In late 2018, 26-year-old John Allen Chau was killed trying to bring the gospel to an indigenous community on North Sentinel Island. This small island in the Bay of Bengal-home to the Sentinelese people-is one of the last groups who maintain no contact with modern civilization.
The Sentinelese tribe is known for attacking anyone who attempts to make contact with them. In 2006, two fishermen were killed when their anchor didn’t hold, and their boat drifted toward the island. Attempts to retrieve the bodies via helicopter were abandoned when rescuers were met by a hail of arrows and rocks.
The Indian government has banned contact with the Sentinelese, and even going within three miles of the island is illegal. Chau knew of the dangers but felt driven to share the gospel with the tribe. He died on November 26, sparking a massive debate about both his specific actions and missionary work in general.
Criticism of mission work
The incident revealed a deep divide on the subject of mission work. And while some criticism surrounding the topic is thoughtful and legitimate, some condemnation seems to stem from a resistance to the gospel message itself.
It’s hard to deny that a lot of missionary work in the last 300 years has been an extension of military colonization and has ended up displacing indigenous people or requiring the adoption of Western values and priorities. You can also make arguments that missions have been known to put a strain on delicate social structures. But in cases like the Indian caste system, that’s not always a bad thing.
How should I respond?
It can be a challenge to respond to this disapproval, especially when some of the criticisms are legitimate. While we should acknowledge and repent of abuses and mistakes made in Jesus’ name, we can still point to the positive impact Christ-driven missionary work has had on the world.
Missionary impact on education
Missionaries have had a profound effect on worldwide education and literacy. In her book, “Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion,” Dana Lee Robert points out that the first modern colleges and universities in countries like India, China, Japan, and Korea were educational missions. And Christian missionaries were often the first to insist on the education of girls in many countries.
Christianity and respect for life
Missionary work has championed healthcare around the world. The work of world missions have opened hospitals all around the world and helped immunize people on every continent. This respect for human life has also led to global fights against poverty and issues like sex trafficking.
It’s all about the gospel
When push comes to shove, a lot of criticism of missions boils down to the issue of proselytizing. In a world that believes it’s a virtue to let everyone believe whatever they want, the gospel comes across as obtrusive-especially when it crosses cultural boundaries.
For those on the outside of the Christian faith, sharing the gospel can look like invasive meddling. For those who follow Jesus and have inherited the Great Commission, it would be inhumane not to share the gospel. This tension has accompanied mission work since Paul began his mission work. The entire Book of Acts tells the story of resistance to the spread of the gospel, and every disciple but John eventually died a martyr’s death.
There is a place for wrestling with John Allen Chau’s decision to visit an island. We can discuss the fact that the island was off limits and the inhabitants don’t want any connection to the outside world. But Christians should empathize with his drive to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15)-which includes the Sentinelese people.
It’s probably important to recognize that Christianity has always put obedience to the Great Commission above the law of the land. Every disciple but John was executed by those in authority who had forbidden the spread of the gospel or people and religious groups who opposed it. Since then, Christians have put themselves in great jeopardy visiting unfriendly people groups and smuggling religious literature into hostile nations.
And while we should be willing to be conscious of the mistakes and damage done under the umbrella of missions, we need to recognize that it’s often been the result of multiple issues.
When mission work has been coupled with national or individual ambitions, it has often led to disastrous consequences. But when the gospel has been shared from a pure desire to serve Christ and others, it has a powerful impact and naturally lends itself to life-affirming reforms in areas like health and education.
In his Revelation, John gives us a glimpse into the importance of missions when he tells us:
And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
This vision is entirely possible because people were willing to go out of their way to share the gospel with other cultures. And while those outside the church will never understand that argument, this vision of God’s kingdom is the most explicit reason to evangelize the world.
How far would you be willing to go to get the gospel to unreached people?