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Man knows not his time

Death | Mission pioneer Ralph Winter saw clearly what seemed to others impossible

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

Steve Strauss was a college student when he heard missionary thinker and strategist Ralph D. Winter speak for the first time at the Billy Graham-sponsored 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Switzerland. "His eye--opening address about 'unreached peoples' and ways to reach them helped to change the direction of my life," he told me. "I came away open to a lifetime calling in world mission."

Strauss went on to serve as a missionary and theological educator in Ethiopia for 19 years and to head the mission agency SIM USA for the past eight years. In January, he will become a missions professor at Dallas Seminary. Winter will have helped shape his thinking: "Dr. Winter's creative insights were repeatedly on the edge of missiological advances in the last third of the 20th century."

Strauss is one of many hundreds who testify to the legacy left by Winter, who died from cancer May 20 at age 84. Winter taught thousands of missionaries in his classes and in conferences around the world, and was still writing and dictating to almost the end. Many were expected to be among the throngs attending the memorial service June 28 at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, Calif.

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Winter entered Princeton Seminary with a Ph.D. from Cornell and an academic background in engineering, linguistics, and anthropology. Ordained in 1956, he pastored a rural church briefly before he and his wife Roberta served as Presbyterian missionaries in Guatemala for 10 years among the indigenous Mayans.

Guatemala changed his thinking about missionary work: Locals could and should do it. He recruited elders in 200 churches to take the gospel to their unreached neighbors. He helped to create a training program for them known as Theological Education by Extension, a concept that later caught on throughout Latin America and worldwide. He organized small business enterprises to support the student workers and their outreach efforts.

In 1966, Winter joined the faculty of Fuller Seminary's new School of World Mission in Pasadena. There for a decade he taught more than 1,000 missionaries, Fuller officials say.

He founded the William Carey Library and co-founded the American Society of Missiology. By 1974 and the Lausanne congress, Winter had moved from thinking that near-neighbor evangelism by local churches would get the job of global evangelism done. He was now advocating pioneer, cross-cultural outreach to thousands of "hidden" people groups, linked by culture and language rather than by national boundaries.

In 1976 Winter left Fuller to found the U.S. Center for World Mission (USCWM) and in 1977 the related William Carey International University on the former campus of Pasadena Nazarene College. A community of similarly focused outreach leaders and organizations formed around them, now known as Frontier Mission Fellowship, which he headed until two weeks before his death.

Time magazine listed Winter as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America in 2005. I knew him as a humble, down-to-earth person of great faith whose thought processes could sometimes be intimidating.

Greg Livingstone says it was Winter's "fresh thinking" about missions that brought him to USCWM and led to his founding of Frontiers there in 1983. Frontiers has been reaching out to unreached Muslim people groups globally since then. In a tribute to Winter he posted on the USCWM website, he said: "Who can measure the influence of [Ralph Winter] on the 8,000 disciple-makers in residence among Muslims in some 50 Muslim majority countries plus India, China, and Russia? . . . Very quickly, we saw what seemed to be impossible becoming open doors, and many from USCWM became the first team leaders of Frontiers from Morocco to Malaysia, Mauritania to Muscat!"

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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