Dr. Ralph D. Winter
By Abbie C
When I think of Dr. Winter, I think of someone who leveraged everything about his life for the spread of the gospel. His innovation, persistence, and determination may have made some people uncomfortable, but the impact of his life on the world of missions is yet to be fully measured. I am confident that the kingdom of God looks different as a result of Dr. Winter’s life.
Ralph D. Winter was born in December of 1924 to Hugo and Hazel Winter in Los Angeles, California. Hugo and Hazel were both strong Christians and missions minded, having been influenced by Christian Endeavor and China Inland Mission (now OMF International). They taught their three boys the gospel and how to pray, hosting a mission’s prayer meeting in their home. Ralph inherited his engineering mind from his mother, the daughter of an engineer, and his father who was dubbed “Mr. Freeway” for his help in developing the early freeway system in Los Angeles County. His parents’ creativity and innovative thinking set an example for Ralph that influenced the way he lived the rest of his life. Winter made a decision for salvation at a young age, through the family’s involvement in Christian Endeavor (an organization that formed the modern idea of a youth group),
As a young man, Ralph and his brother Paul were involved in a new ministry for young people called The Navigators. Within this organization he was challenged to memorize scripture and learned what it means to be a disciple and to make disciples. Dawson Trotman, founder of The Navigators, became a mentor in Ralph’s life, further challenging him to 'always ask why you do what you do the way you do it.'
While World War II raged in Europe and the South Pacific, Ralph attended college at Caltech. He was too young to join the navy right away, so he studied Civil Engineering and then started navy pilot training. Fortunately, the war ended before Ralph finished his training and he was quickly discharged. His time at Caltech and in training marked the beginning of a period of learning and continued education. Over a fourteen year period, he earned a Bachelor’s degree from Caltech, a Master’s degree from Columbia University, a Ph. D. from Cornell, and a Bachelor’s of Divinity from Princeton. During this period Ralph’s incredible drive, innovative spirit, and ability to cast vision became evident. As he became increasingly burdened for Afghanistan, he worked to develop a Caltech-type school in Afghanistan and recruited dozens of volunteers to teach English there. He was even preparing to go there himself, when he met a young nurse named Roberta Helm. Five months and one week later, they were married. They became an unstoppable team! Five years and two children later, they heard about a need in Guatemala for an ordained minister with training in linguistics and anthropology and a registered nurse spouse. Everything seemed to be a good fit, so they headed out on the mission field to live and work with the Mam people of Guatemala.
Ralph and Roberta and their four daughters spent ten years in Guatemala engaging in evangelism and church planting, as well as agricultural, medical, economic, and educational work. One of Ralph’s greatest accomplishments during this period was the development of the first Theological Education by Extension (TEE). With the help of fellow missionaries, he made it possible for local pastors to receive theological training without having to leave their local congregations for extended periods of time. This model has been copied and used by many other theological training institutes and is still used today.
After ten years among the Mam people, Ralph was offered a teaching position at the newly formed Fuller Seminary, in California. He and Roberta packed up and moved back to the states and Ralph spent the next ten years teaching and training missionaries. As a professor, Ralph started to notice something. The missionaries that he was teaching and training were all coming back from the same places. There were some places that missionaries were not returning from, which meant no one was going there in the first place. What was happening in the places missionaries were not going? How would the gospel get to those people? How would the church grow there?
This sparked a great deal of study and research that ultimately led to a presentation at the Lausanne Conference in 1974. At the time of the speech, the room was half empty and Ralph feared that those present failed to “get” what had become, in his mind, the most important issue in mission strategy. But the speech marked the beginning of a great change in mission history. Ralph shared that the mission strategy of looking at the world only as political nations was no longer enough. His research revealed that within political nations there were individual groups of peoples separated from each other by culture or language and many of them had no viable church, or indeed, any access to the gospel at all. He called these groups “hidden peoples” and he advocated that these people groups should be targeted individually. Without an outside person going to them specifically with the gospel, it would not naturally spread to them. Once a "beachhead" was gained in each people group, then the church would grow and spread through natural evangelism. But the beachhead had to be gained first, by someone from outside the group. He estimated that there are 16,000 “hidden people” groups in the world and challenged missionaries to start thinking about strategies for reaching each of them.
The term “hidden peoples” has since been replaced by the term "unreached people" but the idea is still the same, and since 1974 the strategy of missions has become radically different and more focused. Missionaries don't look at the mission field and see only political boundaries. Now they see the Bhangi people of Pakistan and the Tuareg people of Niger each with their unique language and culture. Now they see the different castes in India and the subcultures within each caste and the needs for the gospel within each one.
With one speech, Ralph Winter had redefined the missionary task.
Even if no one else was convinced, Ralph had convinced himself. He spent the rest of his life working to help complete this task. Mobilization became a huge focus of his life – to find out what was left to be done, inform others, and motivate them to do it! One of the ways that he began mobilizing people – and is still mobilizing people today – is through a course called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Originally, it was developed as a follow up study for the 1974 Urbana mission conference but it has come to be so much more than that. The course is a fifteen week study on the Biblical, historical, cultural, and strategic dimensions of missions. Mostly hosted by local churches and coordinated by laymen within the church, Perspectives has spread across the U.S. and even internationally. Today over 100,000 in the U.S. and 130,000 worldwide have taken the course and many have given their lives to missions as a result.
In 1976, two years after the “hidden peoples” speech, he and Roberta started the United States Center for World Missions. The center was to be a missions “think tank” where people could come together and form ideas and strategies for reaching the unreached. It was a step of faith for Ralph and Roberta, beginning with only a secretary and $100 in cash, that has since then been the start of countless ministries, mission strategies, training courses, etc. Many of the organizations that find their roots in the U.S.C.W.M have been influenced in some way by Ralph Winter himself.
Ralph never stopped working and mobilizing and teaching and training. Until he died, at the age of 84 in 2009, he was still developing new ideas and recruiting people to the task of reaching the unreached. He has left an incredible legacy behind him that has been recognized by people far and wide. All four of his daughters with their spouses are involved in full time mission work. The U.S. Center continues to launch new strategies for missions. In 2005, Time Magazine listed Ralph Winter in the top 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Ralph leveraged all of his life for the gospel going to the ends of the earth, and as a result, God is being worshipped among previously unreached people groups. But I don’t think Ralph would say that he did anything out of the ordinary. He was transformed by the gospel so much that he wanted it to go to all peoples. And I think if he were alive today, he would challenge each of us to go and do likewise.
Winter, Ralph D. Waving the flag for ‘Hidden Peoples.’ Mission Frontiers, March 1, 1980.
Stafford, Tim. Ralph Winter: An Unlikely Revolutionary. Mission Frontiers, October 1, 1984.
Parsons, Greg. Celebrating The Work Of God Through The Life of An Innovator. Mission Frontiers, May 1, 2009.
Ralph D. Winter. Wikipedia, June 2014.