On an island off the coast of India live the Sentinelese, a tribe of indigenous people who have managed—with the aid of the Indian government—to seal themselves off from the modern world for hundreds of years. Earlier this month, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American missionary, attempted to make contact with them so he could “declare Jesus to these people.”
According to The New York Times, Chau arranged for a local fisherman to take him close to the island, where he hoped to give out gifts of scissors, safety pins, fishing line, and a soccer ball. After landing on the island and being confronted by guards he yelled out, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”
When he tried to hand over the gifts, though, a boy shot an arrow into the Bible he was holding. Chau escaped without injury, and debated whether to return. On November 16 he told the fishermen he would be fine staying on the island overnight. When they passed by the island the next morning, they saw the islanders dragging Chau’s body on the beach with a rope. Police believe the young American was likely murdered.
Reports of the tragedy have sparked a range of debates. Some critics of Christianity—both external and internal—are using Chau’s death to condemn all missionary activities as “imperialism” and “colonization.” In response, some Christians are uncritically praising the young man’s courage in attempting to tell one of the world’s most remote tribes about Jesus.
There is no reason to take either approach, nor is it necessary to directly condemn or champion Chau’s actions. But we can and should use this tragic death to examine how we think about our own role in sending missionaries. Would you have commissioned Chau to be a missionary to the Sentinelese? In considering that question, you can gain a better understanding of both the role of missionaries and also the role you have in sending them.
If you are a church member, you will (or at least should) have the opportunity to determine who will be sent to the mission field.
Missionaries, as Kevin DeYoung explains, are those unique persons called by God and sent by the church to go out and further the mission where it has not yet been established. By this definition, if you are a church member, you will (or at least should) have the opportunity to determine who will be sent to the mission field.
Here are examples of the types of questions you should consider asking when evaluating the qualifications of a missionary candidate.
Are they willing to be sent by a local church?
Let’s start with what some might consider a controversial claim: No one should be on the mission field unless they are sent by a healthy, gospel-centered church. This means the candidate should already be a member of a local church and submitting to the authority of the church leaders.
I agree with Mack Stiles. “Baptizing yourself is silly,” Stiles says. “And going to the nations without the support of a local church is a little like baptizing yourself. Being a self-proclaimed lone-ranger missionary is as ridiculous and arrogant as baptizing yourself.”
Currently, it is unknown whether Chau was a sent by any church. Although he joined All Nations in 2017, it’s also unclear whether the missionary organization sanctioned his trip to the Sentinelese people.
Can they communicate the gospel to the target group?
This question has three elements, each of which should be nonnegotiable.
The first is whether the candidate has an adequate understanding of the gospel. We should never assume that simply because someone has a heart for missions that they understand, much less can communicate, the message of the gospel. Have them explain it to you before they explain it to a lost people group.
The second consideration is whether they can explain the gospel in the context of the target people group. Cross-cultural contextualization is a complicated topic, and fraught with many pitfalls. But at a minimum a missionary should be able to communicate the gospel within a cultural context in way that ensures what the people are hearing actually is the gospel.
Third, and most importantly, is whether they can communicate in the language of the target people group. If they cannot speak the language they cannot carry out the purpose of the missionary. They may embed themselves within a people to study the language and gain the skills necessary for communication. But until they are able to communicate the gospel to the target group, they are not functioning as missionaries.
This would be a particularly acute problem with the Sentinelese, since no one even knows what language they speak. Chau’s plan, according to friends, was to “use body language” to communicate with the Sentinelese. Since the gospel can’t be communicated through hand gestures, it would have been years—maybe even decades—before Chau was able to tell the people about Christ.
Who will be part of their team?
Christianity isn’t for loners. As believers we are called to be a part of and submit to a local church. The same model is true for missionaries. Except in rare and extraordinary circumstances, we should follow the example and model we see in the New Testament of missionaries being part of teams.
As Paul Akin notes, “Jesus and his disciples lived and did ministry together. Paul and Barnabas—set apart by the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch—went out together on the first missionary journey . . . at least 55 men and 17 women were associated with Paul on his missionary journeys. All this to say, there are biblical, practical, and pastoral reasons why we encourage the formation and sending of missionary teams.”
Would we have them on staff at our church?
Would you consider the missionary candidate “good enough” for a primitive people but not someone you would trust to be a Bible teacher or elder in your own congregation? If so, you should consider why you believe God has a lower standard for the leadership of lost people groups than you do for your own church. As Stiles says, “Churches should send out those they’d be willing to hire as staff, the ones who’d sting a bit to lose to overseas work.”
Have they counted the costs?
In the letter he wrote before his death, Chau said, “I think I could be more useful alive . . . but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens.” He also asked God to forgive “any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially if they succeed.”
Whatever his flaws in methodology, Chau had the requisite courage, commitment, and willingness to give his all for the mission. We should hold our candidates to the same standard, for no missionary is truly prepared until they are ready to lose their life for the sake of the gospel.