The tragic story of missionary John Allen Chau should cause us to ask: what is Christian mission in an interfaith world?
The Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew has always been the impetus for doing mission in the world. It’s so familiar, we might not stop to consider what we mean when we read it or say it. But, in fact, it’s a prime example of our need for the intrafaith conversation. The recent death of Chau – and the controversy over his actions – reveal the dilemma.
“Thinking about Missionaries: Stupid Fools or Believers Obeying Core Christian Beliefs?” on GetReligion hits the nail on the head (GetReligion is a website that attempts to highlight the religious aspects of news stories often neglected by mainstream news outlets). Author Terry Mattingly explains that he has three “hot-button” doctrinal questions that he finds “useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks.” In other words, the intrafaith conversation.
He goes on to say, “The Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.”
And what is question No. 2? “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” One of the big questions at the heart of the intrafaith conversation.
So, what’s the debate over Chau’s actions and death? The thing is: the definition and purpose of mission has been changing. In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), mission is described as a journey, in which disciples walk with others, listen to them, learn from them and with them. The biblical story used as a model is the “road to Emmaus,” in which the gospel is revealed in the relationship that develops among the travelers: in talking, listening, and breaking bread together. This way recognizes the mistakes of past history, such as seeing people as “objects of mission,” and defines mission as accompaniment.
On the other hand, there are those who still subscribe to the goal set forth by All Nations, the mission-training organization which trained John Allen Chau: “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.”
The people on both sides of this interpretive chasm are faithful Christians. However, one side looks at the Chau story and sees an oblivious young man propagating the worst of Christian imperialism. The other sees a martyr who died attempting to fulfill Jesus’ mandate. Both have biblical texts and theologies to support their positions. Who is right?
The better question is: how do we talk with our brothers, sisters, and siblings in the faith about such matters?