If you have been following the media recently, then you no doubt heard about the killing of missionary John Chau. Here’s what’s been reported so far—On Nov. 22, 2018, John Chau, 26, was slain by the hostile natives of the remote Sentinel Island, a territory of India. Chau was attempting to befriend the natives of the island with the ultimate goal of evangelizing them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Chau knew about Indian government regulations which forbade interaction with the Sentinelese, who are known to shoot arrows at outsiders. Because of the danger of this mission, Chau paid local fishermen to drop him off at the island under the cover of darkness. Not long after making contact with the Sentinelese, Chau was killed by a hail of arrows from their warriors. Chau’s diary was recovered and in his last entry he wrote, “You guys might think I'm crazy in all this, but I think it's worth it to declare Jesus to these people.” “Please,” he said to his parents, “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.”[i]
When I first heard about Chau’s death I was conflicted. I have wrestled with how to process his sacrifice. No doubt, his heart was in the right place. It’s never wrong to want to take the Gospel to the nations, especially an unreached people group like those on Sentinel Island. I commend his boldness and courage and my heart goes out to his family as they feel a profound sadness.
However, at the same time I have wondered—did Mr. Chau go about his mission the right way? After all he was breaking the law, and he knew about the incredible risk he was taking. It still remains to be seen whether or not his effort will bear fruit leading to the salvation of these violent and reclusive people. Should we view what John Chau did with the same esteem as other missionary martyrs like Jim Elliot and his colleagues, John Williams, William Tyndale, John Huss or John Patterson?
I’m not sure if answers to these questions will be easy to come by, however after reflecting on the tragedy I have a few lessons that I think Christians can take away from this. First, the most obvious take away is that the Gospel is worthy of laying our lives down. Jesus said in Mark 10, “29 Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30 who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.” When it comes to the Gospel, from an eternal perspective the reward outweighs the risk. The challenge of missions is to ask ourselves, “Are we willing to make the sacrifice and lay our lives down for others?”
Second, methodology matters as much as our motivation. What John Chau did was more of a “John Wayne” approach to missions. By that I mean, he appeared to venture out alone. I’m not sure how much planning went into his mission or if he even knew the language of the Sentinelese people. As far as I know, he was not sent out or supported by a mission organization or church. This is important because when you study missions in the Gospels and Acts you find out that out the Lord and the Apostles gave some clear strategies. Jesus commissioned His disciples to go out in teams of two (Luke 10:1-12). Paul also traveled with companions like Luke, Silas, Timothy and Barnabas. Also, Paul’s mission efforts were backed financially and prayerfully by the believers in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). Paul also had a clear strategy when he went into a new place—he would first go to the synagogues and preach to the Jews before he tried to interact with the Gentiles (Acts 17:2). Moreover, Paul had a pattern of visiting and discipling the network of churches that he helped start (Acts 14:21-28).
Dr. Al Mohler commented on this same thing by comparing Chau’s effort with Jim Elliot’s saying, “I would also point to a distinction in methodology. Jim Elliot and the missionaries who were with him were part of a larger effort. They were part of a culture, of a church sending culture of missionaries. There were those who would continue the effort, who would learn from what happened to Jim Elliot and would continue to try to make contact with the tribe. There was an infrastructure, there was methodology, there was not a solitary effort because if that solitary effort had been the case in Ecuador, there would not have been the following of the team that was able eventually through persistent efforts to reach the tribe with the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . And to put the matter bluntly, this is not the way that most modern missions organizations would seek to reach this kind of group. That doesn't mean that they wouldn't demonstrate the same kind of courage, it doesn't mean that missionaries even today are not serving under the threat of martyrdom and often facing the reality of martyrdom. It doesn't mean that there should have been no effort to reach this unreached people group, not to mention the thousands of other unreached people groups still on planet earth. But it's also true to understand that Christian missionaries and mission sending organizations have learned something about how, over the long term, to be even more effective in reaching these unreached people groups.”[ii]
Third, we should always be pushing into the last frontiers of missions. John Chau’s efforts highlight an important aspect of global missions—the unreached people groups. This refers to the isolated pockets of ethnic groups and cultures that remain untouched by the Gospel. Many of these groups remain inaccessible because of a language barrier, geographical barrier or as in the case Sentinelese, they will not even entertain outsiders because of their violent nature.
According to the International Missions Board there are still 7,076 unreached people groups in the world today, which constitutes an estimated 3.13 billion people.[iii] Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do in the area of missions. If nothing more, perhaps John Chau’s death will underscore the fact that there are billions of people on our planet who have never even heard the name Jesus. This ought to break our hearts as well as motivate us into action.
I leave you with the words of John Piper, “There is a call on this generation to obey the risen Christ and make disciples of all the unreached peoples of world . . . Don’t think the days of foreign missions is over, as if nationals can finish the work. I am praying that God will raise up hundreds of thousands of young people and “finishers.” So, “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into this harvest” (Matt. 9:38) and ask Him if you should be one. Expect this prayer to change you. When Jesus told His disciples to pray it, the next thing that happened was that He appointed twelve to be His apostles and sent them out. Pray for harvesters and you may become one. God often wakens desire, and give gifts, and opens doors when we are praying and pondering real possibilities and real needs.”[iv] -DM
[i] Ashley May, “American missionary killed by remote tribe leaves behind diary: 'I hope this isn't one of my last notes'” USA TODAY, 23 November 2018 <https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/11/23/american-missionary-killed-remote-indian-tribe-diary/2090325002/>
[ii] Al Mohler, “Motivation vs. methodology: What the modern missions movement has taught us about how to most effectively reach the unreached,” The Briefing, 26 November 2018 <https://albertmohler.com/2018/11/26/
[iv] John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 174-176.