The Best Thing I Have Read on John Allen Chau


Some of you may recall the story of John Allen Chau, the evangelical missionary killed      by members of the Sentinelese tribe who live on an island in the Indian Ocean. We wrote about Chau here.

Over at GQ, Doug Bock Clark has written the best thing I have read on Chau and his missionary efforts.  The piece is informative, deeply empathetic, and worth your time.  I wish more historians wrote like this.  Here is a taste:

Many evangelicals were outspoken in celebrating his sacrifice. “There was no colonial intention,” said Ramsey, Chau’s friend. “[John’s] motivation was love for these people.… I think he’s up there in heaven.” Oral Roberts University released a statement that concluded: “We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.” Parks, Chau’s boss, wrote on social media that Chau was “one of the best and most selfless human beings there ever was.” Many Christians spoke of being inspired to do missions themselves—missions that might reach all the way to Sentinel Island. On the Facebook page “I Admire John Allen Chau,” a post described a young American declaring at a missionary conference, “I am called to go to the people JOHN Allen Chau tried to reach.” Ramsey said, “I could see John as a modern Jim Elliot, someone who made a greater impact in death than life.” At All Nations’ annual fund-raiser in April 2019, the organization celebrated Chau and featured as the keynote speaker the grandson of a missionary pilot who perished alongside Elliot.

And yet not all Christians supported Chau’s actions, including many prominent evangelicals, such as the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Christian missionary work has evolved over the ages, and it is now profoundly important for missionaries to be sensitive to the culture of the people they are sent to,” said Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “Chau is a pretty classic example of how not to do missions in the 21st century.” Some field missionaries criticized Chau as insensitive, ineffective, and even ignorant of biblical directives. As Mark 6:11 commands: “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” The detractors and supporters of Chau often seemed to be screaming past one another about different realities. Where some people saw a sensitive missionary prepared by years of training, others saw an overconfident, underprepared young American cheered to his death by his mentors.

One recent afternoon, while pondering all this, I flipped open an edition of the waterproof Bible that had stopped the arrow the Sentinelese boy had fired at Chau. He recorded the verses that the shaft broke on, which conclude in Isaiah 65:1–65:2: “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name. I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts.”

While Chau didn’t record if he interpreted the “rebellious people” as the Sentinelese or if the verse impacted his decision to return to the island once again, it’s telling he swam ashore the next morning. And yet Witherington, the Asbury seminary theologian, who has written a book about deciphering Isaiah, said, “I don’t dismiss Chau’s sincerity or sacrifice, but the question is whether he interpreted Isaiah rightly—and the answer for that, I think, is clearly no.” Two more theologians confirmed that in the above passage, the “rebellious people” are actually those inside the church, as God is criticizing the Israelites for worshipping false idols.

In all my months of reporting, I never found any evidence that Chau even once questioned his calling. His certainty was so absolute that he was willing to bet not only his life on it but the lives of the Sentinelese. (Multiple doctors have stated that his self-quarantine wouldn’t have worked.) But one inscrutable thing about religion is that while it offers definitive answers, believers draw different answers from the same words, and often different answers throughout their lives.

Read Clark’s entire piece here.

Some Historical Context on the Death of John Allen Chau


Over at The Conversion, historian Bill Svelmoe, a historian of evangelical missions, offers some historical context to help understand the faith of John Allen Chau, the missionary killed last month by the native people of North Sentinel Island.  Here is a taste of his piece:

The recent killing of a 26-year-old U.S. missionary, John Allen Chau, on a remote island in India has raised many questions about global evangelical Protestant missions.

Chau was on a personal mission to convert the Sentinelese, a protected tribe who have avoided contact with the rest of the world. Indian ships monitor the waters to stop outsiders from approaching them. Chau, however, is reported to have asked fishermen to take him illegally to the island where the Sentinelese live. The Sentinelese are reported to have shot and killed him with arrows.

As my research on missionaries shows, this often unwise haste to evangelize the world was the founding characteristic of evangelical missions in the late 19th century.

