Back in November 2018, the internet was abuzz about the death of John Allen Chau (1991–2018). Chau died in an attempt to bring the gospel to an unreached people group in the Indian Ocean, known as the Sentinelese people. A lot of opinions were offered concerning his attempt and subsequent death. Many were quick to offer their condemnation of his effort and others to defend it. Now that the waters have settled, I think it would be valuable to revisit this man’s mission and how we responded to it. I think there are three things we should take away from John Chau’s mission and our response to it.
First, wait until all the facts are in.
Among the many responses offered to John Chau’s life and death, many news stories and blog posts were quick to condemn Chau as a naïve and pleasure-seeking man who sought to fulfill his dreams without thought. However, in recent days, the missions organization with which Chau worked with (All Nations Group) has revealed a far different picture.
Whatever we think of the wisdom of his approach, John Chau was anything but unprepared. He spent his adult life preparing for this mission, learning linguistics and cultural anthropology through SIL and learning basic medicine. Before we rush to judge the motives and actions of men or women, we need to evaluate all the facts. And if we do not have all the facts, this recent case of misrepresentation should caution us against proffering judgment without sufficient information.
Second, the world will not understand our mission.
John Chau may have been prepared, but many have been quick to point out that he broke Indian law and to condemn his mission as a form of imperialism. The unbelieving world has been quick to condemn John’s actions. How could endangering one’s own life and the lives of the indigenous people on this island be worth such a mission? Such criticism makes sense from a non-Christian point of view. However, such criticism fails from a Christian point of view.
What would be lost if no one went to the Sentinelese people? According to the Bible, unless the gospel is preached and believed, there is no salvation (Rom 10:5–21). The preaching of the gospel is God’s means of saving sinners from His righteous judgment against sin. Wherever the gospel does not go forth, sinners remain in their rebellion against God and under his judgment. For this reason, the work of missions is worth the greatest costs. It is beyond life and death, it concerns eternal life and eternal death. If we believe this, then that changes the way we count temporal risks—our lives and even others.
Yet Chau broke certain civil law, while God commands us to obey earthly authorities (Rom 13:1–7, Mark 12:13–17). However, the Bible demonstrates that obedience to God at times trumps over obedience to civil government. For example, the rulers of Jerusalem (the Sanhedrin) repeatedly prohibited the Apostles from preaching the Gospel; they nevertheless continued, losing their lives for the sake of the gospel (e.g. Acts 4). Throughout the history of the church, Christians have broken civil laws for the sake of obedience to Christ. Mission work in many countries around the world remain illegal and Christians are forced daily to break the law in order to be faithful to Christ. The cost is great for such action, yet Jesus warned us about the costs of following him (Matt 16:24–28, Luke 9:57–62). This is not permission to wantonly break the law, but it is a call to prioritize the authority of God over the authority of man.
Third, have we counted the costs?
John Allen Chau spent his adult life pursuing a singular goal of making Christ’s name known where it has not been heard. From what we can see, he counted the costs of following Jesus, pursuing him at the expense of the life many of us take for granted—sacrificing his life, comfort, a future family, etc. He died to make this sacrifice. In addition, he had to count the cost of his endeavour.
Though his organization took the best possible precautions, it very well could have been the case that he would transmit a deadly disease to these people. Yet he went anyways. Is this reckless and selfish? Whether or not we would have taken the same approach if we were trained missionaries in his shoes, from a biblical worldview this was neither a reckless nor a selfish act. It was brave and selfless, seeking to bring life to others at the cost of one’s own. Apparently, from what I have read, John understood the importance of bringing the gospel to the world. He understood the cost of following Jesus in obedience to his commission (Matt 28:16–20) and reckoned that following Jesus was worth more than life in this age. John Chau’s short life and unfortunate death demonstrate the cost of intentionally following Jesus and challenges us to reflect, have we really counted the costs of faithfulness to Christ and are we willing to bear these costs for his sake?
There are many factors that need to be weighed in evaluating John Chau’s mission. One thing is surely the case, this man attempted with his life and skills to bring the gospel to those who have not heard it. This alone deserves our commendation, even if reservations are held on the exact manner by which this was done.
The question Chau’s life poses for us is: have we counted the cost of following Jesus and shaped our lives around his mission or have we gotten a little too comfortable with the ways and perspectives of this world? Have we grown so comfortable with the world that the thought of breaking civil law for Christ’s sake sounds preposterous? Let this man’s story challenge us in this regard. What shall we sacrifice for the sake of Christ?