Supporting Article

A Sixteenth Century Strategy for Serving China in the 21st Century

Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, entered China at the end of the sixteenth century with a strategy and goal that were incredibly ambitious: to reach China through the conversion of the top classes of Chinese society, including the Emperor himself. After several years in the country, he decided to shed his dress and identification with the professional Buddhist priests to adopt the dress, lifestyle, and academic vocation of the bureaucratic elites who had achieved their positions through their education. Using his disputation, writing, and personal relationships, Ricci established a nationwide reputation. He then was able to more effectively articulate the gospel in terms comprehensible within a Confucian framework.[1]

Later Jesuits followed Ricci’s lead, finding ways to integrate themselves into Chinese society through their skills in mathematics, physics, astronomy, metallurgy and other practical arts. Protestants followed much the same strategy, linking Christian truth with practical expression. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, universities, medical schools, and hospitals arose through the efforts of missionaries such as Peter Parker and W. A. P. Martin.[2] In most cases, this was out of necessity, as China refused to allow missionaries entrance unless confronted with superior military power.

The results of these missionary efforts created a significant Christian community as early as the turn of the seventeenth century and laid the theological foundation that still remains valid in China today. Nevertheless, in spite of these accomplishments, the strategies of Ricci are largely considered to have failed for a variety of reasons. Jonathan Spence, for example, argues that these missionaries overestimated their ability to influence China by underestimating the extent to which the Chinese would use their skills while not receiving the gospel message.[3] The remarkable achievements of the Jesuits were undermined by the Rites Controversy over the nature of Confucian practices. Thirdly, dynastic changes tended to sweep away the influence of the missionaries along with the old dynasties. A fourth reason is that the strategies of the Protestants lost much of their meaning with the liberalization of their missionary efforts in the twentieth century and the elimination of all Christian influence by the Communist revolution. Finally, this strategy was undercut by the inability of many missionaries, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to separate the uniqueness of Christ from the achievements of Western civilization. Thus they sought the transformation of Chinese society along Western cultural forms. However, in spite of these weaknesses, these early missionary efforts did bring remarkable results.

Contemporary parallels

In some ways, China’s recent history evidences a remarkable parallel to the first century of the Christian era in the Roman Empire. For the first two centuries after the resurrection of Christ, the gospel spread primarily through two social classes, the urban poor and the intellectuals. Ultimately, these two social classes became the first fruits of a larger movement towards Christ as the intellectuals, in particular, worked out the apologetic and theological foundations upon which the faith spread to the larger mass of society. However, it took approximately 400 years before there was widespread acceptance of the Christian faith, culminating in edicts of toleration and the eventual conversion of Constantine. Likewise, the growth of China’s church has been among the rural poor and the “cultural Christians”— Chinese intellectuals who have come to appreciate the theological and philosophical centering of the Christian faith. However, in spite of the movement towards Christ among the intellectuals, they find little in common with the Christianity of the rural classes. Nevertheless, there remains potential for this intellectual class to articulate the faith in a way that creates the intellectual and spiritual conditions for a vast harvest in China.

China’s massive social and economic transformation has brought both unprecedented challenges as well as new opportunities for Christians to contribute to the literal re-building of the nation and its worldview. At the same time, China’s intellectuals search amidst the ruins of Western and Chinese philosophy to find some ideological center. From such a center they desire to make both economic and social progress without falling into the traps of libertinism or rampant social disorder. Nearly two decades of Christian involvement in China, primarily through teaching English, ministry to Chinese studying abroad and working with the Chinese house churches, have born fruit. Yet there remains a gap between the vibrancy and commitment of the rural house churches and the abstract philosophizing of the elite classes.

Closing the gap

A contemporary manifestation of the Jesuit strategy would help to close this gap by prioritizing work among the influential classes within China. These classes include professions such as the media, business, law, government service and academics—all professions that serve as primary gate-keepers of Chinese society. In addition, these classes also play critically important roles in establishing the intellectual framework by which Christian truth is apprehended or rejected. Each of these groups remains largely untouched by the gospel in spite of two decades of outside involvement. Even ministry to Chinese students abroad has left these groups largely untouched, as these students often do not return to China after encountering the gospel.

People in professional ministry most likely will not be able to fulfill this contemporary Jesuit strategy. Rather, it is best accomplished through horizontal linkages by Christians who are in these professions and are able to articulate the Christian faith within a professional context, and by individuals who are willing to build the necessary cross-cultural relationship that can serve as a bridge to the gospel.

There are two key operative principles in this strategy.

The first, a purely sociological principle, is that people within a professional sphere already have access to others within the same sphere. Chinese academics are open to other academics, Chinese entrepreneurs are accessible to other entrepreneurs and Chinese media personnel are more open to other media professionals. In the same way that it is considered appropriate mission strategy to send people of similar ethnic or linguistic background to a closed group due to ease of access, so it is appropriate to find ways for Christians in these influential professions to relate to their Chinese counterparts.