From the beginning of the 19th century, Protestants sent missionaries abroad under mission boards that required seminary education and full funding for prospective recruits. By the end of the 19th century, however, some mission leaders believed that the established missions were evangelizing the world at much too slow a pace.

Evangelicals believe in a hell where the souls of those who don’t convert to Christianity will burn forever.

Missionaries are motivated by Christ’s words in the “Great Commission” to “make disciples of all nations.” In these biblical verses, the risen Christ commands his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel. This command has motivated the missionary enterprisefor centuries.

These leaders founded what became known as “faith” missions to greatly expand the missionary force. As I write in my book, the new missions began sending out highly committed but lightly educated and ill-prepared missionaries. Many had not even finished high school. Just a bit of Bible training was considered enough.

There were dozens of such missions by the early 20th century, each founded to Christianize a specific section of the globe, such as the China Inland Mission, the Sudan Interior Mission and the Central American Mission.

Hundreds of young men and women, often with families, were sent overseas with little to no training in anything beyond the Bible and no promise of funding.

Read the rest here.

“Contact may be dangerous, but so is no contact”

Sentinel Island

There were strong reactions when news first emerged about John Allen Chau, the missionary killed by the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island.  We have done several posts about the story.  Read them here.

As we learn more about Chau and the humans who inhabit North Sentinel Island the stories are becoming more nuanced.  For example, here is a taste Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece at The New York Times:

“There is no question that this attempt to make contact was totally wrong and a major violation of their human rights to autonomy,” he said. “Outsiders need to respect their wishes and treat them with dignity as fellow human beings. Respect means we don’t assume to know better how they should live.”

To me that is the operative question. How do they want to live? Can outsiders presume they don’t want contact without communicating with them? Where does their hostility come from? Maybe it’s from an old grudge (in the 19th century, a young British naval officer kidnapped a few of the islanders and some soon died). Maybe it’s from superstition or something else.

Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, thinks total isolation on a tropical island is a bit of a fantasy anyway. He said that it’s “unwise and inhumane to forcibly keep these groups isolated by building protective fences around them.”

First, if a population gets too small and isolated, like the people on North Sentinel, it will probably become extinct. Contact may be dangerous, but so is no contact. Second, some type of encounter with an outsider is inevitable, Mr. Hill said, and “accidental contact is a disaster waiting to happen.” North Sentinel is isolated, but it’s only 30 miles or so from Port Blair, the region’s growing capital. How long can the Indians keep people away from the island? Mr. Hill’s solution is to learn what the islanders want so that they can make the decision about their future.

“Humans are an extremely social species,” he said. “No groups want to live isolated forever. They do it out of fear.”

Read the entire piece here.

New Developments in the John Allen Chau Story

We have done several posts on the death of John Allen Chau, the missionary killed by the indigenous inhabitants of North Sentinel Island off the coast of India.  It seems like we learn more and more every day about this tragic event.  Religion News Service reporter“>Jack Jenkins shared some new and relevant information on Twitter today:

John Allen Chau’s Missions Agency Responds to His Death


John Allen Chau, the missionary killed by an indigenous tribe on an island off the coast of India, was working with an evangelical missions organization called All Nations.  Over at Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” podcast, Morgan Lee (have I said yet that she is a former student?) and Mark Galli (editor of CT) talk to Mary Ho, the executive director of All Nations.

Listen here:

Some takeaways:

  • All Nations was founded by Floyd McClung, an “international leader’ of Youth with a Mission (referred to in evangelical circles as Y-WAM).
  • Chau contacted All Nations “about two years ago” and told them about North Sentinel Island and the Sentinelese.
  • Chau believed that his “life call” was to take the Gospel to the Sentinelese.  Ho said that “every decision” Chau made with his life from that point forward was to prepare him to reach the Sentinelese.  This include training in sports medicine, health, exercise science, EMT training, linguistics, missiology, and cultural anthropology.
  • Ho describes him “as a young man who was thorough and meticulous in his preparation.”
  • Ho says that All Nations train people in an approach to missions that “respects the local cultures.”
  • Ho says that Chau had 13-types of immunizations and quarantined himself for several days before he went to North Sentinel Island.  (He was physically fit and exercised daily during his quarantine).
  • All Nations “encourages” its missionaries to travel in groups of two or more.  Others were willing to go to North Sentinel Island with Chau, but Chau decided he wanted to go alone so he did not risk the safety of others.
  • Based on the conversation with Chau, Galli thinks that he was “well-prepared.”

