Thinking Out Loud

November 24, 2018

When Missionary Zeal Exceeds Common Sense

There are times when you’re thinking something, but you don’t say it. One of those times is immediately following someone’s passing, especially if it was under unusual circumstances. “She shouldn’t have tried to do that electrical repair herself.” “He really shouldn’t have taken off from the airport in that storm.” “He really shouldn’t have always been eating chocolate cake.”

And yet, hours after we learned of his passing, Christian Today asked the questions we were all thinking about the young missionary killed one week ago today (Saturday, Nov.17th) on an island east of India in the Bay of Bengal.

It’s impossible to look at a photograph of John Allen Chau, the young American killed by tribes-people on North Sentinel Island, without sadness. He is in the full glow of youth, with decades of life ahead of him. His friends and family have paid tribute to his gifts and his character: ‘He was a beloved son, brother, uncle and best friend to us. To others he was a Christian missionary, a wilderness EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], an international soccer coach, and a mountaineer’, they wrote on Instagram.

…But this tragedy raises questions that sadness cannot be allowed to silence.

The article goes on to describe the challenges:

North Sentinel Island is inhabited by a few – anything from few dozen to a few hundred – tribes-people who are among the most isolated in the world. Though rules appear to have been confusingly slackened quite recently, they are still out of bounds for tourists. The Indian government believes the best policy for the islanders is to allow them the isolation they clearly desire – they killed two fishermen in 2006 – and operates a ‘hands off, eyes on’ policy, patrolling the coast to deter anyone from landing. A key reason for this is the vulnerability of the tribes-people to modern diseases: their isolation means they lack the antibodies to protect them.

And then, the central part of the article:

He wrote to his parents: ‘You guys might think I’m crazy in all this, but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.

‘Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed. Rather, please live your lives in obedience to whatever he has called you to and I’ll see you again when you pass through the veil…’

…One response, then, is to hail Chau as a martyr… But those questions won’t go away.

His landing on the island was illegal. Should his personal convictions allow him to override the rule of law?

Not only did he break the law himself – and there might certainly be cases where Christians would feel free do to that – but he implicated other people in his lawbreaking. Is that justifiable?

He was putting lives at risk – not just his own, but the North Sentinelese themselves, who lacked any immunity to any pathogens he may have been carrying. Suppose the price of his evangelism was the deaths of those he evangelised – would it really have been worth it?

He was going against their clearly expressed wishes and invading their territory. Why should he have thought they would welcome him, when others had been driven away or killed?

Who knew what he was doing, and to whom was he accountable?

How, when he didn’t speak their language, was he going to witness effectively to them?

Continue reading here. (Christian Today is based in London, and is not related to the U.S. Christianity Today.)

Each of the questions they raise could be fleshed out into further detail.

In discussion earlier today at Internet Monk, Robert wrote:

I see John Allen Chau as a victim of disordered Christian ideas of what constitutes evangelism. It is now historically known that Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire by the organic process of relational networks, not the heroic efforts of a few super-evangelists, for all intents and purposes parachuting into completely alien and unknown hostile territories and peoples.

Unfortunately, I think the Church came to glamorize and idealize the super-evangelist along with the martyr at a very early point; the two overlap in significant ways, and many early Christians seem to have intentionally sought martyrdom in an even more reckless manner than Chau’s attempt to evangelize the Indian tribe. Reading some of the accounts of the early martyrs, you get the impression that they are committing suicide by the hand of the pagan government, the way some people commit suicide by cop today. I see John Allen Chau as someone acting very much in line with that psychologically and socially unhealthy tradition and legacy. May he rest in peace.

The writer “Burro” adds something that some will find difficult to read:

The Protestant hagiography surrounding the deaths of the missionaries Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, and their compatriots to the Ecuadorian indigenous people is cut from the same cloth.

Although their mission was more anthropologically informed and ultimately successful, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between Jim Elliott’s mission and that of John Chau, except that Jim Elliott had a whip-smart and eloquent widow as a PR agent, and a less de-Christianized culture to receive the message.

Iain writes,

One more tragic thing about John Allen Chau, and the toxic mindset he was the victim of, is that it doesn’t seem to me to be about actually bringing people to Christ at all. It is all about the act of evangelism as a good in itself for the spiritual benefit (or if I am snarky the acquisition of divine brownie points) by the evangliser himself.

Apparently no-one even knows what language the people he was intruding on speak, and certainly no-one understands it, and from the extracts from his diary published he was attempting in fact to evangelise them in, of all things, English. The people he was interfering with apparently attack outsiders on sight because their last interaction with the outside world had a number of their people kidnapped and killed, and a great proportion of them wiped out by disease. There is no way he could possibly have successfully communicated anything to them, and arriving there could only have potentially done them serious harm. He must have known this, or at the best never bothered to find out but, and here’s the crucial bit, can’t have thought it mattered.

I don’t know if John Allen Chau deliberately wanted to be a martyr, or what he thought would happen, but it seems plain that someone has taught him that this is what he had to do to earn God’s approval, or save himself from wrath, or some such, and he died futilely because of it. Whoever taught him this killed him as surely as the guy with the bow and arrows, and without the justification that the guy who shot him had, that he was simply (and arguably not even misguidedly) defending his family and home.

