Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Watchman Nee, China, & Church Planting

Disclaimer: I have been meditating on this post for sometime now, and have hesitated posting it for fear that it may be misinterpreted. I want to make clear that I am not necessarily advocating the ideas proposed by Watchman Nee that I reference here. I am interested in thinking through the implications of the issues he raises, and reacting, from a standpoint of contemporary evangelical missions and a biblical concern for the unity of the Body of Christ. I am aware that some of the following quotes may be quite controversial. I am also aware that Witness Lee, and others, have taken the ideas of Nee on some of these points and put them into practice in a manner that many have considered sectarian.

If the following quotes from Watchman Nee's The Normal Christian Church Life (full text available on-line) are really reflective of God’s plan for the church and missions (or as Nee calls it, the “work”), there are some important consequences for the way we go about our work. I post this, more than anything, because I am interested in the reactions of the readers of Love Each Stone to these ideas. I would like to know specifically, as you read these quotes:

  1. Do you think Nee has a legitimate argument, from a strictly biblical perspective, for the things he says here?
  2. Do you think, independently of whether or not there is a solid biblical justification for what Nee has to say, that it is reflective of good missiology?
  3. If we were to take into account the guidelines that Nee records here, how would it change the way we do missions and church planting?

When a servant of God reaches a new place his first business must be to found a local church, unless there is already one in existence, in which case his one concern must be to help the church. The one aim of the work in any place is the building up of the church in that place. All the fruit of a worker’s labours must go to the increase of the church. The work in any place exists for the church alone, not for itself. The apostle’s goal is to build up the church, not to build up his work or any group of people that may have sent him out.

Wherein lies the failure of missions today? They keep the results of their work in their own hands. In other words, they have reckoned their converts as members of their mission or of their mission-church instead of building them into or handing them over to the local churches.

An apostle should go and work in a certain place if the local church invites him, or if he himself has received a revelation from the Lord to work there. In the latter case, if there is a church in the place he can write notifying them of his coming, just as Paul notified the churches in Corinth and in Rome. These are the two lines which regulate the work of an apostle – he must either have a direct revelation of God’s will, or an indirect revelation through the invitation of a church.

When an apostle comes to a place where a local church already exists, he must never forget that no church authority rests with him. Should he desire to work in a place where the local church does not wish to have him, then all he can do is to pass on to some other part. The church has full authority either to receive or reject a worker.

Should he know unmistakably that God has led him to work in that place, yet the local church refuse to welcome him, if they persist in their attitude, then he must obey the command of God and go and work there despite them. But he must not gather believers around him, nor must he on any account form a separate church.

All the various God-given ministries have one aim, the establishing of local churches. In the thought of God only one company of people exists, and all His designs of grace center in that one company – His Church. The work is not a goal in itself, it is only a means to an end. If we regard our work as an end, then our purpose is at variance with God’s, for His end is the Church.

In addition to the quotes from Nee, I also include the following information, which I think gives some important additional background information in relation to the questions I ask at the beginning of this post.

From the: Report of the Consultation on World Evangelization, Mini-Consultation on Reaching Chinese, held at Pattaya, Thailand from 16-27 June 1980, Sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization

(iii) Should any effort be made to re-establish former denominational programs?

Since most Christians in China today have discarded the former denominational structures and are now united on the local level, the reintroduction of denominations would only be divisive and a hindrance to evangelization. Nothing should be done to disturb the peace of our brethren.

From Watchman Nee and the House Church Movement in China,” May, 1986, by Dennis H. McCallum

It is hard to tell how large the Little Flock movement was in China at the time of the revolution. One reason for this is the fact that Nee felt it was fleshly to consider numbers. Therefore there was no systematic effort made by Little Flock themselves to count their people. There was no formal membership in the group, since Nee believed membership in the body of Christ was determined by God, and there was no good reason for the church to try to draw up a list.