I wish Morgan or Mark would have asked Ho if All Nations endorses Chau’s decision to break Indian law.

With some of this information in hand, Wheaton College missiologist Ed Stetzer has offered his take on Chau’s death in a piece at The Washington Post.

A Historian of Missions on the Death of John Allen Chau

TuckerWhen I was a student studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I read Ruth Tucker‘s book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  Tucker was teaching in some capacity at Trinity at this time, but I never got a chance to take one of her courses.  As a relatively new evangelical, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya was my first exposure to the evangelical missionary enterprise.  I found it to be a both inspiring and honest treatment of the subject.

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, Tucker reflects on the recent death of missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese. (See my reflections here). She puts Chau’s story in the context of the so-called “Auca Five,” the missionaries killed in 1956 by the Auca Indians in the Ecuadorian rain forest.

Here is a taste of Tucker’s piece:

I am truly sorry about John Chau’s untimely death, and I certainly do not know his motives—whether any of my multiple-choice motives factored in. Was he really thinking he could bring the gospel without knowing the language? Even if he could have, he would have been seriously endangering the people. If the population of the island had died due to his bringing pathogens against which they have no immunity, wouldn’t that have been far worse?

Some will insist that Chau has potentially rallied a new generation of missionaries. Perhaps. It is indeed true that Operation Auca inspired many to become missionaries, but at what cost and at what neglect of sensible mission outreach?

In the end, missionaries evangelized both tribal groups that had defended themselves by killing the men they perceived to be enemies. In the first instance gifts were left at the perimeter of the tribal territory, allowing the people to make contact on their own terms. In the second instance, three women and a little girl visited the native people: Dayuma, leading the way, Bible translator Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, and their young daughter.

“For those who saw it as a great Christian martyr story,” Elisabeth later wrote, “the outcome was beautifully predictable. All puzzles would be solved. God would vindicate Himself. Aucas would be converted and we could all ‘feel good’ about our faith.” But that is not what actually happened. “The truth is that not by any means did all subsequent events work out as hoped. There were negative effects of the missionaries’ entrance into Auca territory. There were arguments and misunderstandings and a few really terrible things, along with the answers to prayer.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am actually waiting for Wheaton College history professor Kathryn Long to weigh-in on this.  She is the author of the forthcoming book God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martydom and Redemption in the Amazonian Ecuador (Oxford University Press, 2019).

ADDENDUM: A quick Google search tells me that Long offered commentary for this NPR piece.

Thoughts on the Death of John Allen Chau


What should we make of the death of a twenty-seven-year-old missionary at the hands of an indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island off the coast of India?  On Sunday we published Kate Carte’s twitterstorm on the subject.  Yesterday I linked to Ryu Spaeth’s piece at The New Republic.  Since then, evangelical historian Thomas Kidd has weighed-in at The Gospel Coalition.  The story has also elicited several interesting comments at my Facebook page.

Frankly, this story has so many moving parts that I am not sure I have a “take” on it.  It is a tragic story on all sides.  I have mixed feelings about Chau’s death.

Here are a few thoughts:

1.This is one of those cases where people of Christian faith who believe in the Great Commission (Mt. 28) might see it differently from those who are not Christians.  As an evangelical myself, I understand and sympathize with Chau’s zeal and his desire to convert the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. Chau was passionate about his faith and his desire to share it with others.  Conversionism, missionary work, and evangelism are at the heart of evangelical faith.  Historically, this kind of passion and zeal has often led to martyrdom.  I am reminded of my friend who I wrote about in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  He signed his letters to fellow Christians with these words: “May you suffer and die for Christ.”

