Forty years ago my father, Nate Saint, and four other young missionaries (Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCulley, and Roger Youderian) were speared to death while trying to reach the "Auca" Indians in the Amazon jungles of South America. Today, I have a home among these people—properly called Huaorani—and some of the very men who speared my father have become substitute grandfathers to my children.
For various reasons, the Huaorani story has become a favorite missionary tale among evangelicals. But there is more to the story than the death of five fine young missionaries and the evangelization of the tribe by the sister of one of the martyrs. While it doesn't lend itself to the happily-ever-after tone that makes the simple version so attractive, it should be told since North American Christians continue to send missionaries into other cultures.
If the primary purpose of missionary effort is to plant indigenous Christian churches, our specific goal as missionaries should be to help these emerging churches become (to use the missiologists' terminology) self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting. I would like to examine here to what extent we have helped the Huaorani to achieve these goals after four decades of mission work among them. My hope is that a realistic appraisal of the Huaorani's present spiritual and social condition will serve as a case study from which to evaluate our mission strategies today.
First, let me say that there is unmistakable evidence among certain Huaorani Christians today of a strong desire not only to follow Christ but to share the gospel with others (self-propagation). I remember an encounter I witnessed between some Huaorani Christians and members of a secular North American ...