According to Cliff, in 1949 the Little Flock had over 70,000 members in 500 assemblies. However, according to the Ecumenical Press Service the "Little Flock" had at this time 362 places of worship and 39,000 members in the one
province of Chekiang. These figures were interpreted as indicating that members of the "Little Flock" made up 15-20 per cent of the whole Protestant church in China, and that they may have been the largest single denomination. In other words, this estimate would show anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 members for the Little Flock. Cheung affirms that there were "thousands" of assemblies by 1956, and that the Little Flock was the largest Christian group in China.

Nobody has even hazarded a guess as to how many of the millions of Christians meeting in house churches today may be the outgrowth of Little Flock groups. Two things are clear: There are many house churches that are directly derived from Little Flock churches, and there are many other groups that owe a substantial debt to Little Flock doctrine and practice for their survival.

From the Wikipedia article on “house churches”:

Chinese house church - be aware that Chinese house churches typically have a leadership structure (including a pastor) that resembles "underground traditionally structured churches" (or "cell churches") in contrast to what is generally considered to be a "house church" in other areas.

A comment from an anonymous IMB “M” on Wade Burleson’s Grace and Truth to You blog:

This past year, a SB pastor from a traditional FBC "Small-town, SC" came to China on a vision trip. The M who coordinated the trip, took the visiting pastor and team to a Buddhist temple on part of a prayer walk. They encountered a woman and her pre-teen daughter praying and burning incense to Buddha. The women noticed the group praying and approached them and asked if they would pray for her daughter who had been mute since birth.

Before the group prayed for the daughter they told the women that they were not praying to Buddha and that they would like to share some good news with her. The women responded positively to the gospel message and then they all laid hands on the young girl and prayed that her mouth would be opened and that she would be miraculously healed and speak.

Initially nothing happened. The group was still excited that the women said that she wanted to believe in Jesus and arranged to put her in touch with local Christians and they left the temple.

Before they could get down to the bottom of the hill, the young girl came running out of the temple and for the first time in her life was yelling "Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus" in her native tongue.

This cessationalist pastor was completely taken back and returned home with his dispensationalist, cessationist theology completely challenged. He said that if he had not seen and experienced this, he never would have believed it. He has only cautiously shared this story with certain people in his congregation for fear of retribution.

Before coming to the field as an IMB missionary eleven years ago, I came out of a dogmatic-cessationist, dispensationist church. Even after I graduated from a SBC seminary, my views were still firmly planted in that same theological position.

But soon after arriving in China and started hearing testimonies from many different Chinese believers from all over China, the foundation of my theological position began to crack. I found that I could no longer contain God to my tightly-formed theological box.

SB's have had a long love affair with China and we all love to marvel at what God has been doing in this country, even during the 40+ years that it was closed to the west. In my conservative estimate, I would say that 90% of all Christians in China would hold to the Continuationist view.

If dogmatic cessationists hold to their view consistently, then most of what has happened in China is NOT from God, but from the devil himself and the world's most populist country is more lost than ever imagined! 80 million people are being deceived and are in desperate need of theological correction! (said with a bit of sarcasm in my voice).

My colleagues and I have MANY MANY stories to share just like this one, but when we return to the states, we find ourselves toning down our stories for fear that the people will think that we are no longer Baptist missionaries.

Cautious-Continuationist, Bapist to the core, IMB M


Nick said...


I have a question for you I'd rather put in email. I got an error when I sent to which is listed in your blogger profile. Could you email me at ?


David Rogers said...


The correct e-mail is

It was listed incorrectly in the profile. I have now made the change.

Steve Haines said...

Greetings from Paraguay, David. I am an IMB missionary as well, and one who is sympathetic to some of the continuationist assertions. However, parts of "M's" letter may highlight what is lacking in the anecdotal evidence offered in defense of the position. Here are three snippets from the letter:

1. "This past year, a SB pastor from a traditional FBC "Small-town, SC" came to China on a vision trip. The M who coordinated the trip," I assume that the letter writer was not the missionary who coordinated the trip, thus the letter-writer was not present at the event mentioned.

