This past week a “missionary” named David Chau was “martyred” on small islands in the Indian Ocean. I don’t know much about Chau, but I do know that people are criticizing all missionaries based on perceptions of his motivations, methods, and theology. Kaitlin Courtice’s comments are spot on but many others are less deep or perceptive. Not all missionaries, even those who were shaped in an evangelical sub-culture, are like Chau. In fact, the evangelical imagination can fund much different approaches to mission. I offer myself as a case in point.
I grew up within a progressive mainline church. At the time it would have been called a liberal church. Evangelism was not something we did or talked about; mission was digging wells in far off countries. As a teen, I came to know Christ through an evangelical camp/youth ministry. The progressive church seemed theologically anaemic compared to what I experienced in the evangelical ministry. There were the same concerns with justice and social issues but now with a much more robust understanding of God found in Jesus.
Within my evangelical group there were three biographies floating around that helped give shape to my understanding of mission. The first was the most conventionally evangelical: The Shadow of the Almighty, written by Elisabeth Elliot about her husband Jim. As I recall it now, it was a pretty standard tale of the missionary life. Both Elliots had gone to Ecuador to translate the Bible into other languages. In the process, Jim and four colleagues were killed by some Auca. The tale has the twist that Elisabeth continues the work, going on to learn the Auca language, living with the very people who killed her husband and translating the Bible.
The second was Bruchko. In this autobiographical account, Bruce Olson first experiences Christ in the United States and then, without any support or guidance, sets off to the edges of Columbia to bring the Gospel to the Motilione Bari people. The work does not go well. He almost dies from disease and torture, but through perseverance and a deep relationship with one of the Motilione Bari people named “Bobby,” he has a second conversion experience. He realizes that Jesus is quite competent in “bringing” the Gospel himself and that it is Olson’s responsibility to live out his faith with and for his new community. The work goes much better after this epiphany of mutuality.
The third was No Compromise, a biography of Christian singer Keith Green by his widow Melody. While Green was not a conventional missionary like the Elliots or Olson, he was a radical within conservative evangelical circles. He experimented with alternative forms of economics (giving away his albums) and communal life and was uncompromising in his proclamation of both the saving power of Jesus and the radical life required to be a disciple. He was missional before the term.
All three books had a hagiographic element to them and in looking back now on that time in my life, I am thankful for that. Who we make out to be our saints says more about us than the saints. I’m pleased that those were my saints. Admittedly it has been a long time since I’ve read these books, 30ish years, and a long time since I was in that evangelical youth ministry, but I’m confident about the following.
Jim Elliot, at least for me, was not a martyr. I found it surprising that the Life magazine essay on his death, which I discovered while doing some searching this week, has the word “martyr” in the title. For me, martyrdom wasn’t the point. My understanding of martyrdom was a Christian who died from persecution directly related to the rejection of the Gospel. Christians in Roman times who had a choice to renounce following Jesus or die were martyrs. Elliot was not killed because the Acua rejected the Gospel. He was killed because he took a risk. Yes, he was motivated by the Gospel but his killer’s motivation was not the rejection of that Gospel.
Eliot better fits into a common story from the modern missionary movement: missionaries took risks and it was a dangerous life. A missionary who died from malaria was not a martyr although they were honoured for taking the risk of going overseas because of their beliefs. The distinction between why a missionary died is important. For me, just because a missionary dies while carrying out well-intentioned activities does not make them a martyr. The point that lingers after all these years is that it did not encourage my youthful self to seek out martyrdom. Risks were inherent in any kind of real ministry but I was not to seek them or glorify them.
Bruchko was more my contemporary, a generation after the Elliots, and so I could identify more with him. The takeaway from Olson’s journey was that mission was intrinsically relational. Bruchko stays alive because of his relationship with Bobby. Throughout the book it is clear that they become closer and closer until they are brothers. This is not someone selling Jesus to an “unreached” man. This is someone trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus alongside a brother. In the years to follow I would discover flaws in the idea of “friendship” evangelism or relational ministry thanks to my real friendship with Andy Root, but it was deeply appealing to me as a young man.
Finally, Keith Green’s story moved the mission field from South America, where both the Eliots and Olson went, to my neighbourhood. Evangelism and mission were intertwined. For someone who was oppressed economically, the good news was the redemption of debts. The abstraction of sin as some kind of pietist affront to God was dismissed in favour of something concrete in a myriad of ways. Green challenged structures of power from within and did so using terms I understood and took to be true. The Bible came to life in wild new ways, right where I lived.
All three of these stories are firmly within the evangelical sub-culture. Admittedly, an evangelical sub-culture from the late 80s and 90’s and not of today. And, to be clear, all three have problematic elements. And, I understand that I am interpreting these experiences after the fact and that some of the details of the accounts, especially Elliot’s, are different than my recollection. Still, these three books funded a much different understanding of mission than the one that seems to be operating, at least at a popular level, in criticisms and defenses of Chau.
The take away from the Elliots is that missionaries should not have a martyr complex. Risk yes. Certain death because of foolishness, no. Elisabeth is actually the hero here. She is the one who makes a way forward. She does not lose sight of the end goal. She accepts that to bring the Gospel to the Auca will require—to borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson—a long obedience in the same direction. There are plenty of risks with her approach but they are not foolish.
With Bruchko, it becomes clear that relationships are the factor that mitigate risk. More accurately, in true relationship there is risk all round. The risks are not all held by the missionary. It isn’t just the disease and torture that Bruchko faces but, as importantly, the losses and dangers that Bobby encounters as well. While Bruchko starts with the stance that he is bringing something to others he ends with the reality that he sits before God with his brother, both bringing their sin and their hopes to Jesus. This kind of shift, from giver-receiver to mutuality, is essential to understanding being a missional-ary.
Finally, Green’s story undercuts Chau’s purported motivation. To reach the unreached is fine and good but reach with what? It certainly isn’t just salvation of souls. To believe that the North Sentinelese aren’t “saved” because they haven’t said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour is heretical. Jesus is not some kind of product that we have possession of, a kind of good that we can peddle like a Black Friday bauble. Salvation is not ours to give, so reaching the unreached must be about something other than salvation. It must be about a much bigger view of salvation, one that can encompass life today and eternally. Justice, peace, and right relationships are all part of salvation.
There are nuances and criticisms of my idiosyncratic readings of these three biographies. That is partly the point; even as a young person I engaged with these writings critically. They engaged my imagination, were grounded in my experience of God, and led me on to doing ministry in ways that I don’t recognize in the criticisms I see of Chau. As a missional-ary I don’t seek out martyrdom but do aim for relational mutuality motivated by a concern for the whole Gospel.