Why the Jim Elliot Story is Dangerous for Many Evangelicals, A Troubling Article on the Death of John Allen Chau on North Sentinel Island

John Allen Chau wanted to be a missionary that would reach an isolated Stone Age tribe on North Sentinel Island. Instead he was speared to death screaming “Jesus loves you!” An article in Outside Online raises many questions about evangelical culture and how that fed an unhealthy obsession with Chau. The one question haunting me is did evangelical missionary culture drive someone toward a suicide mission?

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Jim Elliot

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 NIV 

 

John Allen Chau

When I was in grad school I worked hard at planting a Campus Crusade for Christ chapter at Marquette University in Milwaukee. As a part of Crusade I attended their Christmas conferences in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On one night of the conference in a dark boardroom they spoke of missionary work. They spoke about the heroes of the faith. This included men like Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, Eric Liddell, and other individuals. In a masterful presentation that was truly emotional it made you want to drop what you were doing and head to Africa or Asia. I walked out of that presentation with the feeling like my life was being wasted going to grad school. The guilt complex that Christians give upon others when it comes to missionary work is one that happens frequently. I knew another person who was involved in Crusade who was so moved that he started the process to become a missionary in Brazil. It fell apart as fundraising didn’t work out. He later pushed back form the Christian faith for a number of other reasons but he to built up a track record of being burned out and fried. 

 

A Disturbing Article in Outside Online on John Allen Chau and the Harm of the Evangelical Christian Missionary Bubble 

This morning I was working through my email when I found an article that stunned me. What impressed me was the level of detail that it devoted to the subject – John Allen Chau. Chau was deeply controversial when he was killed on North Sentinel  Island in November of 2018. This young and naive kid thought that he could evangelize and preach to one of the last remaining stone age tribes cut off from society. He didn’t know the culture, no one knew the language and yet he proceeded to try and evangelize them. The image in my mind of a young kid standing on a rock on a beach screaming, “Jesus loves you!” while he is being targeted by arrows shows me the level of stupidity that existed. If you want to read more about the situation you can do so in, “John Allen Chau is No Jim Elliot. The Story of John Chau Illustrates the Dangers of Indoctrination in Evangelical Culture and Being Naïve.” 

But as I learned it gets worse  – a lot worse. Outside Online did a deep investigative story on John Allen Chau. The article goes into his family history, background, faith and how he lived. What emerges is a story of what happens when someone isolated in the evangelical bubble meets reality. It shows what happens when a person is dishonest, deceitful to everyone he meets and plows ahead because of all the indoctrination that he was under. Many evangelicals are fed a regular diet of Jim Elliot. I heard about him regularly inside evangelical culture. Does that inspire some people to commit suicide through missionary work? That is an honest question. The story of Jim Elliot inspired John Allen Chau as well as several other missionary stories. As a result he decided to set out on a journey without many people not knowing what he was doing. This I would suggest is one of the most irresponsible missionary stories that I have come across. And sadly it shows the brokenness and problems with evangelical theology. The fact that someone so young was killed out of stupidity is all the more angering.  You can read the article in, “The Last Days of John Allen Chau.” 

 

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