2. "But soon after arriving in China and started hearing testimonies from many different Chinese believers from all over China . . ." Again, the author did not SEE any of the events he has heard about.

"My colleagues and I have MANY MANY stories to share just like this one . . ." I assume this means that the author and many others have HEARD many stories of miraculous doings.

Here in Paraguay I have also heard many stories. What would help me, and perhaps others as well, would be direct, first-hand testimony from those who have no apparent agenda at work. That is, testimony from our own people who are or were cessationist. A few of these testimonies would be worth dozens of "I heard from X who was there when . . ."

May the Lord continue to bless your work, and thanks for your blog.

David Rogers said...


Good points. I do not disagree with you. I will be interested to hear what information Alan Cross & Dwight McKissic come up with for their upcoming book referenced on Wade Burleson's post today.

In any case, the main point I am trying to make, or really, main questions I am trying to ask, have more to do with church planting, and coming in and starting our own separate churches, apart from the cooperation and blessings of the local believers, and not so much about the whole continuationist-cessationist debate. I just threw in that last comment as an illustration of a possible discrepancy of belief and practice that we as North American Baptists may have with national believers; and wondering, for instance, to what degree is it good for us to import our cultural and denominational values into another context, where they already have their own indigenous values.

Anonymous said...

Dear Steve, David and others,


1. You are correct that I was not the M who led the team. This was the pastor of my stateside business partner who was just visiting last week who shared this with me after a long discussion about some of the miraculous things that I have personally witnessed. My friend was one of the people the pastor confided in when he returned from the field.

2. You are partially correct. Some of the testimonies I did not witness, but they come from very reliable people, some who are high up in structured networks numbering in the millions. But some of the miracles and healings I have personally witnessed.

3. In fact, some of my collegues have witnessed healings and miracles. I plan to contact Alan Cross myself and notify my collegues of his research for this upcoming book.

Cautious Continuationist M

timothy cowin said...

My parents were M's. Baptists in N.A. are naive and narrow to not understand the need for partnership on the field.

We are not called to make the world baptist, but Christian. We are sent to grow the KINDGOM not just a denomination.

I think some baptists would sacrifice souls saved in order to insure everything on the field is "Baptist."

Does Christ grieve over our sectarian paradigms?

When you are on the other side of the world in a lost culture and come across other Christians (not SBC) that have been called by God to the same area - I would like some of these people to please tell me why we would NOT cooperate with them to save people from hell?


Anonymous said...

Dear David,
When i was in seminary nearly thirty years ago I had the joy of being in a little church pastored by Bill O'Brien. I mention that for the missions connection of both he and the WMU connections with his wife. We got to hear Dr. Culpepper and Mrs Bertha Smith tell of their experiences in the Shantung revival. I recently reread that awesome little book about God's miraculous movement in and through some of our own in China. It was distributed by the BGCT Evangelism division in Dallas. I thought it was very noteworthy and might provide a guide for those wishing to update the info from the field. Of interest to me was how many of the miraculous things that were reported were accompanied by spontaneous confession of sin, salvation of souls, and overflowing love and joy in the Holy Spirit.

GuyMuse said...

I think your overarching question of us coming in and starting our own separate churches apart from the cooperation and blessing of local believers is one that is so profound and deep that possibly many reading are not catching what it is you are saying. This seems to be a topic that few are willing to engage on a serious level. Yet, I would assert that if we are serious about finishing the task--fulfilling the Great Commission--this whole matter must become CENTRAL to our overall global missions discussion.

We cannot (nor should we) remain separatists from brothers and sisters in Christ who may differ from us on 2nd and 3rd degree doctrinal levels. On my own blog this week I share a home-made video of some recent baptisms. What I don't mention in my post, is that none of these baptisms are likely to appear in our annual reports to the IMB. All of these baptisms fall under the category of being "questionable" and possibly "out of bounds" with our current guidelines and definitions for church and "countable" baptisms. This has not stopped us from fully cooperating and relating to these kinds of fellow believers who God continues to send our way. I believe one of the roles God has for S. Baptists (if we will accept it) is to be a model, a teacher, a guide to the nations which are coming to the Lord. God is moving powerfully all around us like never before, and yet we are holding back being the instruments He would have us be to influence and participate in what the Holy Spirit is doing all around us.

