The entire world is talking about the death of John Chau, the young missionary killed by a remote and isolated neolithic tribe off the coast of India. It has brought up many questions about missionary work and this young man.
I have read as much as I could find about him and his death, and I could do some arm chair analysis of him, his mental state, and his motivations. I have chosen not to do that. Instead I want to talk about mission work as a whole. Let me preface this by saying I was a missionary. I worked with Ukrainian Baptists to educate and train leaders for their churches. I have known many mission workers. I have looked at the issue from multiple angles. This is just a distillation of some of the things I have learned.
This first rule of missions should be the same admonishment doctors are given: Primum non nocere. First, do no harm. In the history of Christianity far too often conversion, or even just confession, has been an end unto itself. Whether it be the masses of Native Americans forced at gun point to walk in front of Catholic bishops for “baptism” or the great revivalist movements of Evangelicals, the goal of mission work is sometimes just to illicit a single moment in a person’s life, after which they are abandoned with a Bible and good prayers. For that moment of conversion missionaries have brought disruption to civilizations, disease, and loss of life and history. We must ask: what are the consequences of my actions?
Another rule of missions should be: Respect others. Respect for the native people, culture, and land. Sometimes when mission work has engaged in longer term changes those changes have replicated not just Christianity, but Culture. We are not commanded to make the world like us, we are commanded to make disciples. The Gospel writers took four different approaches to reach four different groups of people. Paul said he had become all things to all people so he might reach some. Early evangelists realized they had to meet people where they are. If we believe God made us all, that the image of God is in us all, then we must treat anyone we meet as valuable in and of themselves in the eyes of God. Not simply a problem to be fixed. We must ask: what is essential to the Gospel message and what is simply my tradition?
Another rule of missions should be: Form relationships. If a relationship is our motivation, our relationship to Christ, then relationships should be our goal. We cannot simply drop in and drop out. We cannot see relationships as a strategy either. Such relationships are false. Missions are not short term, they are not fire and forget, to be real missions have to be long term investments in the lives of people. Relationships where we participate as equals. There are those who do missions with an apocalyptic fervor, believing that once every people group is reached Christ will return. That transforms mission work from the devotion of following Christ to a magic spell that will somehow summon Jesus. We must ask: What are our motivations for this?
Another rule of missions should be: Be Wise. Crafty as serpents, innocent as doves was the advice Christ gave before sending out his followers. We must be as careful in considering the content and distribution of our message as any Fortune 500 company. Brute evangelism might reach some, but how many more does it turn away? How distorted is our message when it is blared from loud speakers with no thought to audience? The words of the proverb may seem harsh when we are told not to cast our pearls before swine, but there is a fundamental truth in it. Not all people are ready for all messages. Presentation without preparation will be ignored or rebelled against. Nor is it sufficient to believe that God will take care of all of that. He gave us brains and eyes and ears and if we do not use them we are failing to do the work in the best way possible. We must ask: How is the best way to say this?
These are hardly the only rules or guidelines or suggestions. I simply wanted to make a point that we cannot and should not force our way into situations we do not understand. We cannot see ourselves as saviors, but rather as coworkers with those we meet. We cannot treat baptism or a sinners prayer as a magic formula. Nor is this just true when going out to some foreign land. This is true in your neighborhood, in your church, in your Sunday School, and in your family. Christ became like us and dwelt among us so that we might have the same connection to God that he has. If he did it then so must we.