Gospel & Culture blog
By Kenneth Nehrbass
American missionary John Allen Chau was killed recently when he traveled alone to Sentinel Island to preach the gospel. India's law makes it illegal for foreigners to land there, partly to protect the islanders from foreign disease, and partly to protect travelers from violence. As a missiologist, people have been asking my thoughts on the killing. Is Chau a hero or not? Other missionaries have been highly praised for taking similar risks: The murder of John Williams and James Harris in Erromango in 1839 sent of a worldwide interest in missions in the South Pacific. The killing of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian in 1955 sparked similar passion for missions among the unreached. Is Chau's short life a similar example for Christians to take risks for the sake of the gospel?
Chau's tragedy has ramifications for missions in general: Does a sense of divine calling outweigh the risks? Is it okay for a missionary to defy a nation's laws, if his motives are to preach Christ? Should remote places like the Andaman Islands be left alone?
Is his death a tragedy? Yes. The death of anyone is grievous; the murder of anyone is unacceptable and tragic. Many news outlets eulogized Chau well, and I find it natural to empathize with his family and friends who are grieving.
Is risk justified? Yes. Jesus calls us to take great risks for the sake of his name. Peter got out of the boat and walked on water in conditions that could have caused him to drown. Proverbs 3:5 encourages us to "Trust in the Lord, and don't lean on your own understanding." Many of the apostles and church planters in the early centuries were persecuted to the point of death when they preached the gospel across cultures. The scripture clearly places a sense of calling above logic and safety. If God calls you to take a risk, you obey. Josh 1:9 tells us to be strong and courageous. Watch Chau's short challenge to take risks for global missions here.
Is it okay to break the law to do missionary work? Generally, no. Missiologists almost never condone breaking another nation's laws. It's one thing to protest an unjust law in your own country- but as guests in foreign countries, we are not part of the lawmaking process there, and cannot pick and choose which laws to follow. If the Andamans are Indian's territory, missionaries must respect India's laws there. Virtually all missionary organizations work through the official processes and laws of the host countries to gain legal permits to do
specific work that the government consents to.
Should a missionary travel alone? No. As I mentioned inUSA Today, missiologists almost never encourage missionaries to go alone; they are often sent in teams. This helps with security, accountability, encouragement, and the using of various gifting and approaches in missionary work. Additionally, missionaries are not lone rangers- they typically work with "people of peace" who act as bridges between the outside world and the community where they serve. To be prepared to make a significant difference in the Andaman Islands would require years of preparation: learning similar languages, building networks of support, understanding the local culture. Of course, India has its own large force of indigenous church planters, pastors and missionaries who can also serve as part of a team to the Andaman Islands.
Should the Andaman Islands be left alone? Not really. There's no such thing as being "left alone" in this global world. Modernization looks different for different communities, in different nations. And people within indigenous communities are not in consensus regarding what modernization looks like for themselves. But India's claim on the territory means that India must extend its own good governance, including: ensuring law and order, providing governmental services for its citizens (education, healthcare), guaranteeing the rights of its citizens. Just how India should be involved in these islands is up to India. Vishal Mangalwadi made some observations about the history of missionary-induced culture change in his own country of India, in his book "The book that made your world." He argued that Christians have a moral responsibility to bring the benefits of Christian morality to those who do not yet have exposure to Christianity. And of course, the love of Christ compels (2 Cor 5:14) us to bring the light of Christ where His fame is barely known.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor