Most missionaries labor in obscurity. Their successes, failures, joys, and trials are known only to a few—their families, friends, sending churches and agencies, and those to whom they are sent. John Allen Chau is an exception.
Chau, as you probably know by now, was murdered in mid-November by members of a completely isolated Neolithic tribe on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, some 700 miles east of India. Chau, who was 26, was trying to reach this “Stone Age tribe” with the good news.
For this, the Oral Roberts University graduate has been both praised and pilloried. While many Christians have applauded Chau’s passion to share Jesus Christ with the 50 to 100 North Sentinelese, some have panned his methods. In the first days following his death, some speculated that he was a lone-ranger “adventurer” with no language or cultural training. Others said Chau was endangering the tribe, whose members would have no immunity to any Western diseases he brought with him.
These conjectures proved to be unfounded. Chau, according to Ed Stetzer and Christianity Today, “was intentionally preparing for many years by getting a degree in sports medicine, training as an EMT, and studying at a respected linguistic institute in order to learn this previously undocumented language.” Working with a missions agency founded by the respected Floyd McClung, Chau also “had received multiple vaccinations, and intentionally quarantined himself for many days prior to his multi-day trip to the island.”
Some of the complaints dismissed traditional Christian concerns about the spiritual needs of this unreached people. David Van Biema, a contributor to TIME and author of a book on Mother Teresa, said Chau’s efforts still could end up costing Sentinelese lives. “How many such deaths would be legitimized by the saving of one Senitalese [sic] soul?” Van Biema asked. “If the answer is ‘as many as it takes,’ then I think the calculations of this kind of missionizing are laid bare, and they should look pathetic to anyone not engaged in a fetishization of the idea of ‘unreached people groups.’”
Others claimed Chau, admittedly of Asian heritage, was motivated by “a logic of both preservation and extension of whiteness.” Writing for Sojourners, Mihee Kim-Kort strained to draw a link between current immigration controversies and missionary sacrifice, adding, “I can’t help but mourn his death, even as I am frustrated and angry at him, and at the Christianity that makes certain bodies martyrable and certain bodies disposable.” Huh?
Yet even those who agreed with Chau’s motivation to share the good news with the lost had questions—legitimate ones. Why had he gone out alone? Hadn’t he broken Indian law by getting local fishermen to take him to the island? Weren’t they now in trouble with the authorities? And how could he possibly share the gospel with people whose language had never been deciphered?
In a letter he left behind, Chau said his first encounter with the group didn’t go as planned. “Two armed Sentinelese came rushing out yelling. They had two arrows each, unstrung, until they got closer. I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.’” Soon Chau had to paddle out of range, disappointed that they didn’t immediately accept him. What had he expected?
Despite his fears, Chau kept going back, hoping for a breakthrough. Fishermen later spotted the islanders dragging his corpse on the beach by a rope.
Scott Hildreth, director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, acknowledged that missionaries are still needed, but he raised ethical, practical, and even theological questions in the wake of Chau’s death. “Had he approached me with his plan,” Hildreth said, “I would have counseled against it. His zeal for evangelism seems to have clouded his judgment.”
One of the more gracious responses came from Providence journal’s Marc LiVecche, who noted that Chau’s actions were founded on the uncontroversial evangelical belief that “faith in Christ is essential for human flourishing, and that those who have this faith ought to share it with those who do not.” Pointing out that it has always been people like Chau who have been at the forefront of the global struggle for human rights, he added, “Dissenters can, and ought, to voice their dismay all they want. But they ought also to be careful. The same zeal that animates the evangelistic passion animates much else.”
Certainly, the tragedy highlights the inescapable fact that godly zeal must be accompanied by godly wisdom, even in missions. Like many others, historian Ruth Tucker likened Chau’s fate to the famous 1956 martyrdoms of the five American missionaries at the hands of the isolated Waorani tribe in Ecuador, an event that inspired many people to consider missionary service. But unlike other commentators who saw only the potential for spiritual benefit in Chau’s death, she called the similar Ecuador incident a “hard-headed example of wrong-headed mission strategy and practice.” Tucker added that hallowed stories of missionary heroism are rarely as simple as they seem, noting that they often carry unintended consequences.
As well, the two cases highlight the different world in which missionaries find themselves today. While the martyred missionary team from 1956 was lionized with glowing coverage in Life magazine, Chau has been vilified. In our post-Christian culture, missionary work is automatically suspect and must be done with the utmost care.
Yet while all these cautions—or most of them, anyway—are necessary, they remind me of a story told about D.L. Moody. One day a woman criticized his method of evangelism. Moody agreed with her and graciously asked her how she did evangelism. “I don’t do it,” she replied, to which the great man answered, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
While we may have legitimate questions about Chau’s approach with this unreached group, we must give him full credit for doing it. According to some anthropologists, the forebears of the Sentinelese may have migrated to the island from Africa more than a thousand years ago. Yet, in all that time, no one introduced them to modern medicine or new ways of thinking that would have rescued them from lives that are likely nasty, brutish, and short. Most importantly, no one bothered to introduce them to the Savior—until John Allen Chau showed up in a kayak.
Chau, whether he knew it or not, was following in the footsteps of the great William Carey, the father of modern Protestant missions. Carey, a Baptist, was a linguist and a Bible translator in the late 1700s who fought against the brutal Indian and Hindu practice of sati, or widow-burning. It was Carey who was told by skeptical church leaders about his desire to bring the gospel to India, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” Yet Carey persevered through many hardships (including, tragically, the mental breakdown of his wife, Dorothy). His philosophy has been encapsulated as, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!”
Whatever Chau’s flaws or failures, he was attempting great things for God. Of course, zeal is not nearly enough. Though such passion pleases God, we are also expected to use the minds He gave us. It seems likely that Chau’s strategy was lacking—but at least he had a strategy. How many of his critics could say the same? Chau, captivated by the challenge of sharing Jesus with the lost, is criticized for going it alone, but we do not know how many people he may have asked to share in the ministry. How many offered to come alongside Chau and, like Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos, explain “to him the way of God more adequately”?
Yes, it is easy for us Christians in the comfortable and relatively safe Western world to shake our heads in amazement at such a sold-out and perhaps foolhardy soul, to lightly tap our fingers together and point out his errors, to clear our throats and say he should have waited—but for what, exactly? Haven’t the Sentinalese people the right to hear about Jesus? Haven’t they waited long enough?
As Teddy Roosevelt wisely said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The church needs more men and women in the arena—like John Allen Chau.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century.
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