New Markets in the East
At the same time that Europeans were stumbling across the Americas, they were also figuring out new ways to get to Asia to trade goods. They landed at the southern coast of Africa in 1486, in China in 1516, and in Japan in 1543, establishing ports along the way to function as trading settlements. Churches sprouted in these settlements too, and from them the gospel eventually made its way to locals.
Xavier in Japan
Francis Xavier was a priest who was sent to one of these ports in what is now India. When he arrived, he was scandalized by the hypocritical behavior of the supposedly Christian traders there. He turned things around by teaching the basics of the Christian faith and doctrine to children, who would go home and tell their parents what they had learned. After a few years, a church was established. Xavier wanted to go farther east to share the gospel with non-Europeans, and eventually he landed in Japan. While there, his view about the relationship between the gospel and other cultures developed. He used to think that cultures that had not yet heard the gospel had nothing in common with Christian faith. But in Japan he saw some things in the culture that could be adapted. This helped him relate better to the locals, which in turn allowed him to better connect the gospel to their world. Until new leaders in Japan ushered in a harsh policy of persecution (you can see it depicted in the movie Silence), Christianity flourished.
Ricci in China
How to relate Christianity to local culture was a question another missionary to Asia faced — a man named Matteo Ricci. Ricci decided he would adopt aspects of Chinese culture and engage with its intellectuals in order to earn their respect. But when he didn’t stop new converts from ancestor worship, it caused a stir with church officials back home. Ricci saw it simply as a way of respecting one's elders; others thought it was a form of idolatry. But because of both his cultural openness and academic contribution Ricci became a valued intellectual in the Peking court, known especially for his skills in astronomy and clock making. Instead of causing an uproar and risking getting kicked out for trying to convert large numbers of people and establishing a church, he instead focused on passing on the faith to a small circle of friends among the intellectual elites he engaged. These, in turn, passed on the faith to others. After his death, a substantial number of Christians remained serving in the Peking court.
The examples of Xavier and Ricci raise challenging questions about how the gospel relates to culture. Both Xavier and Ricci were able to appreciate beauty and truth in Chinese and Japanese culture that enabled them to connect and share the gospel. This is what we see Paul doing in Acts 17, when he recognized the religious spirit of the people of Athens even though they were worshiping a false god; he used their religious spirit to help connect them to the true God (vv. 22–23). How do we discern which aspects of our own culture we should adapt in order to better share the gospel with others, and which aspects are incompatible (1 Corinthians 9:16–23)?