Certainly part of our "apostolic calling" is to engage the local churches and help them rather than avoid them. We are more like the Law of Moses wanting to bind people to a burden they cannot bear, that free them to be all that they are in Christ Jesus.

David Rogers said...


Thanks for your comment.

Yes, I think you are on to what I am getting at here. I have struggled with how to best communicate this. It would probably be necessary for those who are not familiar with Nee's ecclesiology to read all of the "The Normal Christian Church Life" to understand the context of the quotes I cite here.

I personally see this as tied in to other things I have posted here before about the "city church." For Nee (at least as I understand him), the "local church" and the "city church" (comprised of all believers in a given locality), would basically be synonyms. Thus, the "local church" is not exactly like what we as Baptists typically call a "local church" or congregation. It does, however, comprise a number of different individual meetings, including "house groups."

In many, if not the majority, of places in the world, where denominational Christianity has dominated the ecclesiological map, it will be very hard, if not impossible, in my opinion, to strictly put into practice the guidelines that Nee proposes here in these quotes. In China, however, it seems to me, from a distance, that a more loose sort of following of these principles has led to much growth and blessing among the believers there. My question behind this, to a big extent, is how might we in the rest of the world stand to benefit from moving towards a model of church planting that takes into account and respects the presence and spiritual authority of the "city church" or "local church" of the region, i.e., doing things less as mavericks and independent operators, and more in fellowship and in consultation with the local believers, especially those that are more committed to the unity of the Body of Christ.

Tim Patterson said...


I think the last part of your post distracted some folks from your intended discussion. But I will confirm the testimony of "Cautious Continualist M". I have personally observed the miraculous and heard firsthand testimonies of complete life transformation through miraculous events where we served. This did nothing but glorify Jesus Christ and cause lost people to give their life to Him. This is an everyday occurence in cultures where the spiritual dimension is not drowned out by the material world, (like in most of the western world), and in an apostolic missionary context where the gospel is not known. God uses these miracles to break through to people that have never heard the gospel, just as He did in New Testament days. If people here in the U.S. are concerned about verifying this... I suggest they drop what they are doing and go experience it for themselves. Otherwise, they should accept the testimonies and give God the glory.

Concerning the main issue of your post... I see the church as the means to the end and not the end itself. The church is God's instrument to reveal His glory and redeem the lost. Jesus preached the Kingdom, not the church. His church should follow His example.
When we try to contain the Kingdom within our denominational structures, or even within the established church structures of the focus people group, we kill whatever Kingdom expansion God desires to accomplish through His church.

As missionaries, sent ones from a foreign church...we do need to respect and cooperate with whatever established church exists among the focus people/host culture. We work alongside them where we can do that to establish a healthy reproducing multiplying church. However, if we are sent by a church from another culture, we are under their authority, not the authority of the host culture church. If the host culture church is multiplying disciples, leaders, churches and movements among their own people group... we should not be there as missionaries in the first place (in an apostolic role).

David Rogers said...


Thanks for your comments. I think this question ties in somewhat to the discussion we had here awhile back on Missionary Calland apostles.

If there is already a local church (i.e. city church) established in an area, even though we are opening up new "preaching points" or evangelistic units, is there not a sense in which we are more engaged in "watering" (like Apollos) than "planting" (like Paul), strictly speaking? And, if we are "watering," it is important that we are building on the foundation established (see Rom. 15:20), and not building a completely new foundation.

Also, I think whether or not "the host culture church is multiplying disciples, leaders, churches and movements among their own people group" if often not a question of black and white, but rather of shades of grey.

All of this ties in to our concept of the autonomy of the local church as well, and how we define local church.

Once again, I'm not saying I necessarily agree completely with the implications of what Nee is saying here. But, it is something I am thinking about, and it is helpful for me to have people like you think through it with me, to see if it matches up to Scripture and sound missiology or not.

