Recent headlines have brought attention to the death of a young missionary, John Allen Chau. And for the evangelical world, this death has been both tragic and challenging. The 26-yer-old made a covert journey to attempt evangelization of an isolated tribe called the Sentinelese off the coast of India. Estimates put the population of the island between 40 and 200. Other than a few killings over the years, this small people group has had no antibody buildup to protect them from the pathogens that outsiders might bring them; in other words, simple outside contact could unintentionally wipe out the population with disease. They speak their own language, and due to years of isolation there is apparently no similarity with other languages. And – here’s the most important part – they’re on their way to hell, because they do not know Jesus Christ as Savior.
After he spent years contemplating the eternal destiny of this unreached people group, Chau joined the missions umbrella of All Nations to attempt a rogue and illegal mission trip to reach them; he was martyred in the process. Among the unsaved commentators and news reporters, the trip made no sense whatsoever. And if you are blog-savvy, you will know that there have been hundreds of evangelical armchair critics who have bemoaned and ridiculed his effort to cross the ocean as idealistic, naive, immature, dangerous, careless, or just plain wrong. Others like Franklin Graham have offered a more sympathetic and caring response to his demise. I personally wonder how many of us critics have taken the risk to cross the street to witness to a neighbor in the past year.
Nonetheless, the event has generated a much-needed conversation about how urgent our evangelical calling to fulfill the Great Commission really is. Some missions organizations seem to take greater risks than others, and some have looked at these risks as needless. Yet others have questioned the ethics of civil disobedience as a means of witnessing to the hell-bound. Even others bring to the roundtable the question of moral responsibility for disease exposure to a people group with no immunity to the microorganisms we carry along with our gospel light.
Regardless, Chau’s “failed” attempt (failure is ultimately a thing for God to judge) has brought to light the modern missiological mandate: who will figure out how to reach this population before they die and go to hell? Whatever the missionary method, the task that remains is to communicate the gospel without killing the tribe in the process.
Because of a young man’s untimely death, we are forced to question our own missional activity from day to day: is there a similar willingness to wastefully be broken and spilled out for the cause of Christ (Mark 14:3-5)? Because we now know of this tribe of unreached people, we should pray all the more for their souls. Perhaps a proper Evangelical response should simply be for God to prepare the Sentinelese for the gospel message through dreams and “signs” that will make them receptive to the next messenger who is called. And as God calls someone to work with the Indian government to craft an urgent but careful strategy to reach the Sentinelese, maybe we should be praying for successful and healthy communication that will result in the last tribe being saved.