Ralph D. Winter Remembered as 'Giant' in Mission Field

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  • (Photo: The Christian Post)
    Dr. Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, says the biggest trend in global mission is the polarization among mission agencies between those that focus on evangelization and those that concentrate on relief and development at the Korea World Mission Conference 2008 on Tuesday, July 30, 2008 at Wheaton, Illinois.
  • (Photo: The Christian Post)
    Dr. Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, is greeted with applause after being introduced at the Korea World Mission Conference 2008 on July 28, 2008 in Wheaton, Ill.
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By Michelle A. Vu, Christian Post Reporter
May 22, 2009|9:45 am

A giant has passed away, lamented colleagues of the late missiologist Dr. Ralph D. Winter.

At the ripe age of 84, the founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission (USCWM) and the man who coined the term "unreached people groups" returned to his heavenly Father on May 20, 2009 at 9:05 p.m. at his home in Pasadena, Calif., after a long battle with cancer.

His list of achievements includes founding a mission think tank, a university, and a mission society. But arguably his greatest contribution to the world of mission and what he is best known for is his ground-breaking 1974 presentation at the Congress for World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland.

It was at this legendary summit, convened by American evangelist Billy Graham, where Winter introduced the term "unreached people groups" that had the profound effect of shifting the entire global mission strategy thereafter.

The phrase "unreached peoples" was first defined by Winter as a people group that had less than a certain percentage of Christians. Later, it was redefined as a group of people with their own distinct culture or language that does not have a viable indigenous evangelizing church movement.

Winter, who was previously a missionary with his wife Roberta in Guatemala for ten years, argued that cross-cultural evangelism is urgently needed because more than half of the people in the world who are not Christian are people who cannot be reached any other way except by pioneer missionary techniques.

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The presentation of "unreached people groups" is hailed as a milestone event in missiology.

"Dr. Ralph Winter was perhaps the most influential person in missions of the last 50 years and has influenced missions globally more than anyone I can think of," said Dr. Ray Tallman, professor of missiology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and Olivet University in San Francisco, to The Christian Post on Thursday.

"He was a man who could think creatively in relation to the new world in which we live."

Tallman was a student of Winter at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois. Later, the two would participate in many of the same mission leader conferences around the world. Most recently, Tallman worked directly with the renowned missiologist to set up the Ralph D. Winter Library at Olivet University.

"He was a man who embraced total commitment and sacrifice and embodied what missionary vision is all about," said the Olivet University professor.

Beyond mission strategies, Winter was also a revolutionary thinker when it came to theological education. He is credited as being among the founders of a movement to extend theological education beyond seminary walls.

Instead of seminaries being the only option for theological education, Winter helped spearhead a movement to take the training to students. In Guatemala, the location of the first Theological Education by Extension (TEE) program, extension campus sites were set up in rural areas where active pastors or church elders could continue to work while taking courses.

These students would meet on some weekends at the extension sites to work on their reading and lessons and once a month at the main seminary located in the city. TEE became the precursor to many modern day theological distance education programs and the multi-campus models used by schools and seminaries today.

Winter's longtime friend and colleague Greg Parsons, general director of the USCWM, remembers him most fondly for his vision and passion for spreading the Gospel.

"He died in his boots," Parsons told The Christian Post. "He was still at it days before [he died]. He was engaged, thinking, challenging, circulating ideas, studying, and reading."

The USCWM general director, who has known Winter for nearly 30 years, joked that the Center's founder is probably Amazon.com's best customer seeing that he had bought a book a day at the online bookstore up until last year.

Since 2002, Winter had been battling multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) as well as Lyme Disease. Then in January this year he was also diagnosed with Lymphoma (lymphocyte cancer), and more recently with other illnesses.

Yet despite his daily physical struggles, Winter continued to accept invitations to speak at mission conferences around the world.

Just last summer, a frail looking Winter took the stage at a mission conference held at the famed alma mater of Billy Graham, Wheaton College, to deliver a passionate address about the biggest trend in world mission.

Speaking to thousands of missionaries attending the Korea World Mission Conference – a conference held once every four years – Winter seemed increasingly energized as he spoke to the crowd of thousands of missionaries from around the world who would take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Although he needed help walking up only a few flights of stairs, the 83-year-old Winter, who was battling cancer and several diseases, stood by himself for about an hour to deliver a message about how to get God in the world and glorify Him on earth.

Refusing the advice of conference organizers to rest and attend the conference as a listener, Winter held multiple workshops, each lasting about an hour, for several days during the mission conference.

"He is my hero," said Timothy K. Park, director of Korean Studies and associate professor of Asian Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary School of Intercultural Studies in California, to Christian Today in South Korea. "He has contributed greatly to the school of missiology."

Park praised the missiologist for not becoming tied down with "traditional thoughts" and not judging people by their outward appearance.

"He was a person who knew how to accommodate tradition," said the Korean-American pastor.

In South Korea, Winter's friend of 40 years, Pastor David Cho of David Cho Missiological Institute in Seoul, lamented Winter's death as a "big loss" for the school of missiology.

"This is like one big star disappearing," Cho told Christian Today. "It is doubtful whether a prophetic missiologist scholar [like him] can ever appear again."

In 2005, Time magazine named Winter one of America's 25 most influential evangelicals, alongside Rick Warren, Billy and Franklin Graham, and James Dobson.

He was recognized with the Lifetime of Service Award in 2008 at the North American Mission Leaders Conference during which representatives from nearly 300 mission organizations, Christian colleges and churches honored Winter.

"A giant has fallen but he has also risen and we are following in his vision and in his goal to make Christ known," commented American missiologist Tallman.

Winter founded the USCWM in 1976 as well as the Frontier Mission Fellowship that same year.

William Carey International University was opened in 1977 and the International Society for Frontier Missiology was formed in 1985. In 2006, Winter became the honorary chairman of The Christian Post.

Memorial services are slated for June 27.

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