The Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th ed.)

The group that is variously known as the Little Flock or the Local Church was founded in the 1920s in China by Ni Tuosheng, popularly known by the English translation of his name, Watchman Nee (1903–1972). Nee was born into Chinese Christian family, his grandfather serving as a Congregationalist minister and his parents faithful Methodists. He changed his given name, Ni Tuosheng (Henry Nee) to Duosheng (Watchman), as a reminder not to lose sight of his purpose: raising up people for God.

From a nominally religious youth, he was converted by Dorayou, a Methodist evangelist, and soon afterward began working with Margaret E. Barber (1866–1930), an independent missionary through whom he discovered the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) and the exclusive Plymouth Brethren. He adopted Darby’s nondenominational approach to church organization and soon emerged as the leader of a small band of evangelical Christians. By the end of the decade he had made contact with a branch of the Brethren led by James Taylor (1870–1953) and, at their invitation, visited England in 1933. They, however, soon broke relationships with Nee because of his unauthorized fellowship with the Honor Oak Christian Fellowship, a non-Brethren group headed by T. Austin Sparks (1888–1971).

From its modest beginning in Foochow, Nee’s movement spread through China. During the 1930s, he traveled widely and founded congregations based upon his idea that there should be only one local church (i.e., congregation) in each city as the basic expression of the unity of Christianity (in the face of divisive denominationalism). Two local churches were raised up by his ministry between 1922 and 1952 (when the Chinese revolution ended the spread of Christianity). Nee also authored more than 50 books, mostly on Christian life and church life. His mature view of the church is found in his most famous book, The Normal Christian Church Life. He also authored the The Spiritual Man, in which he developed his understanding of the tripartite nature of human beings as body, soul, and spirit.

The new People’s Republic of China, following its rise to power in 1949, accused Nee (and churches affiliated with him) of being a spy for the Americans and the nationalist government. He was first exiled from Shanghai and then imprisoned in 1952. Nee died 20 years later in 1972, while imprisoned.

During the 1930s, Nee gained a follower in the person of Witness Lee (1905– 1997), a former Protestant minister who founded, established, and became an elder of the church at Chefoo, Shangdong. He joined Nee in the ministry in 1932 and within a few years was among Nee’s most valuable assistants. After a threeyear absence fighting tuberculosis, Lee rejoined Nee in full-time work in 1948, on the eve of the Chinese revolution. Nee sent Lee to Taiwan where the church was to flourish and spread around the Pacific basin.

Members migrating to the United States brought the movement to the West Coast. Lee moved to America in 1962 and founded Living Stream Ministry. He has since been recognized as the leading full-time worker among the Local churches, and has provided overall direction for the spread of the Local Church. He also has been a source for innovation in the movement by introducing several theological emphases not found in the writings of Nee and initiating several practices such as “pray reading”and “calling upon the name of the Lord,”both of which have become the subject of controversy.

ORGANIZATION. The Local Church affirms the unity of the church, the corporate nature of church life, and the direct headship of Christ over the church. Great emphasis is thus placed on church life, meeting together (several times per week), and the function and responsiblity of each member in keeping alive a relationship with God and sharing the duties of congregational life. In rejecting the clergy-laity distinction, a pattern for the practical expression of the church’s life has been established. The Local Church is organized as a fellowship of autonomous congregations, one in each city. Each congregation is led by a small group of elders, two to five men drawn from the congregation’s recognized leaders, who teach, preach, and administer the congregation’s temporal affairs. There are also a small number of men who have an apostolic function and travel among the Local churches as teachers and leadership trainers to start new congregations in those cities where the Local Church is not yet organized. Such designated workers organize their efforts, more or less formally, as an independent ministry. In the case of Witness Lee, for example, his work is incorporated as the Living Stream Ministry, and is currently the most prominent apostolic endeavor among the Local churches.

As with the Plymouth Brethren, the adoption of Darby’s nondenominational stance created a problem as Nee’s movement took no name by which to be denominated. The Local Church sees itself as simply The Church. The term Local Church is a convenient designation but not a name. Local congregations call themselves “The Church in (name of the city).”

The Local Church has generally spread through the happenstance movement of members who would organize a congregation in a new city or the efforts of the apostolic workers. The church in the United States was initially started by members who migrated from Taiwan. However, in recent years, with Lee’s encouragement, the Local Church has adopted a new strategy, which they call the “Jerusalem principle,” by which church members as a small group migrate to a new locale for the single purpose of seeding a new congregation.

BELIEFS. The Local churches follow the teachings found in the voluminous writings of Nee and Lee. A convenient summary is found in a booklet titled The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches. The statement professes a belief in fundamental Christianity, similar to that of the Plymouth Brethren, and affirms belief in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, his Second Coming, and the verbal inspiration of the Bible.

Particular attention, as might be expected, is given to a treatment of the unity of the Church, the body of Christ. Sectarianism, denominationalism, and interdenominationalism are all rejected, and the oneness of all believers in each locality affirmed.

