This is an article from the October-December 1984 issue: The US Center: Its Present and Its Future

Ralph Winter

An Unlikely Revolutionary

Ralph Winter

When Ralph Winter was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, someone pointed out that the chapel was 200 years old. "Oh, well," he replied. ''in California when a building is 20 years old we tear it down and build a better one," His remark went all over the seminary campus as an example of what to expect from Californians with no respect for culture or tradition.

Thirty years later Winter, now a balding, respected expert on missions, still scandalizes with his penchant for irreverence, Practically everyone, pro or con, concedes that he is a genius whose original thinking has stirred up the world of missions. But he draws strong reactions. Some revere him as a visionary, three steps ahead of the church. Others see him as an impractical agitator. One prominent Christian leader observes. "Ideas come out of his mind a mile a minute. Ninety-nine out of 100 will not work - one is a good one but that place [the U.S. Center for World Mission] is a mess. There's no sense of order."

Yet Peter Wagner of the Fuller School of World Mission thinks history will record Winter as one of the half dozen men who did most to affect world evangelism in this century. And Jack Frizen, executive director of the Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association), believes we are seeing a turning point in world missions, the greatest move since the period after World War II:  "The Lord is using Ralph to stir up a new generation."

James Reapsome, editor of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly!v, cites two major mission revolutions since the sixties, both of which are more closely identified with Ralph Winter than with any other individual ''What might be called the 'unreached people groups' strategy," writes Reapsome, ''has shaken the missions community to the core."Those who study missions engage in to, rest debate over Winter's ideas and statistics, and sometimes shake their heads over his methods. But no one ignores him. His ideas have set the agenda for missions in this generation.

Mission Ferment

Winter has brought to the minds and consciences of evangelical Christians the hidden or unreached peoples - that huge number who never have the chance to hear the gospel, let alone respond. Though most Americans still view missions as a dull subject, missions leaders feel the stirrings of new excitement, especially among young people. The success of InterVarsity's Urbana missionary convention is only the most visible sign. New organizations are springing up, research is proliferating, new methods and approaches are being tried, and a whole new generation of young people - many from secular universities - is applying to go out. Third World countries, too, have been establishing mission boards and sending out missionaries. The attention of evangelical mission boards has shifted toward new horizons, "frontier missions." While continuing to help churches founded a century ago, nearly all evangelical missions are once again actively setting their sights beyond, toward those people groups that have no church.

Wherever you poke your linger in all this, you find Ralph Winter. Winter will not accept the common belief that a church can put so many resources into world mission that it neglects its home soil, tie believes there can be no genuine renewal without a renewal of the church's ultimate concerns That means following Jesus to seek the lost, leaving the 99 sheep to seek he single lamb. ''Unless and until, in faith, the future of the world becomes note important than the future of the church, the church has no future."He aces the U.S. Center for World Mission, the Pasadena conglomerate he founded and tirelessly boosts, as a lever to help tip the whole Christian world over the edge' a huge evangelistic snowball gathering momentum and size. At that point, Winter claims, he only wants to be along for the ride, "I would rather be ahead of something that is happening, than the head of something that once happened."

Winter the Person

One expects a charismatic, riveting figure, a man to mesmerize crowds, Ralph Winter is instead a bookish mild mannered professor who wears neat coats and ties he salvages from the missionary storeroom at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, where he grew up and still attends. Until recently, he and his wife drove two of the oldest moving automobiles in Southern California. Their new, three-year-old old car is a mixed blessing, Winter says, "Now we have to lock it.") His speaking style is offhand and professorial: and while it rivets some, it puts many ordinary people to sleep.

He is perennially optimistic, spinning off new schemes. "He can give you more ideas on his lunch hour than you can implement in a year," says Lorne Sanny, head of the Navigators and an old Winter friend. Winter also has a peculiar power for gathering almost fanatical disciples. With no money and a negligible constituency behind it, his organization holds, tenuously, a piece of property where about 40 different mission related organizations - the majority of which he had a hand in starting - have offices. This is the U.S. Center for World Missions, dedicated to stirring up other people and organizations to reach the hidden peoples.

The center occupies a former college campus on several blocks of a quiet residential district in the Pasadena hills. It is a striking place to visit, with an atmosphere that is part school, part corporation, part revival. About 300 people live and work there, nearly all having raised their own financial support to live at a common missionary level. Most are recently out of college or seminary, without experience, but with a great deal of idealism, commitment and, in many cases, intellectual brilliance. There are, for instance, quite a number of computer wizards recently from Cal Tech) A sprinkling of gray heads, mainly retired missionaries, have come to help Middle aged veterans - "those who have something to lose,'' Winter says - are few.

