When A Missionary’s Zeal Turns Deadly

December 3, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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The wisdom, or lack thereof, of John Allen Chau’s deadly decision to try to witness to an isolated tribe of indigenous people on North Sentinel Island, off the coast of India, is a topic of hot debate.   Initial reports portrayed Mr. Chau as a reckless explorer and mountain climber, seeking adventure in far-flung, exotic locations.  It quickly became apparent, however, that he was also a devoted missionary committed to preaching Christ to the Sentinelese people.  Although his initial overture to the tribe appeared clumsy – in his journal, he wrote about how he “hollered” to the tribespeople, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you” – he was also heavily vaccinated and linguistically and medically trained before embarking on his journey.  It turns out that Mr. Chau was not just some hotheaded adventurer.  He was a calculated planner, even if his planning finally proved to be woefully incomplete.

Among evangelically minded Christians, there is little debate over whether we should share our faith.  The call of Jesus Himself is to spread and share His message to and with the world.  There is much debate, however, over how we should share our faith.  Clawing your way onto a remote and, according to Indian law, off-limits island and confronting tribespeople who are known to be hostile toward, probably because they feel threatened by, outsiders hardly seems like an effective missionary method.

During this time of year, Christians celebrate the incarnation – that the God of the universe took on flesh in the person of Jesus in space and time in the little town of Bethlehem.  In His incarnation, Jesus carried out God’s mission by preaching God’s message and doing God’s work of dying for us and for our salvation.  Jesus’ incarnation, then, was part and parcel of Jesus’ mission.

In our outreach efforts, Jesus’ life can serve as our model.  Mission and incarnation should work together in our lives, too.  Our evangelization of any people should always be coupled with a careful contextualization.  This is what Mr. Chau appears to have overlooked.  He wanted to reach the people of this remote island, but did not have workable plan to enter into their culture and customs, as Jesus did when He became man.

The reality is that, because of the islanders’ hostility toward outsiders and the Indian laws that shield them from modern society, reaching these people will take more than one person’s plan.  Coordinated diplomatic efforts will probably be required so laws are not broken and, of course, a careful posture toward the Sentinelese people themselves is absolutely necessary.  Building trust with them will take much time and, frankly, in this case, probably nothing less than a miracle of God.  But that’s okay.  God is, after all, quite good at the miraculous.

I appreciate Mr. Chau’s passion to reach the unreached.  And I am saddened by his death.  I pray for his family and friends who are, I am sure, grieving.  Mr. Chau’s devotion to Christ’s mission is a laudable devotion for any Christian to have.  But learning from his dangerous and ultimately deadly strategy is also necessary.

The death of Mr. Chau should call every mission-minded Christian to take some time to learn and reflect so that we can better witness and love.  Jesus wants nothing less for the sake of the many souls who are still far from Him.

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