Christianity,  News

Mission agency clears away some false assumptions about John Chau’s missionary work

I’ve been dismayed this week by the amount of criticism aimed at John Chau’s mission to the Sentinelese, not because his mission is above criticism but because critics seem to be operating on assumptions rather than on facts. My question has been how so many people feel that they have the requisite information to weigh-in definitively on the strategy that John Chau was pursuing. It may be that what we have read in news reports is all that there is to know about his strategy. Or it may be that there is more to the story that we haven’t heard yet.

It turns out that there is a lot that we haven’t heard yet. In an interview with Christianity Today, the director of John Chau’s mission agency gave quite a bit of information that would suggest that many of Chau’s critics have jumped the gun. Mary Ho is the international executive leader of the All Nations missionary group that sent John Chau to the Sentinelese. Among other things, she clarifies a number of questions that have been raised about Chau’s mission in recent days:

Was John Chau an adventure seeker flying by the seat of his pants? Mary Ho says that John Chau had been longing to reach the Sentinelese people since he was 18 years old. After graduating college in 2014, he aimed his whole life at preparing for this mission. This was not a spur of the moment decision but came after much planning and preparation, including being sent out by the All Nations missionary group.

Was John Chau adequately trained and prepared? Ho says that Chau had been preparing for many years to reach the Sentinelese people and had been doing so long before he joined the All Nations group. Chau had received training from SIL in cultural anthropology and linguistics (SIL is the gold standard for missionary linguistics, by the way). Ho believes Chau was prepared, and the CT interviewer conceded the point.

Was there a larger strategy besides showing up on the beach and yelling phrases in English? Yes. The point of Chau’s initial contact was the hope of establishing a long term relationship with the people so that he could learn their language and bring the gospel to the people. Someone needed to make initial contact, and Chau prayed to be the one to do it in hopes of a longer term relationship with the people. Chau was prepared to be there among the Sentinelese for many years.

What about the risk of bringing infectious diseases to a vulnerable tribe of people? John Chau had prepared for this as well. Chau received thirteen immunizations in advance of his trip. He also observed a period of quarantine before making the trip to the Sentinelese. He was doing everything he could to minimize risk of disease, even though the exact medical situation of the Sentinelese is not yet known. Chau also received some medical training in preparation for making contact with the Sentinelese.

Why did Chau go alone? Chau was sent out by a mission organization called All Nations and wasn’t on the field at his own instigation. All Nations typically does not send out missionaries alone, and Chau had colleagues who were willing to go with him to make contact with the Sentinelese. Chau knew the danger he was going into and didn’t want to subject his colleagues to the peril. For that reason, in the end, he chose to go alone.

The conversation with Mary Ho is a must-listen for anyone wishing to evaluate the mission work of John Chau. I wish to reiterate again that mission strategy should be open for debate and reconsideration. Jesus himself taught us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves in the midst of our mission (Matt. 10:16). We should learn from mistakes and be wise. I do not wish to foreclose such conversations.

Nevertheless, this interview would suggest that many of the critiques of John Chau have been premature and misplaced. I agree with Ed Stetzer, who wrote about the CT interview earlier today in The Washington Post:

These new reports at a minimum challenge the simplistic image of an adventure-seeking zealot willing to recklessly risk the lives of a remote group of islanders.

Certainly, all of this needs more investigation and analysis. There are still medical and legal questions, but this new information does focus the debate more on the question of the central goal of evangelizing and less on the preparation for doing so.

Listen to the interview for yourself below: