When I saw the headlines last weekend about John Chau being killed on North Sentinel Island my heart sank. Had another hero of the faith been martyred? Had someone who had given his life to loving and serving others been killed for his faith? As more details of John Chau’s death emerged, I began to ask myself: “Was John Chau a hero? Or was he delusional?”
Like most things in life, the answer is complicated.
The response of Christians on social media has been varied. Some say that we should not criticize a brother for his good intentions. Others try to distance themselves from the brand of Christianity that still sends out missionaries. But most just seem conflicted.
Over the last few weeks, much attention has been focussed on the ethics, preparations, and methodologies of John Chau’s tragic expedition. Visit any comment section (at your own risk) of the myriad of articles written and you will see a wide-ranging response: from admiration to derision, from demonizations to heroic characterizations.
I have taken time to think about how to respond to the news of John Chau’s death. Was he a hero? Should we seek to emulate his heart for missions? Should we respond with derision? Should we criticize him for what many media outlets have portrayed as seemingly reckless or foolish behaviour?
Are we part of the problem?
In conversations with a friend, I came to realize that if we are going to be critical of John Chau, then we must first be critical of ourselves and how we have created a missions culture that has glorified and made the maverick missionary into the hero. By contributing to a missions culture that envisages the Great Commission as a task for us to complete, or an urgent race towards Jesus’ return, we have created a world in which the anointed missionary has become the Saviour.
P2C is no exception to this. In fact, the threads of saviourism have been strong throughout our organizational history. We have often taken God’s invitation to join him in his global work, and conflated it with messages (unintentionally) designed to elevate regular people into heroic stratospheres. Our individual and organizational hubris, mixed with God’s global vision, has created a missions culture that has inadvertently made the missionary into the hero. We have become the ones responsible for saving the world from itself.
As a student, I was taken by this vision of a changed world and was captured by this challenge to “bring Jesus to the nations”. I imagined a world renewed and communities transformed. I pictured people from all places being changed by encountering Jesus. But truthfully speaking, I also imagined myself playing a central role in this worldwide movement. I prayed that God would use me to make history, and imagined myself as the revered and honoured missionary, admired for my courage and sacrifice.
Now, I do not believe that we have created this culture with malicious intent or even with a great degree of self-awareness; however, I do believe that in our rush toward “fulfilling the Great Commission,” we have not slowed down enough to deeply reflect on how our missions paradigm has placed us as the central players in God’s story of reconciliation, redemption, and re-creation.
The good and the bad
Like with most things in life, our missions culture is not all good and not all bad. And like many things in life, we have often celebrated what was pragmatically “working” without considering the unintended consequences of our posture, language, approach, or quality of our missional engagement. Historically, P2C has been known for being bold in evangelism, for sacrificially sending, for passionately calling students and staff to action. We painted a vision of the world as lost and dying and have begged and pleaded for students to give their lives for the “cause of Christ.” Our staff and students were known for working hard, for giving their all, and for getting results. None of this is necessarily inherently bad; in fact, many organizations would pride themselves on possessing such qualities. The way in which we often framed missions— as an urgent war to be won—certainly generated interest, at least on a short-term basis.
However, our unquestioning adoption of militaristic language and imagery also created a culture in which the brazen, lone-ranger strategist was also elevated as the ultimate example of faith. I have seen this countless times; the person who could “do the ministry” even at the expense of their team and relationships, was elevated as a hero and as someone to be admired. In a culture that equates the Great Commission with a military campaign (I mean come on, the word Crusade was, literally, part of our name for decades), the missionaries are the defenders and Saviours of God’s kingdom.
For example, if the Great Commission truly is an urgent command to “GO” to the last frontiers of God’s kingdom, then it is the heroes who will stand up and finish the job and make sure that God’s kingdom is expanding. Those people are the courageous, the worthy, and the virtuous.
If success in missions is measured by how many “prayers to receive Christ (PRC) are recorded, or how many “gospel presentations” one can complete, then who are the ones who are considered the heroes? Naturally, the missionaries or ministries who can rack up the highest number of “PRCs” or gospel presentations. They are the most strategic, the most fruitful, the most blessed. They’re the real MVPs of the mission field.
If missions is more about “winning the nations for Christ” than about humbly joining Jesus in his ongoing work of inviting the nations into his kingdom, the focus becomes the victorious heroes going out on this dangerous campaign, expanding the territory of God’s kingdom.
Our obsession with multiplied impact (which, by definition, is one object coming forcibly into contact with another object) causes us to recruit, train, and send out in a manner that values the highest ROI, greatest efficiency, most ministry productivity, rather than valuing the process and journey of people toward Christ.
No wonder we have a Saviour complex! Our language reveals (and influences) what we believe, and our language pertaining to cross-cultural missions has created a culture of saviourism.
We value big numbers, high returns, view people as territories to be won, and have put ourselves at the centre of God’s story.
But there is another way, and we can see that in Jesus’ example. What we see in Jesus is that he was completely focused on the mission of God, yet was also completely present with those he was ministering to. He truly saw those that he was with, not as territory to be won, but as dearly loved children. What we see in Jesus was that he did not waste his time, yet he was also humble in heart and patient with those with whom he was journeying. What we see in Jesus was that he was fearless and bold, and yet was kind and tender, stopping to speak to the issues of the day with stories and words that spoke to the hearts of people.
Further, what we see with the early church is that they didn’t chase growth, ROI, or increased efficiency in the way they practiced mission; rather, they sought to be obedient to the Spirit’s leading amongst them. Growth was a byproduct of their obedience and faithfulness to remain humble in their mission.
As P2C Global Missions, we are in the process of change. Our responsibility as Jesus followers is not simply to “fulfill the Great Commission.” Our call is actually to fulfill the Great Commandments — to love God with everything we have, and everything we are, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. The mission of God cannot be completed outside of an embodying and embracing of the Great Command to love God and others. Love is at the centre of the mission of God—a love that is present, considerate, humble, respectful, and treats others as we would want to be treated.
Everything in our past certainly isn’t bad, and everything in our future will not be perfect. But our desire is to shift our mindset off of ourselves and towards God. We aren’t bringing God to barren, desolate, strongholds of Satan. Rather, we want to join God in what he is already doing. It is clear throughout Scripture that God’s heart is indeed for all peoples. Our role as Jesus followers is not to “take back territory” or to “expand God’s kingdom” or to “change the world”; changing the hearts of people is God’s role. Rather, our role is to lovingly invite others to join in the celebration of who God is. I pray that we will be able to do this lovingly, humbly, and with great awareness of ourselves and with those whom we are seeking to journey.
John Chau’s story is tragic, complicated, and difficult to fully understand. We could spend all day discussing, critiquing, and arguing about what he should and shouldn’t have done, and we probably wouldn’t get very far. But what might be helpful is to recognize that his story tells us as much about ourselves as it does about him. God has a history of using flawed, broken, sinful people to accomplish his purposes and glorify himself. My prayer is that he continues to do that through us, just as I’m sure he did through John.