom, we can expect God to do miraculous things.
Learn more about our missions opportunities this year.