Browse Worthy: The Missionary Case Study of John Chau
By now most readers will know that on November 17, John Allen Chau, a 27 year-old man with a desire to reach an isolated tribe on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean, was killed by the natives as he approached the island. Here is an article from Christianity Today explaining what took place.
US Missionary Killed by ‘World’s Most Isolated’ Tribe | Kate Shellnutt
Chau's death has created a media firestorm. Many have suggested that Chau was an "arrogant fool" for such things as violating Indian laws that prohibited contact with this tribe, endangering them to foreign diseases, and seeking to impose the Christian religion on them. This article by Garrett Kell responds to some of this criticism.
Was Murdered Missionary John Chau An Arrogant Fool? | Garrett Kell
Clearly those in the world, opposed to Christ and the gospel, cannot comprehend why this young man would be so "desperate" as to put his life on the line in order to share his faith. Here is a further article that defends the Christian call to go to all peoples with the gospel.
Incomprehensible Evangelicals and the Death of John Allen Chau | Thomas Kidd
These articles are helpful in offering an apologetic for missions. We can admire Chau for his earnestness and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. However, legitimate questions remain for all those planning, teaching, and involved in missions for, as this sad case demonstrates, lives are on the line. I'm sitting in a seminary writing this post with the faces of dear young men and women before me who are planning to go into foreign fields. I want them to go in the strength and wisdom of Christ. We must look at this situation and ask a few questions such as the following.
Which agency or church was responsible for sending Chau into this assignment? Men should not go into missions without being sent by others. As I state in Hitting the Marks,
Our Lord deliberately chose twelve apostles and set them apart by the Holy Spirit to be his official representatives (Matt. 10:1–4; Luke 6:12–16; John 15:16). He then later had others chosen; Matthias replaced Judas, and Paul was sent as a preacher to the Gentiles. Paul says earlier in this epistle that “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7)...(Even) Jesus lived in constant awareness that he had been sent by the Father. He is recorded making mention of it forty times in the Gospel of John (5:23–24, 30, 36–38; 6:29, 38–39; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25, etc.). The Father who sent him also commissioned him by having him baptized by John the Baptist and set apart by the Holy Spirit.
Though apparently Chau had some association with All Nations, it is not clear at all that they had taken necessary steps to authorize him and have some form of ecclesiastical oversight for his ministry.
Was he properly trained? Though reports indicate that Chau had been praying and planning to visit this tribe, seeking to win its confidence and then evangelize it, questions regarding his training need to be asked. In reading about his approach to the North Sentinelese, my heart breaks because Chau seemed so very sincere in his love for these people, yet so ill-equipped in the gifts he was offering and in the manner he was addressing armed warriors in a language they could not understand.
Again, Jesus trained his men for those three years, instructing them in the way of the kingdom, preparing them for the people and situations they would encounter, gradually giving them more responsibility, and then ultimately sending them forth with the Great Commission. Far too much of modern evangelicalism is, spiritually speaking regarding the mission field, sending out boys to do men's work which can harm the cause of Christ rather than advance it. Though some readers may judge this point as harsh and spoken too soon after this tragedy, in missions lives are already at stake! They should not be sacrificed unless due precaution has been exercised to the contrary.
How does the Holy Spirit guide His people in missions? Chau clearly had a strong sense of inner calling that took him to this tribe. But the Spirit of God's work in a person's heart is to be confirmed by outer indicators as well.
The Apostle Paul wanted to preach in certain areas on his second missionary journey, but he was not able to do so. "And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them" (Acts 16:6-7). How did the Holy Spirit forbid or not allow them to go into these regions? Perhaps the Spirit spoke in an immediate fashion to the apostle to communicate this restriction. But could it be just as likely that providential factors, such as weather, political turmoil, a closed border, known dangers, war, etc., kept Paul from going?
Could such factors as the current restrictions on visiting the island and the hostility of the tribe itself, which shot an arrow through Chau's Bible the day before his death, have been indicators that the Spirit of Jesus was saying "Not yet" to this venture? Clearly even within Paul's day some of the above regions eventually opened up to the gospel; after all, he wrote a letter to the churches in Galatia. Yet in the meantime, when the Spirit was forbidding him to go to there, the door opened up for him to go to Macedonia. Was the Spirit indicating to Chau to go elsewhere for now?
Why was there no one else with him? The simple fact of the matter is that Chau was all alone when he approached the North Sentinelese. Yet the Biblical pattern of missions is that pairs or teams of men are to go. Jesus sent out His disciples on mission trips in twos. "The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go" (Luke 10:1). The early church sent out Paul and Barnabas, by the direction of the Holy Spirit, together into missions (Acts 13:2-3). From then on the record in the Book of Acts is of Paul traveling with teams of men in missions.
People are starting to compare Chau with Jim Elliott. Yet we should remember that Elliott was not alone on that fateful day; he had four other men with him. Whoever was directing this effort should have insisted others go with Chau. And if no one else was directing the effort, we come back to the first question and the danger of "vigilante" mission work.
I pose these questions with a heavy heart, grieving the loss of this eager young man, hearing of how this situation has impacted mission workers in many foreign fields, and thinking of the people here who are preparing to serve Christ abroad. Though I have concerns about what has transpired, I pray that the people Chau had a heart for and gave his life for will be reached soon for Christ (Ps. 97:1).