Peoples of China

Intellectuals and Gateway People Groups

The concept of Gateway Peoples has been widely promoted among Christians over the past few years as a key to fulfilling the Great Commission.  Gateway peoples are groups that, while unreached themselves, are perceived to have the potential to play a strategic role in making the gospel accessible to a cluster of other unreached peoples.

The theory is good, but there is a problem in the way it has been applied, at least in China. The gateway peoples for China that appear on current lists are all ethnolinguistically defined. Their selection appears to have been based primarily on size. I don’t know how this approach is working in other parts of the world, but in China, there is little to suggest that the groups currently identified as gateway peoples are actually playing a strategic role in reaching other people groups.

I would like to suggest that, at least in China, a better approach to the identification of gateway peoples might be to look for sociologically defined people groups that have already demonstrated the capacity to impact multiple people groups.[1] Intellectuals fall into this category.

Intellectuals have played a major role in shaping China throughout its history. From the impact of Confucian scholars to that of university-trained leaders in China today, there is no question but that intellectuals have had —and continue to have —a major impact upon the nation. If Chinese intellectuals can be reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ, it seems evident that their contribution to the evangelization of all the peoples of China could be substantial. “intellectuals” is really a macro-grouping that includes a wide range of scholars, educators and professionals. In the ICS map “People Groups of Mainland China” Jim Ziervogel lists seven different groups under the heading “intelligentsia:”

  1. Science and Technology Professionals,
  2. Artists and Writers,
  3. High Level Intelligentsia (including University Professors, Senior Researchers and others),
  4. Middle School Teachers and Staff,
  5. Primary School Teachers and Staff,
  6. Performing Artists and their Support Workers, 
  7. Medical Personnel.[2]

What an impact could be made at all levels of Chinese society if people from each of these groups became devoted followers of Christ.

As we consider the concept of gateway peoples as it relates to intellectuals, we might ask which one of the subgroups that make up this macro-grouping might be a gateway people with regard to the others. Intellectuals as a whole might be a gateway people with regard to all of China, but first we have to reach them. Perhaps one of my readers would take up the challenge of developing a gateway strategy for reaching Chinese intellectuals.

There is one other critical factor that must not be neglected if we are to successfully pursue a strategy of reaching the unreached peoples of China through intellectuals. Intellectuals must be challenged to use their gifts and influence to advance the kingdom of God among the unreached. People do not naturally have a concern for people unlike themselves. This tends to be even more true of intellectuals than is the case in the general population. However, as intellectuals are taught the biblical mandate to make disciples of all peoples, the Spirit of God can and will give some of them a burden to fulfill the Great Commission.

Multiplying laborers to reach the unreached peoples of China must be a priority for us as followers of Christ. Reaching intellectuals with the gospel and giving them a vision to pass it on to all the peoples of China is a gateway strategy if I ever saw one!

BUT. . . Is it Biblical?

The Bible has little to say about intellectualism. But what it does say is very instructive.

Only seven verses in all of Scripture contain the words “intelligent” or “intelligence.” The first reference is found in I Samuel 25:3, where it is used to describe a major difference between Abigail and her husband Nabal: “She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband, a Calebite, was surly and mean in his dealings.”

Several other examples of intellectuals are cited in Scripture: King David was described as “a wise son, endowed with intelligence and discernment” (II Chron 2:12). Daniel was admired as one who had insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom” (Daniel 5:11; 5:14). In Acts 13:7 we find a civic leader and seeker after God named Sergius Paulus described as an intelligent man.

Two passages in the Bible raise questions about the value of intelligence. Isaiah 29:14 declares that “the wisdom of the wise will perish, [and] the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”  This passage is quoted in I Corinthians 1:19, where Paul explains that there is a difference between the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God.

God is not impressed with human intelligence, and we should not be either. On the other hand, he does not ignore the need of intellectuals for revelation that speaks to them on their level, and he graciously chooses to use the giftedness that believing intellectuals bring to his service. 


  1. ^ . Some of the early writings and lists of unreached peoples published under the auspices of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization contained a balanced emphasis upon both ethnolinguistic and sociologically defined people groups. See, for example, Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task, Harley Schreck and David Barrett, editors. Monrovia, CA: MARC 1987. While mission researchers continue to look at people groups in various ways, recent missions mobilization material has focused almost exclusively on ethnolinguistic peoples. This is understandable, as the emphasis has been upon identifying and targeting all remaining unreached peoples, and ethnolinguistic designations lend themselves more readily to this task. However, in most cases, sociological definitions are much more useful in developing evangelistic and church-multiplication strategies (of which the Gateway Peoples strategy is one). Therefore, it makes much more sense to look for Gateway Peoples among sociologically defined groups than among ethnolinguistic ones. 
  2. ^ While somewhat dated now (it was published in 1982), this map would form a good starting point for someone wishing to pursue research on the sociological peoples of China. It includes brief descriptions of 32 such groups. It is available from the Institute of Chinese Studies, P.O. Box 25988, Colorado Springs, CO 80936-5988. E-mail:
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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio