In November 2018, the death of a young Christian, John Allen Chau, made headlines. Chau paid local fishermen to drop him off near North Sentinel Island. The island is located in the Bay of Bengal and is protected by the Indian Navy. No one is allowed within five nautical miles of the island to protect the island’s inhabitants, who have no contact with the outside world. Outsiders have frequently been killed when they get too close to the island, and because of its protected status, the Indian government does not prosecute the island’s residents for murder.
Chau carried a soccer ball, fishing line, and safety pins, which he hoped to give as gifts to curry favor with the Sentinelese. On his initial approach to the island, Chau yelled, “my name is John, I love you, and Jesus loves you.” He retreated when he saw men on the island stringing their bows, but he returned. A young man shot an arrow through the Bible Chau was holding. He returned to the fishing boat and asked them to drop him off alone. The last time he was seen, the Sentinelese were dragging his body onto the beach with a rope.
Chau’s actions ignited an age-old debate in Christian circles– should Christians send missionaries to extremely dangerous places to preach the Gospel? There are areas of the world fraught with peril for followers of Jesus. Some countries are hostile to Christianity, some are experiencing civil war and famine, and others resist any contact with outsiders. In thinking through this issue, we need to think about how to apply the Scripture’s teaching about missions, risk and death wisely.
First, we must recognize that every place in the world is dangerous. People die every day in the safest places in the world. Death comes for everyone, and no one escapes. You can die in your quiet, comfortable living room just as easily as you could die on the mission field.
The certainty of death for us all was a topic of conversation when John G. Paton (1824-1907) announced his intention to leave Scotland and preach the Gospel in the New Hebrides. Other missionaries had been killed approaching the islands, which now make up the nation of Vanuatu. One objector told Paton, “You will be eaten by cannibals!” Paton reminded his interlocutor of his own mortality, noting that his corpse would be eaten by worms. Paton knew he would die and preferred to perish preaching the Gospel rather than living a life of ease.
Also, Jesus warned there would be a price for following him. He told the disciples that anyone who would come after him should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Jesus obviously didn’t use the cross as some type of metaphor since he would take up a cross and die in the place of his people. His disciples understood what he meant in time and risked their lives to preach the Gospel.
The history of the Christian church abounds with stories of Christians suffering for their faith so that others may hear about Jesus. Everywhere the Gospel went for the first time, the people who took it there paid a price. In difficult places even now, our brothers and sisters face imprisonment, torture and death for their faith. Why do we think we should be exempt?
At the same time, Christians want to be wise and discerning about how we approach dangerous and difficult places. Just as you put on a seatbelt when you get into a car and put sharp objects out of children’s reach, we take necessary precautions and prayerfully weigh the risks.
First, are you called to such a place? Every Christian is called to share in the sufferings of Christ, but we don’t share them in the same way. Do not go to a dangerous and difficult place unless you are certain God has called you to go, and that call has been confirmed by your local church. In Scripture, before people went on new missions, the leaders of the church laid their hands on the missionaries and prayed for them. Do not go if your church is not on board.
Also, do you have a plan for ministry when you arrive? Do you have other people who can go as part of the team? A Christian going into hard-to-reach places should want to have the greatest effect possible, which means putting together a wise strategic plan. Can you go in and develop a business in the area that you can use for ministry? Have you learned the language? Do you know how you will engage people in the local area in discussions about spiritual things? This is just the tip of the iceberg.
The world does not understand Christians and never will apart from God’s grace. Why are we willing to risk life and limb so that others can hear about Jesus? We know that the lovingkindness of God is better than life. We know that our Savior took up his own cross to give his life in our place. We know that the souls of men, women, boys and girls are eternal. We know that the hope of the Gospel is real and that the reality of Hell cannot be denied. We go because all nations need to hear. We go because God is glorious. We go because the risks pale in comparison to the rewards.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/George Muresan
Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”