I’ve been involved in cross-cultural mission work for almost 20 years and have lived overseas for the last 11. When I first heard about an American missionary dying on a remote island at the hands of the tribe he was trying to reach, I was immediately confused and critical. I thought this was another classic case of “American Privilege” and “White Savior” mentality…but then I found out the guy was Asian.
…And his name was John Allen Chau.
As I dug deeper, past the media frenzy and sensational headlines, and spoke with someone who knew him, I discovered that John was a son and brother to a loving family, a genuine follower of Jesus, and a friend of a friend. I realized that John was part of a mission organization I am familiar with and he received similar training (on culture and language acquisition, disciple-making, and church movements) that I’ve received.
I can’t say that I agree with his methodology. I’ve been trained to think strategically and my approach would have been to work in close proximity as possible to the Sentinelese, among open tribes that are near in culture and train them to reach out cross-culturally. Catalyzing near culture peoples to reach the remaining unengaged peoples is what I have been doing for the last decade in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Yet even if I don’t agree with all his methods, I can’t deny his zeal for God’s glory and I’m not one to judge his calling from the Creator. John’s life and death will undoubtedly leave an impact on mission and culture. Many have already rejected him. Others have embraced him. Here are my thoughts on how his story is shaping the conversation:
1. Being A Millennial Missionary
I have tattoos, drink a beer every once in a while, love traveling, Marvel, and first-person shooters. I hate systems, hate injustice, really hate fake leaders and the politics of state and church, and anything institutionalized – I’m a millennial.
I’ve also loved on many refugees, trained hundreds to share their faith, worked with leaders to reach entire people groups, and have seen thousands of baptisms, and hundreds of churches reproducing generations of churches – I’m a missionary.
John Chau and I would have gotten along pretty well. He was 26 and represents a demographic of our generation who are currently doing diddly squat for Jesus among the unreached and unengaged.
While Christian millennials are church hoppin and squabbling over skinny jeans, here is John, swimming/living against the current mediocrity of our time. Many people think that missionaries are just legends from tales of old, but John, for better or for worse, put a new generation of missionaries back on the global stage. John’s face is now the face of the modern-day missionary and it’s a face of mixed-descent. His life communicates that there are status-quo upsetting millennials who are willing to use ALL their passions, skills, abilities, and resources to further God’s Kingdom and expand His glory.
2. Highlighting the Final Unengaged Groups
The fact that John was killed by one of the most remote and last remaining uncontacted tribes on planet earth, has global implications. Some of it not so good, as the tension in India between Hindus and Christians may flare up, reigniting persecution and violence. The Indian government may enhance security around the Andaman Islands further restricting access to the Sentinelese. And the tribe may be exposed to diseases from which they have no immunities.
But despite this, it’s a fact that millions of Christians will be praying for the Sentinelese and other unengaged and unreached people groups around the world. Conversations on the state of eternal souls who have never heard the Good News will be reignited and debated in blogs, homes, groups, and churches. People will turn to Romans 1 and 10 for answers, studying the words of the Apostle Paul,
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (NIV). But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it (MSG)? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news (NIV)!”
If you don’t already know the unreached refers to communities of people (related by language, culture, and history) who have little to no access or opportunity to hear the Gospel in all its fullness. They don’t have a Jesus follower nearby to explain the Good News to them – no churches, no scriptures, and no way of hearing about the love of God and His redeeming work through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Out of 11,749 people groups on the planet, about 7,037 of them are unreached people groups (UPGs).
The unengaged refers to communities of people that no one is actively trying to reach with a church planting strategy. Out of the total number of UPG’s there are about 3,261 unengaged unreached people groups (UUPGs).
John’s passion for the Sentinelese put the spotlight on one people group. But like a curtain being opened on a bright summer morning in a darkened palace, John’s life is shining on all the UPG’s of the world, far beyond what he ever dreamed or imagined.
3. Taking Calculated Risks
I wouldn’t be too quick to get those Twitter thumbs out and call someone a reject, prick, moron, fool, or “dumb ass who deserves to die”, without understanding the context and getting all the information. So many have jumped on social media to voice their opinion about someone and something they know nothing about. In an age of instant digital justice, we often judge before we think – making ourselves to look like the ass, on the internet…forever.
John had a plan because he had a calling. He actually spent years in prayer, wilderness research, and emergency medical training. He thought deeply about the tribes’ lack of immunity to disease, consulted with an immunologist and got all of the vaccinations he could and then entered a designated quarantine before traveling to the island. He understood that this was a one way ticket and took deliberate steps in life to prepare himself to love the Sentinelese and live among them.
His plans may not have been realistic but his faith surely was. He took a calculated risk, understanding that all the preparation in the world would not prepare him for the unplanned. I’m thinking he may have read the words of Hudson Taylor, a pioneer missionary back in the day, “Unless there is the element of extreme risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith”.
I live in a restricted access communist country in Southeast Asia. All my Kingdom activities would be considered illegal, at least by the traditional laws of the land. I have a family. I am gone for days over mountains, streams, and jungles, trying to avoid arrest by local police and death by cliff, pothole, or chicken in the road. I don’t have any life insurance. Does this make me a bad father and husband? Am I a moron who has no plan? Or am I taking calculated risks?
I really am doing everything in my power to minimize unnecessary risks to me and others but at the end of the day, it is the power and leading of the Spirit that prevails and guides.
John’s story should make all of us ask whether we have a calling, are living by faith, and taking risks for the Kingdom. This doesn’t mean we all need to be in a jungle or reaching a tribe but it does mean we need to live for more than our Instagrams, fantasy footballs, careers, retirements, and national safety. Think before you act. Take risks according to your faith. Trust God for the results.
4. Dying for His Convictions
The truth is there are brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering and dying for their faith almost daily in countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. These are the stories of true martyrs whom we will never hear on this side of heaven.
John is not special but he is unique in that he comes from a country like America, and in the States, we love to fight for our convictions and rights. We fight for parking spots at the mall, insurance claims, and free speech, but so often we are not willing to fight for God’s glory and eternal lost souls.
God desires worship from every heart and household – this includes the weird neighbors we never talk to, the homeless guy we pass every morning on the way to work, the knucklehead gangbangers in the hood, the people of color we often misunderstand, the co-workers with different sexual orientation, the annoying politicians we have to hear all the time, and the Atheists, Buddhists, Animists, Hindus and Muslims we often fear. To fight for their souls is to love them and what greater love is there than this, that a person gives his life for someone else.
I’m still not sure if I consider John Allen Chau a martyr in the vein of Jim Elliot, but I am sure that he died for his convictions at the hands of a people he truly loved. He desired that worship would one day flow from the hearts of the Sentinelese people, quoting in his diary the same verse that I have shared with thousands (and thousands of missionaries before us have quoted),
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”
In my book, John’s a legit Rough Rider. To da homie John, I tip my glass to you.