Strider said...

Guy and Tim said most of what I want to say. But I will add that I am frustrated in these quotes from Nee by his understanding of the Church. He seems to be mistaking the organization for the Kingdom here. As we come into an area where there is an organization at work we should certainly honor that organization. We should relate to it, respect it, love those who love our Lord and listen to each other. But I will not let the Kingdom be held hostage to whatever mission that church is on. There may be a church that is reaching a certain ethnic group or socio-economic group and they have a passion for what God is doing among them. I praise God for that but then I move on to what God is calling us to do. Nee aludes to this in one quote but what he makes an escape clause I consider to be plan A. Do what God calls you to do. Come with a ministry to establish the Kingdom among the people you are called to. Of course, you must love the existing believers and have a relationship with them but we have traded love for control and respect for authority in too many places. I understand where you are going in your thinking about city church. You want to see if we can find a coherent ecclesiology and authority structure. I do not believe it exist. I think that what is important in the Kingdom is how we treat each other and how we love one another. I do not think that structure will be found on a macro level because it will always lead to Jesus' authority being usurped by men (that is possibly the most 'baptist' thing I have ever said.)
So, I take Nee's guidelines with a grain of salt. I see what he is getting at but I will not take authority out of the hands of Jesus and put it in a local group of believers. I honor them and I cooperate with them but my marching orders come from Christ.

David Rogers said...

Cautious Continuationist M,

Thank you very much for the clarification regarding your quote.

I don't know if you would be at liberty to share on this, or if you have the information needed to have an informed opinion. But, I would be very interested, from your perspective as someone on-site, to what degree you think the ecclesiology of Watchman Nee may have influenced the "DNA" of the church in China today.

David Rogers said...


Very interesting thoughts.

It seems to me that whenever Nee's disciples, or even Nee himself, made the jump from seeing the "local church" as the Kingdom in a given locality to a particular "organization" that we run into the problems you are referencing.

However, if it were possible to still maintain the spirit of what Nee was advocating, without making the jump from "Kingdom" to "organization," I wonder if that might be something that God could really bless, just as He seems to have blessed in China.

Tim Patterson said...


In "mission fields" where there is an obvious evangelical minority and the need for great Kingdom expansion... we will always have this tension between established indigenous churches/organizations and mission initiatives from the outside. I think we do the best we can to cooperate but when it is not possible to work together closely... we should give our blessing to one another in what God has called us to do... unless it is obvious that what we claim God is calling us to do is against Scripture (not referring to differences in method, but Bible truth).

So, as a missionary sent from the outside... I enter a place first looking for believers/churches already established there to see if we can work together. Where we can work side by side... we do that. Where we cannot work closely together... we follow Jesus' command to make disciples with others (He gives the authority and we are confirmed by our sending church). Making disciples should always lead to healthy reproducing disciples, leaders and churches.

My take on the "city church" is that it is really a loose association of local churches. So that the more appropriate term would to use would be "network" or "association". I would not use the term "church" because I think the church is a local expression of the body of Christ. As these local expressions of the body multiply the Kingdom is expanded. The exception would be a cell church that is city-wide... but by the time you see that type of church develop... there are all kinds of other local churches that do not come under their umbrella. There is not any church structure that can contain the Kingdom... it will bust it wide open in no time.

David Rogers said...


Not that I disagree with you on this, (actually, I am trying to think "out of the box" in order to test my traditions and personal preferences in the light of Scripture); but I am wondering how you might respond to Nee from Scripture regarding the city church. It seems to me that the biblical justification for Nee's understanding of the local church is just as strong, in many ways, as a traditional Baptist understanding. But, it would be a whole lot more "comfortable" for me, in a lot of ways, if someone could show me why this is not the case.

Alan Knox said...


