Pastor’s Column: Tragedy of John Chau Doesn’t Overshadow the Value of Missions
During the past couple of weeks, the death of John Allen Chau caused a number of ripples in my world. The murder of this 26-year-old missionary, killed by members of an isolated tribe on a remote island near India, Myanmar, and Thailand, has raised many questions about modern-day missions.
“in popular society, missionaries are often seen as misguided cultural misanthropes who desire to destroy the noble savage culture.”
A few people have written about the value of the martyr’s blood. Many more so-called experts have written about the foolishness of Mr. Chau’s attempt to evangelize the indigenous Sentinelese people of the Andaman Islands.
During my 36-year career in missions both as a missionary and a mission executive, I was often confronted with people’s rather limited understanding of missions realities. These unfortunate perspectives were both positive and negative. There was a tendency in some Evangelical circles to place missionaries on a pedestal — as though they were the spiritual heroes we should all hope to emulate. However, in popular society, missionaries are often seen as misguided cultural misanthropes who desire to destroy the noble savage culture. My experience in missions informs me that neither of these perspectives has much to do with reality.
Most missionaries I knew — are human beings with good intentions but very capable of making human errors
Most missionaries I knew — and I include myself here — are human beings with good intentions but very capable of making human errors. They had a great desire to serve God but often lacked crucial information for making the right decisions at the right time. Still, by and large, they actually did positive work with exceptional results on limited budgets.
Most critics of missions seem to have formed their limited opinions of missionaries through the caricatures created in a James A. Michener novel or a bad movie. These critics never seemed to investigate real missions and/or their results. Others listen to popular voices with well-read blogs who make a career of presenting their personal opinions about ministry in general.
“…conversionary Protestants heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world.”
Sociologist Robert Woodberry did an analysis of historical data regarding the impact of protestant, primarily Evangelical, missions. In a prize-winning article in American Political Science Review in May 2012, Woodberry wrote, “… conversionary Protestants heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world.” His study went on to show the same missionaries, whom so many have negatively caricaturized, initiated the development of religious liberty, universal education, economical printing, colonial reforms, and voluntary organizations in the countries where they worked.
In other words, missionaries made a positive difference in society. Of course, many missionaries have made painful mistakes, and it is possible that John Chau did, as well. In his commendable desire to share Biblical faith with the Sentinelese people, he probably did not take into account the history of this people with the outside world. He may not have known about the misadventures of Maurice Vidal Portman, a British naval officer and pedophile, who was strangely obsessed by the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands in the 19th century. Captain Portman’s interactions could explain why the Sentinelese still reject outsiders in the 21st century.
“we must engage in cross-cultural mission respectfully, wisely, and with genuine love.”
Most modern mission agencies would have required John Allen Chau to work with a skilled team over many years to introduce Christianity to the Andaman Islands in the most sensitive fashion possible. This did not happen in Mr. Chau’s case. Most contemporary missionaries would have engaged in long-term, incarnational ministry with nearby and — probably — more open cultures. This could have led to others of a similar or nearer culture reaching the Sentinelese.
Still, costly mistakes made by a few should not serve to disparage the many. Christians like John Allen Chau believe that eternal life and true good is found only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of that, we must engage in cross-cultural mission respectfully, wisely, and with genuine love.
Woody Roland is a Transform Minnesota board member and the pastor of missions at Autumn Ridge Church in Rochester.