The center has little central administration since Winter prefers to start an organization, get it moving, and turn it loose to run on its own. He thinks many small groups, loosely linked, have more dynamism than one large dinosaur. "If people don't want to function together," Winter says, "it doesn't matter whether they are under your administration or not." Most of the organizations have no legal tie to the U.S. Center, yet they are clearly pan of the movement, and they meet regularly for prayer, discussion, and problem solving. You hear excited talk about corners of the world you never heard of before - the Maldive Islands, for instance - and terms such as ''unimax people'' or ''redemptive analogies.'' The center buzzes with energy and with what crouch, be called evangelical fervor.

Perhaps most startling of all, considering that in September of next year they face an $8.5 million payment on the college campus, the center has no fund-raising office. Every individual, from Ralph Winter down, spends up to an hour in a back room each morning opening and responding to mail from a particular zip code area of the U.S. Winter says they have never written a letter to someone who did not write to them first. Furthermore, by principle, they never ask anyone for more than a one time $15.95 gift. By this means, they reckon, they will have to reach about a million people to secure the property. Last year, facing a $6 million payment they put their hopes on a sort of chain letter. It raised only $1 million, and they slid into an interest penalty that requires them to make much higher quarterly payments. This time, facing an even bigger payment, they are hoping a chain of home parties will do the trick.

Something is happening in Pasadena, something unlike anything else in the evangelical world. It is not yet quite clear what it will prove to be: whether a passing wave of youthful enthusiasm, or the beginning of a movement that will change the direction of the Christian church.

The California Spirit

Winter is a quintessential Californian, proven by the fact that his lather was one of the chief planners for the Southern California freeway system. Winner does not belong to the Southern California of hot tubs and Johnny Carson, but to a California symbolized by the crew-cut ingenuity of Cal Tech. Southern California itself is a wild idea - seven million suburbanites clinging to the sides of mountains and drinking water piped from Arizona. It has bred a number of people, Winter among them, who think that anything is possible.

Winter is also a product of the strong creative Southern California evangelical subculture, which has been growing steadily since World War II. More mission organizations, Winter says, are now headquartered in the Los Angeles area than in any other place in the world. Winter's parents were Presbyterians, but more loyal to the Christian Endeavor movement, an early para-church group that helped establish the modern "youth group." Through a CE meeting Winter made a serious Christian commitment.

When their church decided to drop CE, the Winter family moved to Lake Avenue Congregational Church. There Winter encountered the Navigators, and their all-or-nothing style of discipleship helped shape him. Dawson Trotman, six blocks from his home, became a mentor. Lorne Sanny led the high school Bible club that sometimes met in the Winter home, where Ralph still lives Sanny remembers Winter "then as today... an idea man, and not the ideas that ordinary people would think." Winter's brother David, now president of Westmont College, remembers ideas discussed avidly around the dinner table. "Ralph was deeply curious about life. He was an experimenter, an inventor. He was constantly making something work better than it did - home made firecrackers, for instance, which practically killed him. He always had a better way to do it. There was hardly anything be didn't think he could improve."

Winter studied engineering at Cal Tech and graduated while in navy pilot training during World War II. After the war he began ten years as a professional peripatetic student. He attended or taught at Westmont College, Princeton Seminary, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena (Nazrene) College, Prairie Bible Institute, Columbia University, and Cornell University. He ended with an M.A. from Columbia, a Ph.D. from Cornell (in anthropology and linguistics), and an M.Div from Princeton. He refers to that period as his years of "wilderness wandering," when he groped for a sense of direction. He developed a reputation as a troublemaker, always willing to take up a position others thought irreverent.

While at Fuller, for instance, he concluded that, in view of the crushing needs of the world, it was wrong to spend money on neckties. The conviction grew on him that he could not honor the Lord while wearing a necktie - to the point where one night he telephoned his elderly, saintly pastor to inform him that he would not be able to read Scripture the next morning in church. When his reason came out - these were the 1950s - the pastor was aghast and argued with Winter over the phone for an hour. Finally the pastor insisted that Winter read Scripture no matter what he wore. He did, in a fatigue jacket. He wore khakis long afterwards, an almost unimaginable wardrobe during those staid years. Only later, when he studied anthropology, did he conclude that he should imitate local customs so that people he spoke to would listen to him. He adopted a dress suit and bow tie, and wore those as religiously as the khakis.

"Navigators plus anthropology was a heady combination," he says, "because anthropology loosens you up from all human customs and allows you to rethink why you do what you do. Dawson [Trotman] was an anthropologist to the extent that he said, 'Always ask why you do what you do the way you do it.' That's a radical question."

