Christian missionary work has been in the media’s crosshairs recently thanks to the murder of John Chau, a young man hoping to spread the gospel to an isolated people group in the Indian Ocean. Many evangelical and Christian leaders have spoken up for Chau, identifying him as a martyr, as he was shot to death with arrows by the people he had hoped to evangelize.
Meanwhile, critics on the left have accused Chau of engaging in a colonialist project. This criticism has expanded in some cases to seemingly call all missionary work an inherently colonialist and exploitive project.
For orthodox Christians who hold to the revealed truth of scripture and believe in gospel-focused missions, this whole media circus is frustrating. The conservative media and the liberal media have both adopted wrong positions.
Did God Give Him a Mission to the Furthest Place on Earth?
First, some facts. Chau was a graduate of Oral Roberts University, a major institution in American evangelicalism. He was associated with and took a short training course from a missionary sending organization called All Nations, which has a fairly standard evangelical faith statement.
I’ve been unable to identify his exact denomination, but the public record is broadly consistent with a young man who possessed a fervent and basically orthodox faith. It is not clear if All Nations was fully aware of Chau’s intended strategy for his mission.
Indeed, Chau’s plan was unusual. He had previously served in the mission field in Kurdistan leading evangelistic soccer camps, and similar work in South Africa. He was also a world-traveler and adventure tourist, partly paid for by a sponsorship deal with a beef jerky company and by travel-blogging.
With experience as an EMT, soccer coach, and social media marketer, Chau took a missionary training course from All Nations and headed to Sentinel Island, in the Indian Ocean. It appears he had learned about Sentinel Island on a previous adventure-tourism-evangelism trip to India.
Sentinel Island is one of the last “uncontacted” places on earth, and certainly the easiest one to reach. Most places in the world where there are still people totally isolated from modernity are deep in the Amazon or other jungles. Sentinel Island, however, is comparatively easy to reach by boat from India’s Andaman Islands.
Of course, it isn’t quite “uncontacted.” In the 1880s, a British admiral, scientific pervert, and probable pedophile kidnapped then returned some of the children to the island some time later. It was after this traumatic experience, the first-ever documented contact between Sentinel Island and the outside world (and probably first substantial contact in at least 2,000 years based on linguistic evidence), that Sentinel Island seems to have turned aggressively inwards.
Since that expedition, virtually every person to set foot on Sentinel Island has been killed by the locals, or barely escaped. Fishermen, naval helicopters, take your pick: the Sentinel Islanders were evidently so traumatized by their first encounter with the outside world that they decided to defend themselves aggressively. In other words, the Sentinel Islands are isolated by choice.
Chau, who did not speak any related local languages, had little substantive experience in the region, and whose main previous experience in mission work was soccer camps in Kurdistan and South Africa, believed he was the man to bring these people Jesus. He appears to have sincerely believed that God gave him specific instructions to evangelize the Sentinel Islanders.
This was despite his own awareness, according to his diary, that Sentinel Islanders were isolated by their own choice, that exposure to his germs could kill them, and that contacting them was basically a form of illegal immigration into an area India treats as a kind of independent country under its protection. Chau had to bribe some local fishermen to take him to the island.
Mission Work Is Not an Instagram Adventure
Chau was killed while serving as a missionary. But he was not killed on account of the gospel. He was killed on account of his unpreparedness. This may seem a harsh assessment, especially so soon after his death, but for the protection of the church’s mission, it must be said.
It is vital that we understand what went wrong with Chau’s mission, and what it says about mission work today. To do that, we can compare Chau’s experience to a seminal event in the history of evangelical missionary efforts.
On January 8, 1956, five Christian missionaries were murdered in Ecuador. They were attempting to contact the Huaorani tribe, a violent, uncontacted people group. Their attempt ended in chests full of spearpoints. But their families did not abandon the project, and over the next few years, peaceful contact was made. Eventually, many of the tribe converted to Christianity and renounced violence.
The story was immortalized in Elizabeth Elliot’s “Through Gates of Splendor,” and in 2006 was made into a movie, “End of the Spear.” These five missionaries were indeed martyred for their faith, and in circumstances that seem, on their surface, to be similar. Comparisons between Chau and these men have been rampant.
But Chau was not like these men. The five men had, between them, more than 15 years of experience working with various related people groups in Ecuador as missionaries. They had done thorough linguistic preparation, and could actually speak to the people they were hoping to evangelize to.
They hadn’t gone to missionary summer bootcamp: they were part of a disciplined set of institutions working in concert to evangelize the world, backed by a large network of supporters. So, when those five men died, there were other people around to take up the work and carry it over the finish line.
As best I can tell, while he was obviously well-intentioned, Chau was essentially a lone ranger, an Instagram-generation missionary. Far from having a fallback plan if he failed, Chau’s expedition has gotten at least seven other people arrested, including, according to some accounts, another missionary in India. He recklessly endangered himself for a project he wasn’t qualified for, and in the process endangered others.
Christian media figures have defended Chau as a sincere missionary: he was. Nothing can be said against his motives or the sincerity of his faith. Liberal critics have claimed he was a colonialist: he wasn’t. He genuinely cared for the people he felt called to, and had no desire to dominate or control them.
But both sides miss a key point. It is deeply concerning that nobody who knew of Chau’s plans, nobody in a position of influence at All Nations, ever told him the truth about his calling. A 27-year-old adventure junkie with an Instagram sponsorship, no experience in the work to be undertaken, very little formal training in any of the nuts-and-bolts of mission work, and no plan for long-term involvement in the culture, is unlikely to experience any kind of success.
