What’s the largest Christian country in the world?
Think about it! United States? Brazil? Italy? Nigeria?
Let’s ask it another way (the answer is the same): Which country has more Christians than any other country?
What do you think? It stumped me! Ideas? Take a guess!
Within a generation, actually in about ten or twelve years given growth patterns, the largest Christian country, and the country with more Christians than any other, will be China!
Yes, China is the world’s largest country with 1.4 billion people and will soon boast the largest number of Christians – approximately 5% of its population.
This fact shocked me and challenges me to get outside of my American or Euro-centric mindset. We are not the center of the universe and Westerners do not have an exclusive right to define Christian faith for the rest of the world.
I learned this startling fact about China last week. Yesterday, although Mothers Day deservedly took top billing (at least in the United States), I also was reminded that May 11, 1610 was the anniversary of the death of Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci.
But, wait a minute. Before you give Ricci credit for what we are seeing in China today, we need to know that his efforts were short-circuited and ultimately rejected by narrow-minded, bureaucratic church leaders.
The history of Christianity in China over the past 500 years could have been very different. I believe history – and Scripture – suggests it should have been very different.
Matteo Ricci was an Italian Jesuit who mastered the Chinese language and Confucian teaching and won recognition from the educated elite and the imperial court as a scholar of the highest distinction.
Ricci’s mission strategy presumed that any real progress by Christianity in China required that it be “incarnated” within the Chinese culture and recognized as inviting by the educated leaders of the country. Therefore, Ricci dressed as would be expected in elaborate silk attire, published works on astronomy, science and philosophy and labored to become highly esteemed as a Confucian scholar.
As a Christian missionary, Ricci’s primary motivation was to reconcile Confucian precepts with Christian belief and practice. He recognized in the origins in Confucianism a belief in a supreme Creator and worked meticulously to link this belief with the God of Christianity.
Despite great respect and considerable agreement from his Chinese peers, he was not accorded the same esteem from his own church leaders in Europe. Ultimately his efforts to “incarnate” Christian faith within Chinese culture were rejected.
Although Ricci died with provisional approval for his mission strategy, Roman church official would become more Euro-centric, defensive and monolithic. This culminated in 1742 with a vehement condemnation of Chinese cultural practices such as ancestor “worship” as superstitious and idolatrous. Christian incarnation within Chinese culture would have to wait for another day.
World history and 21st century Christianity would have been very different if other decisions had been made. With the 20/20 benefit of hindsight I’d like to believe other decisions should have been made and higher Christian values should have prevailed.
Sadly, this is not a new issue for the Church! The Apostles wrestled with acculturating the Gospel and Peter needed to be called to task. Ultimately, when encountering others with our particular “brand” of Christianity, we’d do well to remember Apostolic teaching and what Peter finally came to understand:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:5-11)