With the recent death of missionary John Chau, there has been a whirlwind of reactions and opinions. Some grieve the loss of life and the tragic nature of his death while pursuing a greater cause; others argue that his death was pointless and could have been avoided.
These reactions reveal that we are in a new era concerning the perspective of missions. I believe that the popularity of consumer Christianity has led us to the point of viewing missions in a different light than what we have in the past. In the past, giving your life to reach the lost for the cause of Christ was both noble and honorable. In the present, methods are questioned and critiqued without examination of motives. If that isn’t evident in the case of Chau, perhaps compare the op-eds of late with the Time article covering the death of Jim Elliot.
Regardless of your position, many of us are confused with missions and when confronted with the hard realities of missions (i.e., the mission may cost us our lives) we turn inward conviction into critique to appease our conscience.
Confusion in the Need
Over the past few days, the Twitter-sphere has been abuzz around the incident. People have been on both sides of the issue, some calling John a martyr and others calling him a lunatic.
Many of his proponents call him a lunatic, a buffoon, a failed colonizer, or worse. (In all honesty, it took me a few minutes to find tweets that were not full of obscenities).
The problem with these viewpoints is they do not understand the need for missions. It’s not to colonize or conform different people groups to look alike or function in similar ways; neither is it necessary in missions to impose one’s personal agenda onto another.
Biblical Christianity places the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ as the need for missions. The sole point of biblical missions has been, and will always be, the message of Jesus dying for the forgiveness of sins and offering eternal life to all of humanity.
John Allen Chau was not concerned about changing the Sentinelese standard of living or implementing a 21st-century worldview on their island. His burden was far greater—apart from Christ, they would spend eternity in torment.
Rather than rendering judgment on his burden for the lost, let us examine our own lives and ask ourselves if we are burdened similarly for those without Christ.
Romans 10:14–15 (CSB)
How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.
Confusion in the Calling
Rod Dreher’s recent article on the American Conservation and many others have called Chau’s efforts unwise for several reasons: he was not familiar with the language, the people were aggressive towards outsiders, the Indian government had isolated the people for a reason, etc.
While later reports have released more information regarding Chau’s preparations for this mission. His critic’s views, then, raise a few concerns.
These viewpoints place specific requirements on the missionary before the mission can be deemed wise—the missionary must learn the language, the missionary must have a certain number of vaccines, the missionary must be fully aware of all of the culture, the missionary must be funded and supported by a mission sending agency, etc. The problem with this view is that it is not what is represented in the Bible. In fact, the Bible records that when the Spirit called a person, the church confirmed the calling, and the church sent them out (for one example, see Acts 13:1–5). Biblical Christianity teaches that the qualification for missions is the calling of the Lord. If the Lord has called, they are ready.
That being said, let me also qualify that I believe that a calling implies equipping. I have been called to pastor, and for that very reason, I have been equipped at a local seminary. Moreover, I can see how Paul and Barnabas were equipped earlier in the book of Acts for the mission to which God had called them.
I also believe that mission sending agencies are great. I love the work of the IMB (International Missions Board), support them, and partner with them.
While it is ideal for missionaries (and pastors) to be equipped by formal agencies, formal agencies are not a prerequisite for ministry. A person who is called by God to pastor can pastor (and many do) without a seminary degree. A person who is called to be a missionary can go (and many do) without a formal equipping by a missions sending agency. Even if the reports of Chau’s preparation had not come out, who are we to criticize a man who felt called by the Lord and was acting on it?
Let us not criticize Chau for his calling or his zeal in his calling. Instead, let us pursue the Lord’s calling in our own lives and examine ourselves to see if we are zealous to see others come to Christ.
Confusion in the Comfort
So why are these people calling Chau a fool? I believe it has to do with respecting a person’s comfort. The world tells us that if a person is comfortable, leave them alone. If they want to live a certain way, as long as everyone is comfortable, just let them. In this type of culture, comfort rules and when anything challenges comfort, it is proclaimed as foolish.
Chau was not willing to let the people remain comfortable in their ignorance of Christ, nor was he was willing to remain comfortable knowing that they would spend eternity in hell without Christ.
The problem with these viewpoints is that they do not understand that, at its core, the mission of Christ is foolishness to the world because it sacrifices comfort for the cause of Christ. Missionaries sacrifice their comfort to go to the mission field—they leave jobs, they sell possessions, they spend large amounts of time learning about communicating with and integrating into a foreign culture and that is even before they get onto the field. Once missionaries are on the field the foolishness (by worldly standards) and sacrifice of comfort continues as there are language barriers they must deal with, the people can be unreceptive to the missionaries message, and the time investment required to reach an unreached people group can be massive.
Simply put, missions will always look foolish when it is viewed through the lens of the world because it calls everyone to sacrifice comfort.
Biblical Christianity is not concerned with the world’s perspective or comfort. Biblical Christianity is concerned with those living without hope finding hope in Christ. For the Christian, the temporary sacrifice of comfort in this world is worth the opportunity to lead others into an eternity with Jesus.
Chau was not concerned with those who would consider him foolish or even the sacrifices that he was going to make. He was concerned about how he could share the hope that can be found in Jesus.
So, let us not judge him for his willingness to sacrifice his worldly comforts, even his own life. Instead, let us examine ourselves to see if we are ready to sacrifice our worldly comforts for the commission that Christ has given us.
2 Timothy 1:8–12 (CSB)
So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. Instead, share in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God. He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald, apostle, and teacher, and that is why I suffer these things. But I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.
Confusion in the Command
At the core of the problem, we find confusion in the command. Christ has called every Christian to go and make disciples of all nations.
Matthew 28:18–20 (CSB)
Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The world will always misunderstand the purpose of the mission, place roadblocks before the mission, and cling to earthly comfort. Nevertheless, let us seek to fulfill what Christ has called us to do and share the gospel with all who will listen, even to the ends of the earth.
PhD Evangelism (ABD) @swbts.