Partners in mission

I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends about the death of missionary John Allen Chau. Interestingly, no one in my church has brought up the subject. There is a lot more talk about his death in some of the more fundamentalist congregations in our town than there is in the church that I serve. If you haven’t followed the news, the 26-year-old Seattle man was an evangelical missionary who worked as a solo operator, going by himself to places where evangelizing was discouraged and, in some cases, illegal. After having made illegal contact with a remote hunter-gather tribe on North Sentinel Island he was killed by members of the tribe.

Many of the comments posted on the Internet are damning, pointing out that he knew the risk and that he was intentionally going where he was not wanted with a message that they did not want to hear. He defied the law and his death was the result of his defiance. Others see his recklessness as having done damage to the cause of bringing Christ to those who have not encountered the gospel. What he saw as ministry was not wanted and not interpreted as ministry by those to whom he traveled.

I want to be clear that his death was tragic. It was tragic from the standpoint of his friends and relatives who have lost someone they love. It was tragic from the standpoint of a remote tribe who do not want attention and publicity. They now will find it hard to remain isolated and unknown because of all of the attention that his death has brought to their island. There are plenty of other people who are willing to take huge risks to change their lifestyle despite the fact that they do not desire that change.

I suspect that the reason that his death isn’t the topic of more conversation in the congregation I serve is that we see his style of ministry as a holdover from the past. There was a time when our church engaged in that style of missionary work, but that was 200 years ago. We have learned a lot and matured in our faith since those days. Back in 1806, five Congregational college students gathered in a field to discuss the needs of people living in Asian countries. A thunderstorm arose they took shelter in the lee of a haystack and continued their prayer. The gathering came to be called the “Haystack Prayer Meeting” and launched the missionary movement in our denomination. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was formed and in 1812 the ABCFM sent its first missionaries to India.

Early missionaries from our denomination were, in some ways, like those of some modern churches. They were “lone rangers” who were self-initiating and willing to work with little peer contact. They set out to share their faith, but in many cases their work went hand in hand with colonization and was more about exporting culture than sharing faith. The novel Hawaii, by James Michener, tells a story that is not far from the truth about our missionaries in that State. They tried to impose dress codes, moral judgment, trade and governmental policies on the natives they encountered. They lacked appreciation for the cultural and technological innovations of indigenous people. In many cases they became personally rich by appropriating property and resources that should not have been theirs to take.

We like to think that we have learned from those old ways. These days our missions in other countries are partnerships with people of faith rather than exporting our own people to export our faith and style of religion to others. A clear difference between our approach and that of other groups was evident in the 1990’s when I would occasionally hear from other churches that they had missionaries who were smuggling bibles into China, where the cultural revolution had made proselytizing illegal. They would occasionally ask for donations of bibles that their missionaries could covertly smuggle into China. I would inform them that our church had a long-established relationship with Amity Press, which is a huge press in China that produces millions of bibles, hymnals and other religious texts in the Chinese language. While smuggling is an illegal operation, we had partners who were legally distributing millions of bibles for every one that was smuggled. The difference is that we respected the culture, language and traditions of people in China and trusted them to be our partners as opposed to sending individuals from the US to export our style of religion.

There is a myth of the bold Christian missionary who works undercover and operates in disobedience of local laws. In places where proselytizing is forbidden, they try to convert people. They often come off as more interested in changing cultures than in changing hearts.

There will be people of faith who celebrate John Chau as a martyr who died for his faith. I cannot argue with their interpretation. He also was uninformed, arrogant and self-serving. His failure to form partnerships and his assumption that his theology was superior to that of those he sought to convert made it impossible for him to assume the role of a servant. He paid dearly for his attitude and his actions.

I believe in missions. I believe that there is great value in traveling to other places and sharing faith. I have supported missions throughout my career and led many mission trips. Our congregation has a thirty-year partnership with a sister congregation in Costa Rica. There is a display in the entryway of the church I serve that shows the work of our sister church and asks for donations. I will make a donation to that fund this month. I believe in sharing our Christian faith with others.

But I also believe in respect for the lives and faith of those we meet in our travels. I believe that other people have faith and that they have things to teach us. I believe ion respect for their norms and laws. I don not believe that the Gospel requires us to force our ways on others.

As for John Chau, he is in God’s hands. We do not need to judge him. Neither do we need to imitate his behavior.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!