Speared: Mute Missionaries

The next couple of posts are going to discuss why I personally believe these ten heroes were misguided in their strategy, and therefore why modern missionaries should search for another model of ministry.

For the record, I don’t believe this because they were killed. Christians doing God’s work will encounter real persecution. And (as I’ll probably get to later) it seems that other missionaries have just as faulty of a ministry model as these martyred ten but, due to the relative peacefulness of the people they’re ‘ministering’ to, will never meet such a violent end. So the end doesn’t invalidate the means.

But in all honesty, can we say that these ten were martyred? Killed in the line of… duty? Were they killed because of what they testified about Jesus Christ? Or because they were a foreign threat to the savage Ayore and Auca?

But more importantly, we need to consider that these two tribes were in peaceful contact with outsiders shortly after the deaths of these missionaries. And the evidence seems to show that this achievement had no connection to their short-lived endeavors! Meaning, they died trying to reach these tribes, but they were not finally reached because of their deaths! That is tragic, and that’s why I want to examine some of the strategic failures that led to this end.  No one should call their sacrifice pointless (a Christian’s never is), but it seems to have been largely ineffective.

1. They did not know the language or the culture of the tribes

In both cases, the teams knew a few words in the language of the tribe. Contrary to what I had always believed, there were people from these tribes living outside the tribe who could have helped them to learn to communicate with these deadly peoples. Instead, both teams plunged into the jungle desperate to make contact with the Ayores and the Aucas. How could they communicate to these people that they meant them no harm? For that matter, how would they explain to them why they had come? Did they plan on learning the languages of these tribes? Yes, but their desire to make contact with the tribes was more urgent. They preferred to risk making contact first, then learn the language when accepted into Auca society.

Culturally they weren’t much better off. Jim Elliot’s group in Ecuador knew all about the five lives lost in Bolivia a decade before and tried to learn from their mistakes. They developed a plan for dropping gifts from Nate Saint’s plane to earn the Aucas’ trust and friendship. But with no ability in the language and a lack of understanding how to befriend an Auca (not to mention a tribe of them!), this plan simply failed. They missed the Bolivian team’s most fundamental mistake: a failure to prepare adequately.

This was undoubtedly a strategic failing on their part. And a failing not far from the rest of us! The ranks of missionaries worldwide are filled with non-language-learners. Again, the consequences of not speaking the language are not usually as vivid as they were in these two cases. But failure to learn the language of the people you desire to reach is to ensure an unbridgeable cultural gap and ultimately a more ineffective witness among them.

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