Two weeks ago, 27-year-old missionary John Chau was shot with arrows by the isolated Sentinalise people on North Sentanalise Island, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Somehow his death created a media firestorm from both Christian sources and non-Christian sources that criticized Chau for a lack of preparation and inappropriate contact with a people group untouched by modern civilization. Others wrongly used his story to attack Christian colonialism and cultural obliteration by Western missionaries throughout history. The early news sources were short-sighted, however, and days later reports emerged that he had trained for years for this mission, including linguistic, EMT training, and sports medicine training, all of which would be helpful training for such an endeavor.
When I hear stories like this, it underlines the need to be continually reflecting on ‘Christian missions’ and how Christians ought to think about engaging culture in a rapidly changing world:
First, remember that Christianity has always been a missionary faith. Ever since Jesus gave the command to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation,” (Mark 16:15) and to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18) Christianity has been on the move. While the ‘missionary’ nature of the Jesus movement has been hijacked throughout history for other political purposes, the command to “go” remains inescapably fundamental to the teaching of Jesus. If a person truly claims to believe that Jesus is who he said he is, that he is the “way, the truth, and the life,” that “no one comes to the Father except through me,” (John 14:10) and that “salvation is found in no one else for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) … if you really believe these central teachings of the New Testament, you must live on mission to others.
A pluralistic world will always reject the missionary nature of Christianity. The claim of Christianity that Jesus is the only way to God has sent its Church on mission for the last 2000 years. This claim has been labeled as too narrow or too exclusive. Such critics fail to recognize that to claim one religion is right and all the others are wrong is no more narrow than to claim that one way of thinking about religion (namely, that all religions are the same) is equally as narrow and exclusive a claim. If you knew you had the cure for cancer, and the entire world did not believe you, would that stop you from trying to convince them? Christianity teaches that there is only one cure to the deep problems of the human soul, so someone who considers themselves a follower of Jesus but is not living on mission has not truly understood the heart of the Christian faith.
At the same time, John Chau could have been wiser in his approach. As I write that last sentence, I immediately feel guilty. Here I am sitting behind a computer screen typing while he laid down his life for what I say I believe. At the same time, we ought to be careful to make sure that our motives are to advance God’s Kingdom, not simply to seek thrills and adventure. Jesus instructed his disciples to go out into the villages two-by-two. Apparently there were several people that offered to go with Chau, but he chose to go alone. In addition to this, Jesus said to those he was sending out: “Go you way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves…whatever house you enter, first say ‘Peace to this house,’ and if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on him, but if not it will return to you” (Luke 10:3-5). John Chau illegally asked fishermen to take him back to the island even after having arrows shot at him, including one that hit his Bible. When you ought to ‘shake the dust off your feet’ and move on seems to be a matter of personal discretion and wisdom, but the fact that several of the fishermen who took him to the island have since been arrested seems to indicate there may have been a wiser approach.
I’m thankful for modern examples of young people with a heart to risk everything for the gospel. I’m thankful for the witness of people like John Chau. He mentioned in his journal that one of his biggest influences was the missionary David Livingstone, who once said this: “God, send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me. And sever any tie in my heart except the tie that binds my heart to Yours.” May all of we who claim Christianity possess such a reckless abandon to our own lives if only the world might come to know Jesus Christ.
The last entry in Chau’s journal read: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” Even friends of his said that he “kind of lost his mind a bit.” It is evidence of the cultural accommodation of the American Church that behaviors that we now look at as “crazy” were normative in the New Testament. Jesus promised his disciples that “in this world you will have trouble,” and that “a servant is not above his master.” The way of Jesus will always end on some sort of cross, and for John Chau it meant laying down his life. It turns out, ‘radical’ in our western sensibilities seems to be “minimum requirements” in the kingdom of God.