Two weeks ago, a 26-year-old Christian man named John Allen Chau was killed when he attempted to make contact with a remote tribe on North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman Islands of India According to reports, Chau had spent several years preparing for the trip, saying that he wanted to tell these isolated uncontacted people about Jesus Christ. While there are almost countless news reports and opinion pieces about Chau’s visit to the island and his subsequent death and whether it was right or wrong for him to go, one thing is apparent: John Chau believed the Lord was leading him to tell this tribe about God’s love.
It’s always been hard (impossible?) for unbelievers to understand evangelism and mission work. To them, missionaries are invading the lives of people groups who are “perfectly fine and happy” in their own cultures. Even some evangelical missionary societies have changed the way they do missions (from “the old days”) and have stopped preaching the Gospel and rather are telling people groups that they can keep their culture and beliefs—just add Jesus to the mix (e.g., a Hindus can still stay Hindu, a Muslim can still remain a Muslim). Roger Oakland writes about this in Faith Undone and his booklet The New Missiology: Doing Missions Without the Gospel.1 Oakland quotes one emergent leader, Brian McLaren, as saying:
I must add, though, that I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts. (McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, p. 293)
One article Oakland quoted explains this missiology without the Gospel quite accurately:
Several international missions organizations, including Youth With a Mission (YWAM), are testing a new approach to missionary work in areas where Christianity is unwelcome. [A] Charisma News Service report said some missionaries are now making converts but are allowing them to “hold on to many of their traditional religious beliefs and practices” so as to refrain from offending others within their culture. (Watchman Trumpet, May/June 2000)
One man who came from a tribe much like the one John Chau was hoping to reach is Chief Shoefoot, who was a Yanomamo tribal leader, warrior, and shaman. In the film, I’ll Never Go Back, Chief Shoefoot describes the lifestyle of himself and his tribe, explaining that it was anything but “perfectly fine and happy.” There was murder, rape, theft, witchcraft, drug use, and no joy or peace . . . until that is, a missionary came into Chief Shoefoot’s life and told him about Jesus Christ.
The reason we find Chief Shoefoot’s story so important is because the emergent church (and other anti-missions groups) are trying to convince people that missionary work is unnecessary (and even evil), and unconverted people should be left alone, or at the very least not told their cultural spiritual beliefs are wrong. One of our favorite books that we publish, Stories From Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires, was written in the late 1800s by Egerton Ryerson Young, a missionary to the Cree Native people in Manitoba, Canada. Young, his wife, and their two children lived among the Cree, and a deep mutual love and respect grew between the Youngs and the Cree people. Young came to witness and greatly admire the incredible intelligence and survival skills the Cree had; but he also saw they were a group of people who were lost and in despair and needed Jesus Christ. Many of the Cree committed their lives to Jesus during the time Young was with them. Nanci Des Gerlaise, a Cree woman and a Lighthouse Trails author from Canada, grew up as the daughter and granddaughter of medicine men. As she describes in her biography, Muddy Waters, her childhood was filled with occultism and spiritual darkness. Today, she testifies to others of the light that came into her life through Christ.
While the world and apostate groups, such as the emerging church, are working hard to convince others that missionaries are wrong to try to convert unsaved souls, at Lighthouse Trails we have a high respect for those who give their lives sacrificially so that others may come to know the Light of the World. Perhaps John Allen Chau miscalculated his mission trip to the Sentinelese people, but one thing seems very apparent: He believed that the most important thing that could happen to the Sentinelese people would be for them to hear that a Savior had died on the Cross and had risen from the dead to save them from their sins, and that they could be brought out of darkness into the light—that eternal life and a peace that passes all understanding is theirs if they forsake their own ways and turn to Him and receive Him into their lives. In spite of any shortcomings John Allen Chau may have had in planning his trip, he was willing to take the risk of being pierced to death so that a lost people might hear the wonderful News of One who was “wounded [pierced] for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).
Ten-minute video preview from I’ll Never Go Back with Chief Shoefoot:
Related Articles and Resources:
Note: If you are an active missionary and have a U.S. mailing address we can use, we will send you a free copy of Roger Oakland’s booklet, The New Missiology: Doing Missions Without the Gospel and a free copy of I’ll Never Go Back DVD. Just send your name and mailing address to: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will keep your information confidential.