I feel sorry for John Allen Chau and his family and hope he can find the rest and peace in death he clearly could not find in life, which drove him to this tragic and foolish death.

Jean writes,

…Mr. Chau had to hire someone to get him into space he was forbidden to enter, evade Indian patrol boats, risk (and ultimately lose) his own life, in order to reach a people who didn’t want to be reached, whose language he did not know, to “tell them about Christ.” He returned to the island after he had been injured by an arrow the day before. He seems, to me, to have been a man seeking martyrdom for his own reasons. He left behind a grieving family, a people possibly exposed to diseases to which they have no immunity, and seven Indian fishermen arrested for helping him break the law. What good did any of that do?

Lastly, some interesting food for thought from Christiane

…I know Mr. Chau wanted to bring Christ to them, but maybe they are already in His care, unbeknownst to Mr. Chau or to themselves. Such is the lack of humility that many who see such tribes as ‘the lost’ may not realize that our lives exist because of the breath of God in our nostrils. Those primitive people ARE in the hands of the Lord, and to impatiently cause them to wound, injure, or kill out of fearfulness seems more the action of a ‘lost’ person than of someone seeking to bring them salvation…

You can add your thoughts to the discussion at Internet Monk. (There is no specific article there per se; the comments were following a short link which appeared in the Saturday news roundup.)

In the end, I think that Christian Today and those leaving comments today at Internet Monk do need to ask the critical questions; if only so that valuable lessons can be learned and we can avoid repetition of this horrible tragedy.

That may be John Chau’s greatest contribution to world missions.

photo: All Nations (mission agency); map: Wikipedia commons


  1. When I heard the story I thought of Jim Elliot. Some questions are hard to answer or to face.

    Comment by Andie — November 24, 2018 @ 6:25 pm

  2. I didn’t want to be ‘found’ because I was ‘dead in my sins’ and unable to find my way out of my predicament but I am glad The Lord made the effort. Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations not just those whose laws allow for Christian conversion. Because this fellow gave his life are we even talking about this group of people. By his death the door has been opened. Jesus asked us to pray for persons who will reap the harvest waiting out there.

    Comment by The Purging Lutheran — November 26, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

    • This is valid point for future consideration.

      Because this fellow gave his life are we even talking about this group of people.

      I would hope and pray that somehow they can connect the dots…to know that someone loved them enough to risk his life…that they would be talking about what happened as much as we are.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 27, 2018 @ 10:36 am

  3. I would agree this man seemed somewhat naive and bordering on foolishness. That he would come and try to talk only English to them, and declare them the gospel in English seems misguided. Yet, however seemingly foolish he was, what is missing from all these news comments is this guy DID something. He had a caring for these people. He was willing to die. He did want to share Jesus with them. That’s amazing he would even think of taking the risk.

    Instead, we get these so-called Christians from news sites and forums who question, evaluate, criticize and judge. They come across with such haughty and prideful attitudes; they likely sit there in their pajamas behind a keyboard with their Starbucks lattes having done nothing for the gospel other than criticize and put down others and look ways to build themselves up and tell others how foolish those other Christians are.

    I think of Paul in the Bible and all his journeys for the gospel. He shouldn’t have gone on many of them if he was following the wisdom of men – even Christians. There’s big storms this time of year…the boat is not “safe”…they don’t want to hear you…it’s too long…you will be jailed…they killed people before who shared about Christ…etc. He listened to God though and was not deterred by man. Was John Chau listening to God – I don’t know and I will never know.

    To me, what it comes down to the heart. Even if there are misguided actions. Many so-called Christian preachers / teachers / celebrities do and say some pretty outrageous, unchristian, unloving, and/or demeaning things. Some of these may seem odd or outrageous though — you have to look at their heart. Is it for fame or fortune for themselves? Is it for just building them or their ministry/church up? Is it for publicity? Only God knows their hearts, and fortunately he will deal with them. I cannot judge. I am inspired that this man cared deeply for a tribe that was forbidden. And guess what, he may inspire others to find a more reasonable way to approach a group like this…or try again with more of (God’s) wisdom and planning and understanding.

    The only caution I personally take from this is that here seems to be one man who went it alone by himself and without much of a plan or direction. Jim Elliot and Nate Saint and their team had spent months and years training and preparing and praying, as well as understanding how to communicate with those language they do not know.

    I do agree with and I’ll leave on with the Jim Elliot quote — “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that what he cannot lose.”

    Comment by DavidSJ — November 27, 2018 @ 9:42 am

    • I think you raise a good point, namely that as foolish as it looks, we will never know this side of eternity what was accomplished.

      I do need to take exception to your second paragraph. I have found the people who weigh in at Internet Monk each Saturday to consist of regulars, many of whom are active in ministry and who carefully weigh the issues on which they express a viewpoint. Comments there are closely monitored; even I have had one or two which never surfaced for whatever reason.

      God does use the foolish things to confound the wise. It would be nice to think that the outcome of this will be the same as resulted from the five missionaries in South America you mentioned. We certainly know from the subsequent conversions there that the martyrdom of those five did plant a seed.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 27, 2018 @ 11:12 am

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