Ed Stetzer on John Chau, Missionary Work, and Foolishness

On November 17th, John Allen Chau was killed by the tribesmen of the remote North Sentinel Island while attempting to share Christ with them.

His death made world news and sparked mostly negative and antagonistic reactions towards the idea of missions in general and Chau in particular.

From the initial accounts, and the news reports that followed, it appeared like a rogue fanatic rushed onto a protected island without preparation or care for what might happen to him or the people he might endanger with disease, and was killed. Many online comments have even celebrated his death as taking another crazed religious zealot off the planet and out of the gene pool.

New Information

However, new information released yesterday has shaped a much more complex picture of this man who was killed on the beaches of North Sentinel Island. In an interview for Christianity Today, Mary Ho, Executive Leader of All Nations (the missions agency that Chau was affiliated with), shared that Chau 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.

Furthermore, it appears that Chau was not unaware of potential health risks his presence could pose to the tribe (which has been a major point of criticism) and planned his trip accordingly. According to the interview, Chau had received multiple vaccinations, and intentionally quarantined himself for many days prior to his multi-day trip to the island.

Let me encourage you to listen to the entire interview here.

Delaying Is Sometimes the Best Course

I do not think that I have some unique insight here, but several people had asked me to write on the situation.

However, I did not write about John Chau and this situation right away because the initial story did not, to be honest, make sense. So, I reached out to some involved in John’s life. In personally talking with some of Chau’s friends I learned that his purpose with all of this training was to live on the island for years, build a relationship with the people, help them through his medical training, learn their language, and then tell them about Christ.

Chau is described by Ho as a “soft-spoken, very gentle man,” not rash or impulsive. In fact, Ho indicated that he underwent a rigorous screening process through the agency which included mental, psychological, spiritual, and physical evaluation to determine whether this type of training was appropriate for him and his personality.

So, according to Ho, there are years of preparation, training, independent assessment, and logic behind what happened on the shores of the Andaman Sea.

More Information Matters

We live in a world today where some people are simply unable to wait for more information, even when something seems odd. The result can be hot takes that cause more harm than they help.

Now we know more. We know that Chau was not a rogue individual, cavalierly traveling to a protected island as an adventure stunt. According to Ho, he was an intelligent, educated, humble, and gentle man who intensely focused over years on one, singular goal: to reach the North Sentinelese with the message of the gospel.

Now, that does not mean that everything was done as we might prefer. Furthmore, it does not answer many of the important questions on which we still do not have clarity. However, it does start the conversation at a different place.

Missiology and Missions

My Ph.D. is in missions and I have trained missionaries in cross-cultural contexts from Malaysia to Ghana to India. So, I care about this issue. This encounter is complex and confusing at times, and multi-faceted for me in such a way that evades a simplistic answer. On one hand, hearing the more detailed story, I understand more, but (like many others with whom I’ve talked) I would have preferred Chau had done many things differently.

However, in part one of this series, we must also discuss how the very notion of conversionary Protestantism is offensive to many in our Western world. The history of such work is filled with stories of bravery, martyrdom, and positive change—but also filled with mistakes, colonialism, and cultural errors.

Whole books have been written on these errors, including a forthcoming volume where I have contributed. For many, missions is a story of heroes and gospel advance. For others, missions is a story of colonialism, genocide, triumphalism, and cross-cultural disasters.

All of these matter, though we can’t address each in every article, I will touch on them in the series. (Entire books have been written on each mentioned.) However, it will help all of us to remember that these are real issues that shape and inform the response of many people.

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today