I am not saying here that Chau deserves to be called a “martyr.” I am saying that Chau is not the first person to die proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more.  Chau took this call seriously.

2. Unfortunately, Chau was not a good steward of his passion and his commitment to the Great Commission.  He was a young man.  He had the potential of reaching so many lives with the good news of the Gospel.  We need more people in the church with his zeal for evangelism. Sadly, we will never get to witness his future ministry.

3. Christians have abused the Great Commission in ways that have led to violence, death, genocide, slavery, and other forms of imperialism.  Kate Carte is right about the so-called Pilgrim (and Puritan) invasion.  This is a history that today’s evangelicals must confront and I have spent the better of my career trying to get my fellow evangelicals to confront it.  But I am thankful, at least when it comes to missiology, that some thoughtful evangelicals have confronted it.  I don’t know of any missiologist teaching at a reputable evangelical theological seminary who would endorse the kind of imperialism practiced by the Pilgrims, 19th-century missionaries, or even 20th-century missionaries.  Moreover, I do not think contemporary missiologists would endorse Chau’s approach either.  His approach is not representative of evangelical missionary activity today.

4. Over at my Facebook page, historian Jonathan Couser writes that he “does not consider Chau a true missionary.”  He reminds us that the term “missionary” means “one who is sent” (from Latin, missus).  This, Couser writes, “implies authorization, commission from a sending church or agency.  So far as I understand, no church SENT Chau.  He got it into his own head to undertake a lone-wolf mission to an isolated people.”  This is a great point.  There is a reason why missionaries do not go to North Sentinel Island.  Churches and missions organizations bring wisdom, history, scholarship, and experience to the missionary endeavor.  Perhaps Chau did consult with a “sending” organization and simply ignored the advice.  Perhaps a “sending” organization would have been aware of the health risk he posed to the Sentinelese.

And now the attempt to recover Chau’s body has put others at risk.  It does not seem like he thought this through.  This is what happens when missionaries go rogue.

5.  Chau’s failure to work as part of the global Christian or missionary community is an example of the individualism at the heart of Western evangelicalism.  Chau’s trip to North Sentinel Island seems to have combined evangelical individualism with the adventure/adrenaline culture popular among American millennials today.  Chau seems to have ignored the wisdom of the church and the voices of other Christians in his life.

6. A lot has been made of Chau breaking Indian law by going to the North Sentinel Island.  No argument here.  But like Ryu Spaeth, I wonder when it is appropriate to break border laws and when it is not.  Is it appropriate to interpret Chau’s actions in the context of America’s immigration debate?  Many liberals and progressives defend undocumented immigrants crossing the border in the name of justice and compassion.  Others disagree.  Those who disagree suggest that undocumented immigrants are dangerous or a threat to American society.  They thus defend strict border control and punishment for those who enter the United States illegally.  (Caveat:  I am talking here about immigrants, not asylum seekers).

In Chau’s case, he understood his arrival on New Sentinel Island as an act of love and compassion.  He believed so strongly in the evangelical message of salvation that he thought it was worth breaking the law so that he could deliver this message to the Sentinelese.  Why such a strong defense of North Sentinel Island borders, but not such a strong defense of U.S. borders?  When should love and compassion define our understand of borders and when should it not? Do we only break the law for the ideas and moral principles that we like?

7.  As a Christian, I believe in the dignity of all human beings.  I thus believe murder is wrong.  I understand that the Sentinelese acted in self-defense.  But in the end, a life was lost.  This should cause us to grieve.  Murder is murder and life is life, whether the Sentinelese are noble savages or not.  Of course one might also say the same thing about Chau.  His arrival on the island put human lives at risk.

Tragic indeed.

Addendum: It appears that Chau did indeed work with a missions agency.  Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today reports that he was a missionary with All Nations missions.

Addendum #2:  At 12:14 am on November 27, 2018 I edited points 3 and 6 for clarity.