The Local Church sees itself in a history of recovery (or restoration) of the biblical church. Since apostolic times, the full life and unity of the Church was lost; but a recovery began with Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the Protestant Reformation and has continued through the pietist recovery of Count Zinzendorf (1700–1760) and the Moravians, John Wesley (1703–1791) and the Methodists, and more recently the Plymouth Brethren. Through the Local churches, the Christian experience of the riches of Christ (i.e., the enjoyment of Christ as life), and the practice of church life according to the Scripture, are being recovered. Some elements of the recovery have become the focus of controversy.

Pray reading is a devotional practice that uses the words of Scripture as the words of prayer. Individuals or groups will, when praying, repeat words and phrases from the Scripture over and over, frequently interjecting words of praise and thanksgiving, as a means of allowing the Scripture to impart an experience of the presence of God in the person praying. “Calling upon the name of the Lord,” as the very name of the practice indicates, is an invocation of God by the repetition of phrases such as “O Lord Jesus.” Burning is a term to denote a close contact with God. When a person inspires another with the message of the Gospel, this person is seen as having been burned.

Burning is also an occasional practice by which objects symbolic of a person’s pre-Christian existence or of a phase of lesser commitment are destroyed in a fire. Like burning objects from a rejected past, burying, literally a rebaptism, is symbolic of a newer level of Christian commitment, and members of a Local church might be baptized more than once.

Membership: In 1991 the Local Church listed congregations on six continents. The largest numbers are in the Pacific rim countries. Taiwan has 200 churches with 60,000 members. The combined United States and Canadian membership is 15,000 in 265 churches. There are 16,500 members in Spanish-speaking congregations in South and Central America. There are also churches in Europe, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In spite of the intense persecution, it appears that congregations have survived in mainland China, and that the movement actually spread over the last decades to include tens of thousands of people.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Local churches have initiated evangelical work in eastern Europe and Russia. As of 1992, the Local Church had congregations in Moscow and St. Petersburg and was developing work in other countries as well.

Periodicals:Voice. Available from Living Stream Ministry, PO Box 2121, Anaheim, CA 92804.

Remarks: A controversy that emerged in the 1970s between the Local Church and some prominent voices within the larger Evangelical Christian community culminated in a series of legal actions in the mid-1980s. Different writers, some known for their battle against some of the new religions, the so-called cults, attacked the Local Church for heresy and its development of unique forms of Christian piety. Several books were written and several items on the Local Church appeared in the Christian anticult literature. Claiming libel and unable to get an apology for what it felt were unjust criticisms that were harming its ministry, the Local Chruch instituted several lawsuits that brought retractions and apologies from all but one organization, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, which had published a book attacking the church. This case went to court and in 1985 an $11 million judgment for libel was rendered against the Spiritual Counterfeits Project.

Sources:The Beliefs and Practices of the Local Churches. Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1978; Duddy, Neil T., and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. The God-Men: An Inquiry into Witness Lee and the Local Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981. Ford, Gene. Who Is the Real Mindbender? Anaheim, CA: Author, 1977. Freeman, William T. In Defense of the Truth. Seattle, WA: Northwest Christian, 1981. Kinnear, Angus I. Against the Tide: The Story of Watchman Lee. Ft. Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1973. Lee, Witness. Gospel Outlines. Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1980. ———. How to Meet. Taipei, Taiwan: Gospel Book Room, 1970. ———. The Practical Expression of the Church. Los Angeles, CA: Stream Publishers, 1970. Melton, J. Gordon. An Open Letter Concerning the Local Church, Witness Lee, and the God-Men Controversy. Santa Barbara, CA: Institute for the Study of American Religion, 1985. Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Church Life. Washington, DC: International Students Press, 1969. Roberts, Dana. Understanding Watchman Nee. Plainfield, NJ: Haven Books, 1980. Sparks, Jack. The Mind Benders: A Look at Current Cults. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1977.

Melton, J. Gordon, ed. Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions, 8th ed, s.v. "Other Bible Students."  Detroit: Gale, 2009. pp. 551-555.

Dr. J. Gordon Melton is a foremost authority on religions in America. Dr. Melton is the Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and Visiting Scholar at the University of California — Santa Barbara. The Institute is the largest research facility in the United States engaged in scholarly research on the many different religious groups in North America. He is the author of over twelve book on American religious groups including the Encyclopedia of American Religions (3 vols, 1979-1996), the standard reference work in its field. Among his other books are: The Dictionary of Religious Bodies in the United States (1978); The Cult Experience (1982); The Old Catholic Sourcebook (1983); Why Cults Succeed When Churches Fail (1985); The Biographical Dictionary of Sects and Cults Leaders (1985); and the Encyclopedia Handbook of the Cults (1985).

Dr. Melton is also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and a member of its Northern Illinois Conference. He holds a Ph.D. in the History and Literature of Religion from Northwestern University (1975) and a Master of Divinity in Church History from Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary (1968). Versed in Methodist history, he served on the editorial board and wrote a number of articles for the Encyclopedia of World Methodism.