Again, the critique here is not about Chau’s motives or character. I do not dispute that he was genuinely motivated by a love for Christ and for the Sentinel Islanders. Rather, the critique is about evangelical institutions that catastrophically failed to guide and nurture Chau’s zeal towards a more productive end.
For all that God sometimes works through unexpected means, the usual way that God accomplishes his work is through the mundane vocations of normal people. God heals diseases mostly through doctors, proclaims his word mostly through pastors, and reaches uncontacted people groups mostly through long-term missionaries doing years of advanced preparation in a variety of disciplines and skills.
The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom of lone wolves, but of sheep working as a team. Chau even wrote in his journal that he believed he was more use to God’s kingdom alive: then islanders tried to kill him! He only survived during a previous encounter because the arrow they shot at him hit his Bible instead.
Making Yourself a Martyr Isn’t the Goal
There’s an old pastoral joke about a flood coming and a man prays for God to save him. The waters began to rise, and a neighbor with a Jeep comes over and offers him a ride out. The man answers, “No, God will save me.”
A few hours later the waters rise more and a man with a boat comes by, offering to get the man out. He replies, “No, God will save me.” Hours later, the water had risen so much that he had to get on his roof. A life jacket floated by, but he didn’t reach for it, saying to himself, “God will save me!”
Of course, the man drowned. In heaven, he asked God, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God of course answered, “I sent you a Jeep, a boat, and a life jacket!”
Chau’s story is a sad one. He was, from all appearances, a faithful Christian, passionate about spreading the gospel, but somewhere along the way someone misled him about how to do it. They allowed him to become convinced that his vocation was in a place where he had none of the requisite skills for the work, instead of through more plausible channels: his travel writing, his connections in the outdoors industry, his family, his soccer coaching.
Somebody, whether a pastor, a teacher, or someone else, shirked his job to tell Chau that his mission wasn’t to the Sentinel Islands, but to all the other people God had put in his life. As harsh as it may be to say this mere days after his death, before his body has even been recovered, still it must be said: he had no business being on Sentinel Island.
A month previously, according to his Instagram account, he’d been faithfully pursuing his missional calling with soccer camps in South Africa: he should have stayed there, where he had the right skills to do the work of the kingdom. But again, it’s not Chau I mostly blame here: it’s all the people who could have told him to stay in South Africa, and apparently didn’t, or didn’t do anything to interdict his quest.
Young men on well-intentioned but misguided adventures are a constant through time. The specific failure here isn’t Chau’s recklessness, but the recklessness of evangelical culture and institutions that aided and abetted rather than counseling and directing.
Mission Work Is Important, So Do It Well
In his epistles, Paul often raises the issue of not embarrassing the work of the church. We are supposed to do no wrong in the eyes of anyone; to be a Jew to the Jews and a Roman to the Romans and a Greek to the Greeks. We are supposed to be diligent stewards of the good name of Christ.
This whole escapade with Chau, unfortunately, serves to obscure a key fact about mission work: not only is it good for the kingdom of God, it’s good in a very earthly sense as well. A growing body of academic literature, even from secular, progressive researchers, has found that historical missionary activity has large, positive effects on societies receiving missionaries.
After hundreds of years, the positive effects of Jesuit missionaries in Brazil can still be detected in the data. Missionary work in Benin created positive effects more than a century later. There are numerous other examples, but the point is: while colonial governments did horrible things to dominated peoples, missionary work tended to be the least-bad part of that, and sometimes genuinely good.
The reason for this is that, far from what some modern evangelicals might imagine, mission work isn’t just walking into a village, proclaiming the name of Jesus, and having people line up for baptism. For every person a missionary tells about Jesus, there will be 100 people they tell about how to shape their tongue to pronounce the English-language sound “th” as in “theatre.”
For every baptism, there will be 500 root canals or eyeglass fittings. For every conversion, there will be weeks of lesson-planning, learning the local language, translating documents, working with locals to develop a writing system for a rare language, and other similar tasks.
Throughout Christian history, missionaries have spent as much time tentmaking as teaching. This is as it should be: daily work is a vital part of human life, a vital way we connect to each other, and a way we build relationships. By spending years working together, sharing life together, long-term, committed missionaries don’t just get people to sign their name on the dotted line as a Christian, they help build new communities of faith and practice, enable economic advancement of locals, and alleviate pressing social ills.
Doing Missions Poorly Doesn’t Glorify God
Unfortunately, modern American conceptions of mission work are dominated by short-term trips that often look as much like vacations as they do useful service. American churches are increasingly keen to support missionaries who do less of the hard work of integrating into communities and building relationships, in favor of charismatic parachute-preachers.
Chau is not emblematic of how mission activity has historically proceeded but, sadly, his approach, disconnected from any rational assessment of vocation, untethered from durable community roots, decontextualized and nomadic like an Instagram travel blog account, may be what much Christian mission work looks like in the future. That is, unless Christian churches push back against that trend, and demand of mission-sending organizations that they have realistic plans for how missionaries will be engaged in a materially productive relationship with their local community.
The church must guard vigilantly against a future where “mission work” is simply a Christian sub-genre of travel blogging and adventure tourism. Even when well-intentioned, as Chau’s mission clearly was, the fusion between status-symbol adventure tourism and mission work will inevitably have bad consequences for the church.
That future is fast-approaching, and will be hastened by the hagiography about Chau. The man was sincere, well-intentioned, and faithful, but he was a victim of a moral failure of evangelical institutions who have taught a generation of young Christians a long list of falsehoods about how mission work is supposed to happen.
We should not revile Chau, as the left is doing, nor saint him, as some on the right are: rather, we should mourn that a life that promised such faithful service for many years to come was ripped from its vocation by a lack of good pastoral counsel.