Reconsidering John Chau the missionary and the Sentinelese islanders
A pioneer missionary adds a front line perspective
The Sentinelese people have been in the media a lot over the last couple of weeks. Their story has been very confronting for everyone in society and indeed in the church too. The story of the Sentinelese people is a catalyst because it reveals something of who we all are as humans on planet earth and who God our Creator is too. This story cuts to the heart of our identity and leaves us all challenged on some level no matter our belief system.
The biggest story in the centre of this storm is the unfathomable extravagant love of Jesus. God has of course always known of the existence of the Sentinelese long before the media brought them to our attention when John Chau died trying to reach them with the gospel of Jesus, and long before any British colonialists made first contact with them in 1867.
Jesus teaches us about the Sentinelese in his own ministry to the disciples
This story challenges us to reconnect with God’s heart for all the nations of the world. In the story of the Bible we discover something of God’s heart for all nations when he calls Abraham to be the father of a great nation that would bless all nations (Genesis 12), a thread that continues through out scripture to the throne of God in Revelation where we learn that there is a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language worshipping God. (Revelation 7:9) It is ever so important as Christians that we connect with God’s heart for the lost nations, tribes and people groups of this world before we begin to analyse or even dare judge John Chau’s mission to the Sentinelese. For God desires nothing less than that the Sentinelese, Jarawa and other “uncontacted tribes” of the world would also be before his throne.
Jesus teaches us about the Sentinelese in his own ministry to the disciples. In the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7), Jesus illustrates how he will go to extraordinary lengths to rescue even one sheep even while risking the other 99 in open country. This is most definitely the heart of Jesus for the Sentinelese and other unreached people groups around the world. Jesus also teaches us in Matthew 24 that his gospel of the kingdom must be preached to all nations before the end can come. That’s right, until the Sentinelese have heard and I dare say even received, Jesus is not coming back. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the Sentinelese or any other tribe in the most difficult reaches at the ends of the earth.
This media message became a temptation for Christians to then also criticise John Chau as a fool.
John Chau’s death confronts us. The secular media have called him a fool. This is no surprise, “for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) I can understand the secular media calling John Chau foolish. I must admit that I also had that same initial reaction when I heard the breaking news story shortly after November 16. That was the intention of all the news stories, “how dare he impose his religion on a peaceful people who don’t need to be disturbed by us, and what’s more he threatened their existence, likley to wipe them out with disease.” This media message became a temptation for Christians to then also criticise John Chau as a fool. This has indeed happened in some quarters and has even begun to undermine our commitment to carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. There have been attempts by some in the missions community to distance themselves from John Chau saying in essence, “yes we agree that we are compelled by the Great Commission of Jesus to go the Sentinelese, but John Chau’s methods were unwise.” At the same time these critics have offered nothing more in terms of a proposal for bringing the Gospel of Jesus to the Sentinelese other than to imply that first contact is no longer the job of an American and that it must fall to the Global Christian South. Alhough there is no question that the centre of influence in the Christian world is shifting and growing and this is a benefit not a hindrance to the church; I see no reason why any one group of people should be disqualified from particular ministries. If you can believe that God sent John Chau to North Sentinel Island then it would appear He doesn’t see it that way either.
All Nations are no small-time operation. They are led by some very accomplished missionaries, many with extensive field experience and many with doctoral qualifications.
We must be careful not to judge John Chau quickly. Over the last couple of weeks more and more of his story has come to light. To be sure, more of the story of the Sentinelese has become clear too. There have been interviews with All Nations (John’s mission organisation) and also with anthropoligists who work for the Indian government. John Chau was extremely focused and prepared meticulously. He completed a degree in Bible College, a degree in Sports Medicine, qualified as a paramedic, was an experienced wilderness adventurer, undertook linguistics training with SIL, and completed various anthropological and missions training courses with All Nations. His preparation was 8 years in total from the ages of 18 to 26. Before traveling to North Sentinel Island John Chau had gone through an extensive immunisation regime by receiving 13 vaccinations, and then finally went through a quarantine period before traveling to the island. Despite various media reports, the Indian government had lifted travel bans to the various Andaman islands including North Sentinel in August. Apart from his physical and academic training, John also went through a period of discernment and mentorship with All Nations.
All Nations are no small-time operation. They are led by some very accomplished missionaries, many with extensive field experience and many with doctoral qualifications. All Nations were founded by Flloyd Mc Clung who himself has been in missions since the 1970s writing the well known missions books, “Taking our cities for God”, “Living on the devil’s doorstep” and “The Father heart of God.” There have been accusations that John only discerned this call from God on his own, but these are unfair as he was clearly guided by very mature and experienced missionaries.
Did God call John Chau to the Sentinelese knowing that John would die?
Jesus called his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him”. This was not a metaphorical calling. Eleven of the twelve disciples died violent deaths, according to church tradition, and even the Apostle John survived being thrown in boiling oil. The call to follow Jesus is not something reserved for comfortable church couches and high quality audio visual systems. The call of Jesus could very well take us to our death. This should not be surprising, we should expect nothing less. Death is not a failure.
Even some of the most supportive voices of John Chau have said that perhaps he made a mistake to go on his own. Or perhaps he made the anthropological mistake of not sending a woman first (as revealed by news that female Indian anthropoligist Madhumala Chattapadhyay had made successful visits to the Sentinelese in the 1990s). Neither of these contingencies escaped John Chau. Anthropological research on the Sentinelese has not been secret. And John indeed had formed a team with another All Nations man and woman who came to the Andaman Islands with him. The three of them were prepared to make the trip together. The whole story is not clear, but it has been revealed that the decision was made in the team that John would go alone and the other two would stay behind.
This is possibly the most shocking concept of all. Did God call John Chau to the Sentinelese knowing that John would die? Did John Chau himself know he would die and indeed was prepared for this eventuality? I see a man who prepared meticulously physically, academically and spiritually. And I fully believe that God does speak directly to people in specific ways just as he did in calling me to the indigenous tribes of Siberia as a missionary. I have no doubt that John Chau did hear directly from God. His journals said “I don’t want to die, but I believe that it’s worth while to declare Jesus to these people.” This sentiment echoes perfectly the words of Jesus when he asked that this cup of suffering be taken from him, yet still submitted to God’s will. John counted the cost and went forward in obedience, even as Jesus went to his death on the cross.
We might find it extremely uncomfortable that John Chau did something that we consider to be unsafe and unwise. This confronts the highly layered and sanitary world that we have established in western society where all danger and risk is considered to be anathema and safety is now worshipped as the highest ideal in secular society. Many have critcised John for his “overly western approach” when perhaps it is his lack of Western tidiness that most offends us. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and not just in a metaphorical way.
I take my hat off to John Chau. I acknowledge the sacrifice he made for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I applaud his love for the Sentinelese. I admire the depths of his preparation. I congratulate him for his obedience to God. Oh that the world may know the depths and height and width of the love of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice that he made to pay for our sins and to bring us into God’s presence. Oh that the world may know just why John Chau laid down his life with the same conviction that Jesus laid down his. I stand with John Chau. And if the Lord calls me to I will also lay down my life in any way that Jesus calls. To God be the Glory.
Paul Kube and his wife Melody served for 11 years with Pioneers among the Evenki, an indigenous unreached people group in Siberia.
Paul and Melody have started a new missions venture called Traverse to advocate for unreached people groups, and to bring strategy and training to the church in reaching unreached people groups both in Australia and overseas.
Traverse is a Missions Interlink Associate, their website address is Traverse4G.org