Since John Allen Chau was killed earlier this month while trying to evangelize the isolated inhabitants of a remote Indian island, his story has stirred intense emotions, many negative. While both Christians and non-Christians have raised profound questions about the biblical and ethical appropriateness of pushing into places where you’re not wanted, much criticism of Chau has focused on what appeared to be his lack of preparation.
In his journal, Chau used the word “holler” to describe what he did after sneaking onto the beach of the remote North Sentinel Island in a kayak. The scene of the young American yelling, in English, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you,” before being killed by a bow and arrow isn’t the most sophisticated image of missionary outreach in 2018.
But new information released Wednesday paints a more complicated picture of Chau, including an interview with Christianity Today. In the interview, Mary Ho, who leads All Nations (the agency that sent Chau on missions), indicated that he was heavily vaccinated and even quarantined before going on the mission.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that Chau also undertook linguistic and medical training to prepare for the outreach. These new reports at a minimum challenge the simplistic image of an adventure-seeking zealot willing to recklessly risk the lives of a remote group of islanders.
Certainly, all of this needs more investigation and analysis. There are still medical and legal questions, but this new information does focus the debate more on the question of the central goal of evangelizing and less on the preparation for doing so.
Chau’s intent -- according to others I’ve spoken with who knew him, went to school with him and helped him prepare -- was to live among the North Sentinelese, learn their language, attend to their physical needs and then seek to share his faith with them. Obviously, the long-term strategy did not work, and Chau will become not only a topic of debate but of study for missiologists, people who train missionaries. That’s my field. I have a PhD in the subject and have trained missionaries to go to many places, including India. I am also the dean of the mission school at Wheaton College, where we unapologetically and enthusiastically train missionaries to engage their own cultures, as well as cross-culturally, from their culture to another.
And even for me, even with the new details, Chau’s case is complex. It reveals more than anything the quandaries for those of us seeking to understand what it means in 2018 to share the gospel with all nations.
From his social media postings, journals and reports of friends and family members, it is clear that Chau had a genuine passion to evangelize people who had little or no access to the Christian gospel. For centuries, Christians have followed Jesus’ teaching, referred to as the Great Commission, wherein he tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
The tribal people of North Sentinel would be among those “nations,” which Christians understand as people-groups rather than modern countries. Evangelical missionary organizations keep data on communities around the world believed to be still untouched by access to the gospel, and churches will pray for and support missionaries who reach to these people.
Many concerns surfaced after initial media reports on Chau, including that he had arrived alone on the beach of the island, “hollering” in English. The new reports challenge the image of someone totally unprepared for this mission, but it doesn’t address the bigger issue for many reading this: the very notion of evangelism across cultures.
Propagating one’s religious beliefs through missionary activity is practiced by segments of the world’s largest religious groups, including Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Even the United Nations affirms missionary activity as a legitimate expression of religion or belief.
A missionary named Saint Patrick came to the tribal people of ancient Ireland and converted my ancestors from Celtic polytheism. This is not a new idea. Christianity has been a missionary movement since its beginning. As I noted above, Jesus, in his final address to his followers, commanded them to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). And, speaking to Christians everywhere and in all eras, the apostle Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
Many Christians would say we deny the missionary call if we neglect the hard and difficult places in the world. We are truly called to go to “the ends of the earth” with the gospel (Acts 13:47).
It is clear that Chau was a committed Christian and wanted others to be the same. His last entry says, “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” From the perspective of much of Christianity through history, and millions of believers today, his motivation was good. But the conversation generated by his death focused more on his preparation and community.
According to reports published in several places, Chau prepared several years for this mission, including training as an EMT and in sports medicine, both functions that might be helpful in an isolated missions endeavor. Much of this new reporting shows that the North Sentinelese were a long-term focus for Chau.
For some, the very idea of trying to convert others to a certain faith and taking any risk to do so is simply abhorrent. But Christians worldwide genuinely believe that people who hear and respond to the gospel are better off when they do.
After Chau’s family and friends have mourned and the media attention has died down, mission agencies need to consider the lessons from this moment. There are things that I, as a missiologist, and others prefer Chau would have done differently.
For example, when Jesus sent his disciples, he instructed them to pray and then go, while showing them how to honor the dignity and humanity of others’ choices. He also sent his disciples out two by two. The Bible has much to say about the importance of teams and community. Teams bring collective discernment and provide a safeguard against unwise attempts at missionary endeavors. According to Ho, there was a team willing to go with Chau, but he chose to go alone.
Also, in regard to people’s choices, Jesus makes it quite clear in Mark 6:11, saying, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place.” It appears that Chau returned to North Sentinel even after being shot at with arrows, one of which, according to his journal, stuck in his Bible.
So, what is the modern missionary to do? In today’s world, the missionary mind-set itself is a modern-day heresy. However, it is still the teaching of Jesus and cannot be erased from the pages of the Bible.
Both critics and supporters have compared Chau to Jim Elliot, a 20th-century Christian missionary who learned a native language, gathered a team of like-minded people and carefully planned to visit a remote Ecuadoran tribe. On Jan. 8, 1956, Elliot and four other Christian missionaries were, like Chau, killed by the people they were trying to reach.
Elliot and his team ended up on the front page of Life magazine, prompting a surge in modern missions. Chau’s story is in countless media feeds that have prompted a missions backlash.
There are certainly differences between Elliot and Chau, but what has really changed is our culture. People are much more negative about missions, partly because of mistakes that missionaries have made, such as colonialism, a lack of cultural awareness and more. But, for many critics, it is the core goal of conversion itself they object to.
I grieve for John Chau and his family. He made his choices because he loved the North Sentinelese. You might see it as a waste. You might point out his mistakes, even after learning that he had worked hard to prepare for his mission.
But, as I write this, less than 100 feet away is a letter Jim Elliot wrote. As a Wheaton College graduate, he has a special place here. As Elliot wrote (and Chau experienced), “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Here at Elliot’s alma mater, we still believe and train missionaries. To some, that makes us the fools. But we pray our students will engage in their culture and others well and in appropriate ways, with care for the health and well-being of all, and with others in partnership.
If that makes us fools, we will be “fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10).
Ed Stetzer is the dean of the School of Mission, Ministry and Leadership at Wheaton College, where he also serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Center. He is a contributing editor of Christianity Today.