After graduating from Princeton, Winter and his wife, Roberta, went to Guatemala as United Presbyterian missionaries. The Winters, do not approach family life conventionally. Roberta has worked with him side by side on every protect of their married life, including seminary's Hebrew homework. As their four daughters grew up, they joined the team. When the oldest was 12 and the youngest 7, the Winters found it a nuisance to dole out allowances. They solved the problem in a way only Winter would think of: adding their daughters' signatures to the family checkbook. The bank was aghast, but the Winners never experienced any problems. The four, now in their twenties, three married, have grown into strong Christians, and with their husbands have joined whole heartedly in the cause of the U.S. Center.

In Guatemala the Winters worked with an Indian tribe, starting schools, small factories, and cooperatives. Most memorably, they joined other missionaries to launch a theological education program that did not require a busy pastor to leave his church to study. This program spread over the world as Theological Education by Extension (TEE), and endures to this day as a significant movement. Alter ten years in Guatemala, Winter was asked to join the newly formed Fuller School of World Mission. There, for the next ten years, he continued to spread the TEE philosophy and taught the history of missions.

Never content just to teach, Winter remained an activist, helping to launch such organizations as the William Cares Library, which publishes low-cost books on missions, and the American Society of Missiology, a scholarly body. But in the early seventies new ideas began to percolate in his head. Teaching and studying the history of the church fed his naturally big ideas: he looked for the pattern of what God had done in the 4,000 years since Abraham. He began to assemble facts and statistics about parts of the world where the gospel had penetrated and where it had not. Others, especially Ed Dayton of World Vision, were thinking along similar lines. But Winter put the whole picture together. He saw a startling, and at first frightening, situation. Not only were most of the world's people without the gospel, most of them would never get the gospel no matter how fast the church grew. Multiplication was not enough.

Winter's Thought

The founding idea of the Fuller School of World Mission was Donald McGavran's observation that Christianity does not usually spread out indiscriminately, like ink in water, but along the lines of cultures and languages. To ''jump" nor, on, culture to another is unusual; we should expect "church growth" usually to occur within the boundaries of a particular culture. For instance, a Korean church in Los Angeles will not tend to ''grow'' in numbers by adding white Anglo-Saxons; it will add fellow Koreans.

Winter simply flipped that idea on its head. If churches normally grow within the boundaries of culture, then a culture that has no church may never be reached by normal church growth. When Winter made rough calculations of which people-groups around the world had churches of their own and which did not, he found that between 75 and 83 percent of the world's non-Christians had no church whatever within their social and linguistic boundaries, and thus, humanly speaking, no chance to hear the gospel ever - no matter how much the existing church grew and evangelized. They had no Christian neighbor to tell them the news, if you define "neighbor'' in terms of culture and language.

The insight crystallized for him in Korea, where he and several members of the Fuller faculty were sleeping on the floor of a retreat center. ''I woke up and said something like 'the special problem I had never seen before was that though there were all these people to reach, we cannot ''grow'' into them."

So Glasser [Arthur Glasser, who teaches the theology of missions at Fuller] said something I'll never forget, because he put it beautifully, 'Ralph, what you're saving is that if every single congregation in the world had a fantastic spiritual explosion, and would reach out to everybody within their social matrix, 80% of the world's non-Christians would be untouched.'"

From there it did not take Winter long to redefine the missionary task. Most of what missionaries were doing - and what he himself had done in his ten years as a missionary - involved helping an existing church. Missionary evangelism had been so successful, in effect, that it had obscured the original purpose of missions. Church growth and support was needed, but only if it did not overlook the dramatically more significant task, without which the Great Commission would never be fulfilled. Missionaries must go to people groups with no church at and establish a beachhead. Once that beachhead is in place, it can grow outward to reach the entire people group. Without that beachhead there is little hope for evangelism.

By 1974, at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Winter was a plenary speaker on this very subject. The congress was a watershed for many church leaders, forcing them to think about the whole globe, and Winter's ideas kindled a spark in many minds. He, however, left feeling uncertain he had convinced anyone. "But I had convinced myself,'' he says, and from that meeting his life has been preoccupied with the Hidden Peoples. ("Unreached" or "Frontier" peoples are terms for the same thing.)

In fact, the usually slow moving mission agencies responded with great speed. Within two years the IFMA and EFMA, two leading mission consortiums, had accepted the Hidden Peoples as their first priority. But Winter was frustrated; he felt nothing was happening. In late 1975 a piece of property came to his attention, a vacant college campus in the hills a few miles from Fuller. He had once taught Greek there. He saw in the campus just the facility needed to make things happen. He had no money, no organization to back him. The other Fuller faculty were not ready to try a multi-million dollar purchase so quickly. But for Winter it was all or nothing. Resigning his tenured position, he went out to raise personal financial support for first time in his life. He, his wife, and a few loyal individuals launched the U.S. Center for World Mission in a rented portion of the college. They hoped to buy the whole thing. In the campus they saw a chance for the creative ferment that Winter loves. They hoped to start a national revival of missions - to fan the spark into a blaze.

