Missions in a Time Capsule

By Sarah Parham –

Missions made international news several months ago with the death of John Allen Chau, an American missionary who was killed by tribesmen on the North Sentinel Island. Unfortunately, extreme statements were made in the media and facts were rarely researched or complexities examined.

According to Open Doors, a group working on behalf of persecuted Christians, more than 3,000 Christians were killed as a direct result of their faith in 2018. That does not even count the nearly 2,300 who were either abducted or raped. Yet, it was Chau’s death that caused a media stir. This was due, in part, because it perpetuated a preconceived narrative about missions. Two hundred years ago missions was broadly known and broadly accepted. In fact, a very similar scenario occurred only 60 years ago when Jim Elliot and his team of four other men were killed in their attempts to make contact with the Waorani tribe in Ecuador. At the time of their death, Elliot and his team were celebrated and featured on the front of Life Magazine.

Times, however, have changed. After the news story began circulating, I received phone calls from fellow Christians who asked about how TMS Global was responding. “I am grieving with his family and the rest of the Christian world,” I would usually respond. “I work for a mission sending organization that exists so that the Kingdom of God can be spread. We can’t exactly condemn those who are of the same heart and mind.”

It is unnecessary to offer a full-throated defense of all of Chau’s methods. At the same time, criticism that he disregarded the health and well-being of an isolated tribe is unfounded. In fact, Mr. Chau was properly vaccinated and even quarantined himself prior to making contact with the North Sentinel people. Additionally, he was prepared through medical and linguistic training. Far from a disregard for the people, John Chau had a deep love for the North Sentinelese people and took all known precautions, not for the sake of his own safety, but for theirs.

In the afterglow of the media spotlight on Chau’s life, we are able to make an assessment of some of the ways issues have changed for world missions – even within the church.

According to Barna research released in February, almost half of practicing Christian Millennials surveyed have some moral reservations about sharing ones faith in the hopes of conversion. It should be noted that the survey was taken in May 2018, six months prior to Chau death. There are many more interesting insights in the survey, including the fact that more Millennials feel gifted at sharing their faith than any other age group, an interesting irony, and fodder for further conversation.

A second and lesser-known change in missions is the urbanization of missions. Most people are unaware that the number-one cause of death among missionaries is, surprisingly, automobile accidents. Missions is not predominantly a picture of Westerners going to tribal people groups any longer. In fact, the largest unreached people groups are not those who are inaccessible, but rather the urban city dwellers in India, Japan, and Bangladesh. As the world has moved into the cities, so has the church.

A third change is the rise of missionaries from the Global South. The United States currently sends out more missionaries than any other country, but it won’t be long until countries like Brazil outpace the U.S. When you consider the number of missionaries sent per Christians in the country, the United States is lagging far behind many countries including Palestine, Ireland, Malta, and Samoa. The average Christian now is not even American, but rather a young African woman. It is the structures of funding that keep America at the lead of the mission sending movement. As new models for funding missions rise globally, the North American missionary as the exception rather than the rule.

When a story like Chau’s emerges an assumption is made that the church and the missions world have been sleeping underground in a time capsule, preserved, but never changing – ever behind the times. This simply isn’t true. Missions and the church have grown and changed, but what remains is what will always remain: the truth of the gospel and the need of the world for it. These truths we will affirm and pursue till God’s Kingdom comes. Amen! 

Sarah Parham is senior director of domestic mobilization at TMS Global (www.TMS-Global.org) and oversees its strategic efforts in mobilizing churches as well as recruiting, coaching, and screening missionary candidates.   

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