A couple of weeks ago, an American-born missionary named John Chau was killed while attempting to bring the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to a remote location East of India named North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese, as they are known, are fiercely protective of their lands and are aggressively resistant to any kind of contact with outsiders.

Chau knew this.

Having made several trips to the island in an attempt to teach them about Jesus – all of which were rebuffed – he argued in various diary entries that his mission to the Sentinelese was of the utmost importance, asking God in one entry if this was “Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” Chau even believed that his mission was divinely blessed, writing that “God Himself was hiding us from the Coast Guard and many patrols.”

What Happened?

Either on November 16 or the day before, John Chau reportedly reached landfall on North Sentinel Island and made contact with the Sentinelese, prompting two natives to block him and a third to shoot at him with an arrow. Ironically, the arrow hit his Bible instead of him; Chau later wrote that he broke off the arrow in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

Writing in his diary on the night of the 16th, Chau made clear his intention to visit the island again the next day and stay, no matter the consequences. He also wrote “God, I don’t want to die” hours before he was eventually slain. The next day, the same group of boaters that took him to shore spotted the tribespeople burying his body in the sand.

Should He Have Gone?

On average, one in 12 Christians experience “high levels” of persecution worldwide, but what is perhaps most surprising about the John Chau narrative is the polarizing effect his death has had on the American conscious towards missionaries. Some have labelled him a fool for trespassing on native lands, others have called him a murderer for possibly introducing dangerous pathogens to un-vaccinated peoples, while a large percentage of the Christian population is heralding him as a martyr, willing to travel across the world and step into the jaws of death to preach the Gospel. 

Where you stand on those three options doesn’t say as much about your zeal as much as it does about your evangelistic mindset. There are some to whom danger is a no-question turn-off, whereas others see it as merely an impediment to the larger goal of reaching lost souls. Danger is always present, they argue, the difference is whether or not we have the courage to push through.

Should he have gone? That’s a question only he knows. By all recent accounts, he was well-prepared for this trip and took all the necessary precautions to ensure the physical health of the Sentinelese. He knew there was the real possibility that they would kill him for intruding, and if that’s the only risk there was, it’s indeed admirable that he went.

What Does Scripture Teach?

Ultimately, John Chau went to North Sentinel Island because John Chau felt like it was his duty to do so. His intentions were admirable; he wanted to bring the Gospel to a group of people that supposedly had never heard it before. Would to God that we would all have a similar type of zeal in our own works (Rom. 12:11).

That doesn’t mean he necessarily had to go, however. One look through Paul’s missionary journeys reveal that while he was not averse to persecution (Acts 21:13), the saints also tried to help him avoid it if at all possible (Acts 19:30). Though Paul had no problem suffering for the cause of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:16-18), he also wanted to be a good steward of his body and his time here on earth (Phil. 1:21-26).

One simple fact remains true: The Lord has never asked us to throw our lives away willy-nilly. I’m not saying Chau did – quite the opposite – but there are some to whom the martyr complex is very real; they look for danger because they believe God regards those people as super-Christians or somehow more devout. That belief is both misguided and unnecessary.

Yes, the Bible respects those who die for the faith (Acts 7:53; Revelation 7:13-17), but it also respects those who serve Him into old age (Luke 2:36-38). To be sure, there’s less dramatic glory in making blankets and clothes for the others in a simple act of love like Tabitha (Acts 9:36-43), but to the ones you serve, it means more than we would ever imagine. Always remember Jesus’ love for the one simple soul that has gone astray (Matthew 18:12-13).

Ultimately, the decision to go was Chau’s to make, but one thing we are sure of is that there is enough work to be done here that we don’t have to travel to North Sentinel Island to preach the Gospel. As one preacher told me a long time ago, “I don’t think God necessarily wants us to go across the world as much as He wants us to simply go across the street.” 

If you want to convert the world, start in your own neighborhood.What do you think? Should John Chau have gone to the Sentinelese or not? Let me know in the comments!

Last modified: December 22, 2018