A second principle, while a bit more abstract, is just as important. The sociologists Berger and Luckmann argue that in the contemporary world the experiences and “lifeworlds” of people in different professional or occupational backgrounds lead to separate “sub-universes” or closed systems of meaning. Outsiders find it almost impossible to penetrate positions of influence within these spheres.[4] In the contemporary world, artisans and politicians, farmers and artists no longer share the same outlooks or experiences. People within the same social sphere often find it much easier to articulate the gospel in a compelling way for those within their sphere than do people without the same basic framework of understanding.

Contemporary professional life inculcates its own way of viewing the world. This creates more distance between urban entrepreneurs and their own rural countrymen than it does between urban entrepreneurs and similar professional classes from other nations. Today, the gaps between countrymen have widened significantly beyond what they were in Ricci’s day. For example, a Chinese academic will have a worldview and outlook more in common with a Western academic, who shares similarities in graduate training, theoretical foundations and assumptions about truth and knowledge, than he will with another Chinese from a very different professional background. The postmodern intellectual landscape can be penetrated by an academic who can articulate the gospel within that landscape; it cannot be penetrated by other Chinese who have no understanding of the postmodern worldview. The situation is similar within various occupations, especially with the forces of globalization and the rise of information technology. The digital divide widens the gap between the wired and unwired populations, and information technology provides more opportunities to engage professional contacts across geographical distances. While language does not become insignificant, the English accessibility of many within these classes makes it a smaller barrier than it appears at first glance.

Scripture gives us a third, additional, principle found in Proverbs 22:29: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.” Ricci was unable to convert the Emperor, but during his lifetime his teaching was validated by a public perception of imperial favor. Because of that, he was able to guarantee the efforts of missionaries spread throughout China. Later Jesuits were able to build upon Ricci’s reputation.

Applying Ricci’s strategy today

Currently, China faces challenges that are historically unprecedented in scope, including issues of income differentials, geographic dispersion, poverty elimination, environmental degradation, legal reform and political and social integration. Just as in past ages God providentially provided through the lives of men such as Joseph and Daniel at times of national crisis, perhaps God has uniquely prepared professionals throughout the world to serve China at this time—even though they may be scattered around the world. Linking professionals within the body of Christ with their colleagues in China provides critically needed expertise for the nation while the gospel of Christ transforms both individuals.

The implementation of this strategy would require a radical reorientation of current strategies. It would call for both institutional and individual commitment. It would involve the recruitment of Christian professionals from around the world who would be willing to spend time, and perhaps money, to establish “peer-to-peer” relationships with Chinese colleagues. It would also involve the recruitment of institutions such as universities, foundations and Christian professional groups that would be able to engage in short term visits to China or sponsor similar visits within their own nation.

At the individual level, Christian lawyers, for example, might travel for a short time to China to establish a handful of professional contacts and to share ideas. Then, upon returning home, these lawyers would stay in contact with their new friends to provide encouragement, advice and other potential resources. Ultimately, a bridge of commitment and friendship is built across which the gospel can travel. At the institutional level, this would require a focused effort by larger professional groups, foundations or ministries. For example, a local church that has a large number of business entrepreneurs could host a group of Chinese entrepreneurs, with presentations by Christians as well as site visits to successful businesses. Similarly, Christian universities can host Chinese academics for a semester or year-long sabbatical with the funding often coming from governmental or NGO grants.

End results

The necessity of this strategy is clear. In spite of the fact that large numbers of Chinese are coming to Christ, there remain significant legal and political barriers to the unhindered spread of the gospel. Christians from the rural house church movements, although fully committed to the declaration of the gospel to these classes, lack the professional credentials, educational qualifications and, hence, credibility to effectively proclaim a Christian apologetic and evangelistic message. Many times, they also lack the cultural understanding of the urban context. Thus, although the gospel continues to grow in the rural sector, the newly emerging political and economic order is likely to be built upon secular and flawed notions of justice, equality and human rights. Moreover, the flow of the gospel along lines of association is likely to be stopped along the buffers of professional and occupational experience, thus preventing a wider harvest within Chinese society.

The goal of this strategy is not to duplicate the conversion of Constantine, as Ricci and his followers hoped to do. Rather, the goal is to lay the foundation for a movement of God within China—a people movement that is helped, rather than hindered, by the intellectual framework that determines laws, policies and social norms. By transforming the Chinese worldview as well as the hearts of individual Chinese, God’s glory and grace will flow more freely throughout the Middle Kingdom.


  1. ^ Jonathan Spence, (1984), The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, (New York: Penguin Books). See also Vincent Cronin, (1984) The Wise Man from the West: Matteo Ricci and his Mission to China. Fount Paperbacks: London.
  2. ^ Jonathan Spence, (1969) To Change China: Western Advisors in China, 1620-1960. Penguin Books.
  3. ^ Spence, ibid.
  4. ^ Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books, p. 87.
Image credit: Foreign Missionaries’ Graveyard, Beijing by Caitriana Nicholson via Flickr.

Larry Roberts

Larry Roberts, PhD, is an academic in Singapore studying cultural change in China. He is active in outreach in both China and Singapore and can be reached at <>View Full Bio