Winter's Faith

The acquisition of the campus of Pasadena Christian College is a story of cliff-hanging prayer meetings, of large checks arriving at the last moment, of spiritual battles with a Hindu sect that also wanted the campus (and, for a time, shared it with the U.S. Center) So far, nearly $6 million has been paid on the campus. With $8.5 million coming done in a year, the center has very little money in the bank, no mass mailings or TV spots in the works, and no rich uncles that they know on waiting to write stupendous checks. Inevitably, conversations on the campus fairly often turn toward the subject of money. The consensus for some time has been that if God wants the center to continue he will have to do a miracle.

Winter claims, though, to have lost no sleep over it. "I don't think many people understand faith. Faith is not something you dig up, it's something that is given to you. When my wife and I made this decision to leave Fuller and walk into a situation which was itself ridiculously unlikely, we didn't do this because we had some scheme so we could see our way clear. As we look back, we don't know how we could have possibly made that decision. But one thing we are absolutely sure of is that in all of the founding period we were not the initiators. We felt carried. I fell that a great arm picked me and my wife up. It's almost as if we couldn't have resisted.

But read Hebrews II. The author lists men and women who have had great victory through faith. Then, with. out skipping a beat, he mentions people who were tortured, persecuted, killed. They had faith too. Faith isn't what rescues you. It's what guides you. It may guide you to the cross, or it may guide you to victory. You don't know. If you knew, it wouldn't be faith.

"Most people don't understand Ralph Winter is willing to fail. If I weren't willing to fail, you would have to call me crazy. If I were to say that I knew this center would definitely succeed, it would be nuts, I'm not sure it will succeed. I only know it is worth trying. Risks are not to be evaluated in terms of the probability of success, but in terms of the value of the goal.''

Nobody who knows Ralph Winter is quite willing to call him crazy, or to bet that he will fail. His brother David, initially skeptical, says, ''The ultimate security of any organization is whether it is accomplishing something.'' He sees so much dynamism at the center that it must survive somehow. "When our [Westmont College] students go to study at the center they come back with their lives changed." The IFMA's Jack Frizen adds, "I am optimistic they'll make it because of their dedication. They're down before the Lord, as few Christians I know today."

Winter's resourcefulness must also be counted, Lorne Sanny says, "A lot of people get bright ideas, but they don't have the courage or the perseverance to follow them through. Whatever he pursues, though he may have a very thin strand to hang on to, he thinks of creative possibilities - and he perseveres."

Peter Wagner pots it more simply. "Ralph Winter can do anything, if he wants to design a rocket to take him to the moon, he'll do it."

"People ask me," says Winter, "'Why do you need a campus to do what you want to do?' I ask them, 'Why does Wheaton College?' Great ideas are not always intangible. Wheaton is an idea put into practice. Our idea is considerably more modest. The campus, after all, isn't even good enough for a modem college anymore. That's why it was for sale. It's just good enough for missionaries, a facility where a great variety of missionaries and mission organizations who are dedicated to the Hidden Peoples can work together.''

Meanwhile, other of Winter's ideas are making themselves tangible around the world, as a new generation of missionaries moves toward new frontiers. Missiologists wrangle over whether Winter's estimate of 17,000 unreached people groups is accurate or whether his way of defining them is adequate. But no one doubts thousands of such groups exist, largely untouched by the Good News. A new consensus for global evangelism seems to be forming, and Winter says he and others have experienced a great switch to hope. The Hidden People concept seems to stress, at first, the discouraging magnitude of a task yet to be done, Now Winter says, "It is actually a small job when you think of it. There are perhaps 2.5 million Bible believing congregations around the world. And there are, I estimate, about 17,000 mission fields to be approached. That's about 150 congregations per mission field, it doesn't seem impossible to plant churches in each of those mission fields."

That switch to hope - turning a dark picture upside down so it looks light - is Winter's signature. His critics are sometimes baffled by the speed with which his ideas evolve. By the time they have thought through a critique of some dazzling bolt of Winter lightning, Winter has moved on, reshaping his ideas. His changes do not seem self-protective, however. They are the flashes of a brilliant and uncannily optimistic mind working at high speed to get somewhere. He will not, and probably cannot, think only on a local scale. Nor are his ideas well-staked-out territory that he expects to stand on and defend. He has maintained an engineer's mindset, preoccupied first and last with the question, "Will it work?" If an idea works well today, he expects to make it work better tomorrow. His mind keeps churning toward the farthest, dimmest spot in the universe: toward the frontiers of the gospel, toward those who have not yet heard. He expects us to get there.


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