As you can probably guess, I like the idea of believers working with other believers in an area - whether those believers are "nationals" or "missionaries" - they are, first of all, brothers and sisters. I appreciate the fact that many of the missionaries that commented here agreed with Nee on this. Could it be that those living in other cultures where the church is new and growing recognize the need to work together more than those in "mature churches" who are spending more time arguing over non-essentials? I don't know if this is true or not, but it does make me wonder.

I don't like the idea of dividing the church into organizations. Are there organizations? Sure. But we should not confuse these with the church. The question is, how does God view the church in a given area? Does he view it as splintered into various groups? If he does not, then we should attempt to live as he sees us.


Anonymous said...

You might be interested to know that there is presently a struggle within the "local churches." The brothers close to Witness Lee (the "blended brothers") have quarantined a leading brother who was advocating for local autonomy and was resisting centralized control.
There are many dear brothers and sisters within the local churches who are coming to terms with how exclusive and sectarian the movement has become. There is hope that a breakthrough might occur.
It is doubtful that Watchman Nee would recognize or endorse the local churches as they have become now.
If you are interested in reading Witness Lee, I would recommend that you read his works from the 1960's and 70's. There are lots of gems in his early writings. His later writings (which also have good points) became much more dogmatic and authoritarian, especially when he launched the "new way," his method of gaining increase. Many believers and churches were damaged by the pressure imposed on them to cooperate with the Lord's "up to date move."
Now, saints in the local churches actually pray-read Lee's outlines. But the peculiarity of the movement has led some members to question the direction they are headed. And many who have given their lives to the local churches are now wondering whether the "blueprint" laid out by Nee and expanded by Lee is really workable.
It is possible that what worked in China and Taiwan does not transfer well to the West. But the original "vision" of the local churches - simply groups of believers who meet as the church in the city - is still an inspiring one. Whether the local churches go the way of the Exclusive Brethren, or whether they return to their original foundation (expounded by Nee) and become a pattern for other like-minded believers, remains to be seen.

David Rogers said...


I would be very interested to hear, given the understanding of "church" and "organization" that you are proposing here (and about which we have dialogued quite extensively on your blog), how do you conceive, or how would you describe the ministry of "church planting"? More specifically, do you think it is correct to think in terms of "planting new churches" in a locality in which the "church" in the sense of the company of the redeemed in that locality already exists? In such a case, what are we planting? New "organizations"? Or something else?

I have a hunch that our ideas are not all that far apart on this. But, I would be especially interested to hear your take on this particular angle of ecclesiology, as this whole question of "church planting" is something that affects me and my missionary colleagues in a significant and personal way.

David Rogers said...


Are you the same person who has commented on another post here related to the "blended brothers" and "concerned brothers"?

If so, I am interested in the information you sent me before, and hope, as time allows, to become more informed on these matters.

If anything I say here seems to you to be factually off-base, I would appreciate your input on that as well.



Anonymous said...

I was the "Anonymous" who posted the comment above about the present situation in the local churches. But that was my first comment, and this is only my second time visiting your blog. So I'm not the person who sent you materials or commented previously.

As someone who spent several years in the local churches, it's refreshing to see other Christians wrestle with the implications of Nee and Lee who are not beholden to them (that is, who don't feel obligated to endorse their conclusions).

Alan Knox said...


While I know that Paul used the metaphor of "planting" and "watering" in 1 Corinthians, I'm not sure he used it in the same way that we use the term "church planting" now. It seems that Paul was saying something like: We each do the work that God has given us, but it is still God who builds the church.

So, I don't think we can plant churches, per se. If the church is not present in a particular area, when believers (missionaries) move into an area, the church is then present. If the church is already present in an area, then believers who move into the area become part of the church in that area. Whether the church was or was not present before the believers moved into the area, the believers have the same responsibility: make disciples. I think this would include both evangelism and edification of existing believers.

I'm not sure if this answers your question. If not, ask again and I'll try to answer again.

By the way, from the many discussions that we've had on this blog and mine, I'm sure that you and I are very close on many of these ecclesiological issues. The differences are probably more related to terminology and emphasis than anything important. You are certainly a brother that I would enjoy working with.