Protestantism in Contemporary China

The other major indigenous church is properly known as the Local Assemblies, although it is usually called 'Little Flock' by outsiders. Founded in 1928, and with no support at all from missions, it had some 70,000 members by 1949 and is still influential today. Its founder was a dynamic and controversial Fujianese called Ni Tuosheng, better known in English as Watchman Nee. While still a student at the Anglican Trinity, College at Fuzhou, Nee rebelled against the formalism and rituals of the Anglican tradition. He became an ardent evangelist who led bands of students through towns and villages attempting to win converts. Early in the 1920s he joined a few friends in home meetings where they established the practice of 'breaking bread', performing a kind of lay communion without the assistance of a pastor. By intense personal evangelism they attracted large numbers of Christians to follow their example, especially in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian. They ignored previous church customs, had little contact with foreigners and established new ecclesiastical traditions of their own, which they maintained were those of the first apostles. In 1928 Nee founded his own central church in Shanghai and became recognized leader of the movement. In the 1930s he had contact with the Plymouth Brethren, but eventually found it impossible to co-operate with them. The early 1930s saw a rapid spread of the Local Assemblies: a missionary was forced to admit in 1935 that the movement was growing very fast, especially in Zhejiang, attracting many church members and even leaders. Despite confrontations with the Japanese and war devastations the church continued to spread until 1949. Nee was arrested in the 1950s, accused of being a GMD agent as well as opposing the TSPM, and died in jail. The movement was ordered to merge with the TSPM in the drive towards unification in 1958, but the impact of the 'Little Flock' tradition is still very strong among house churches, especially in southeast China.

The movement suited the Chinese environment in terms of practice, ecclesiology, nationalism, worship and theology. Church leaders were unpaid, and supported by contributions from the congregation. In fact many of them lived in poverty and literally did not know where the next day’s food would come from. The church was independent from missionaries and had no foreign stigma, although it is true that much of its theology derived ultimately from western sources, notably the Plymouth Brethren. The teaching was simple, based on reiterated statements of doctrine that led to an intense loyalty and sense of belonging. It was pietist and spiritual in orientation with a minimum emphasis on social welfare. Liturgy was rejected in the interests of solidarity and egalitarianism.

Thus already by the 1920s there were vigorous movements towards Chinese control of church institutions. Among the mechanisms tending towards this were devolution of control inside the denominational churches; the widespread network of unsupervised Christian groups in rural areas; the foundation of neo-western churches by separate Chinese groups; and the creation of Chinese churches that were to some extent Chinese in cultural content as well as personnel.

Chan, Kim-Kwong, and Alan Hunter. Protestantism in Contemporary China. Cambridge: University Press, 1993: 121-123.