Mentors on My Journey in Mission: How Ralph Winter Gave Me New Eyes to See Mission
by Jeff Ritchie
In the fall of 1973 I was a brand-new student at Fuller Theological Seminary. I was interested in mission service, and I had an opportunity to take an elective mission course, “Historical Development of the Christian Movement,” taught by Dr. Ralph Winter, engineer, anthropologist, and former Presbyterian missionary to Guatemala. In the orientation prior to the beginning of the school year we first-year students had already been told by other faculty that “Dr. Winter has 100 new ideas every day, and 99 of them are crazy. But pay attention to that one good idea.” So I was ready for some “out of the box” thinking on a subject in which I had great interest. I was not disappointed.
On our first day of Mission History, Dr. Winter talked about dinosaurs! He said, “Imagine. A dinosaur has a huge body and a tiny brain. What kind of God would create a dinosaur? One who must have a bit of a sense of humor and a delight in creating great diversity in the universe.” Dr. Winter went on to develop the theme of human cultural diversity around the world and how the good news of Jesus needs to be shared with people in every human culture, not just with those who are like us.
I was hooked. Ralph Winter introduced concepts that caused us to reframe how we might carry out the missionary task to which God has called us. A particularly captivating thought was Winter’s assertion that there are two redemptive structures by which God carries out his mission. One is the basic structure of the church as we know it – the church as local congregation, and the church above the local level organized regionally, nationally, or internationally. Winter called this form of church a “modality.” The other redemptive structure of the church, which he termed, “sodality,” is an organized, committed body of Christians called to a specific mission. Examples of sodalities, or mission organizations, include World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, Roman Catholic mission orders, and Youth With a Mission. They might focus on youth ministry, affordable housing, or evangelism among unreached peoples. At best these para-ecclesiastical mission organizations complement the ministry of the local churches and empower them to participate in mission activity they would not otherwise have the “band-width” to do on their own.
That was the only class I took with Dr. Winter, but I started paying attention to other things he was involved in outside of the classroom. The fall that I started Fuller, the seminary hosted a mission conference whose participants were representatives from Asian Mission Societies, and Winter shared about that conference during our class on mission history. That Asians, not Americans, were engaged in global mission outside their countries of origin was a revolutionary idea to me. We Presbyterians in the United States were still sending missionaries to Asia, and now we were hearing that Asian Christians – including Korean Presbyterians – were sending their own missionaries to other parts of the world.
December 1973 was also the occasion for the triennial mission conference sponsored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, known simply as “Urbana.” We had a large contingent of Fuller students in attendance, and many of them came back fired up for global mission service. Dr. Winter worked with others to sketch out a program of study for the summer of 1974 to provide an opportunity for those missionary hopefuls to nurture their budding interest in mission service by studying mission and experiencing cross-cultural mission in the LA area.
The summer of 1974 was a watershed movement for the Protestant global mission movement as well, for it was the occasion for the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Lausanne Congress resulted in new energy for, thought concerning, and practice in mission on several fronts. Ralph Winter sparked much of that new energy through the plenary he gave at the Congress.
In his talk Dr. Winter lifted up a vision of humanity as composed, not so much of political nations, but of people groups reflecting many languages, many cultures, many disparate social contexts. Winter graphically portrayed that over 2.5 billion people located in distinct people groups had no Christian witness among them. The greatest number of unreached peoples were Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. Winter noted that there might be a church in a geographical proximity to one of these unevangelized people groups, but the language or cultural form in which the gospel was being proclaimed and lived out by that church was not one that spoke to the language and culture of their context.
In the middle of the 20th Century before Lausanne, mission sending had usually been thought of in terms of geography. What Ralph Winter did at Lausanne was to give new eyes to the churches and missions to see the task in terms of cultures needing to hear the gospel. In clearest terms he portrayed the immensity and urgency of frontier mission. His talk electrified the mission world, and it impacted me personally.
I was not in attendance at the Lausanne Congress, but Fuller was buzzing when we returned to campus for the fall quarter. Several of us who had a growing sense of missionary call were inspired by Dr. Winter’s talk at Lausanne (the concepts of which we had heard the previous year in our course) to do something new for Fuller.
There was already a team of students, called the “Faith Renewal Team,” who had been inspired by the Lay Renewal Movements of the 1960s and 1970s to go to churches and lead weekend retreats for spiritual renewal. About a half dozen of us decided a new “renewal team” needed to be formed. We called it the “Mission Renewal Team.” We developed a one-day seminar to present the ideas we had been learning from Dr. Winter and others at the Fuller School of World Mission.
While we were able to share our stories only twice that year, once as a rehearsal and once in a local church, our lives were never the same. Two of our team became missionaries to North Africa and the Middle East. One was already a part of a group of Christian artists who expressed their faith through their creative work. One became a bivocational minister who used his travels in business to encourage those at work among unreached peoples and as an avenue to share with others the unfinished task of mission. Another member of the group, David Bryant, was inspired by his time at Fuller to renew Jonathan Edwards’ call for “Concerts of Prayer” that I wrote about in a previous blog. Bryant succeeded in re-launching that movement in the 1980s. I ended up in Korea for eight years and saw first-hand an evangelistic church that began to take up its role in global evangelism.
This mission renewal team was a direct result of the missionary fervor we were experiencing at Fuller, and for me Ralph Winter was at the center of that energy. But that was not the end of my mentorship under Ralph Winter. After eight years of mission service in Korea, I returned to the U.S. as a “missionary in residence” in the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). During the 1980s while my family and I were in Korea, Dr. Winter had birthed a new Presbyterian mission organization, the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. He called a friend and former missionary to Ethiopia, the Rev. Harold Kurtz, to be its Executive Director.
The mission of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, or PFF, was to mobilize Presbyterians in the U.S. to pray for and support efforts among the world’s least evangelized peoples. It was a mission society within a denomination, a mission organization focused on helping the local church and our whole denomination see the pioneer evangelism task afresh. It was thus a Presbyterian version of the model Winter held up for participating in God’s mission: a “sodality” in service of a “modality,” or to put it another way, a para-church in service of the mission of a church.
The PFF influence had begun to be felt in the PC(USA) by the time I returned to the U.S. from Korea. My assignment as a “newbie” in the denominational structure was to be the liaison between the denomination’s world mission structure and the Presbyterian Frontier Mission movement. I worked under the wise direction of a former missionary to Iraq, the Rev. Morton Taylor, and spent much time with Harold Kurtz, about whom I hope to write in the future.
The first major effort of our denomination to lift up the opportunity and urgency of “frontier mission” was the production of a new policy paper on global evangelism. The year was 1989, and the last time the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had seriously thought through its commitment to global evangelism was 1976.
Our mandate from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was to “provide appropriate, positive, and timely direction” to the church “as it engages in world evangelization, particularly among unreached people groups, in the decade of the 1990s.” I served a team of people elected by the denomination’s mission agency that included national staff, seminary professors, and Harold Kurtz from Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. The document we produced, “Turn to the Living God,” was adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at its General Assembly in 1991 and has remained the official stance of the church on global evangelization since then. It is available from the office of the Rev. Juan Sarmiento, Evangelism Catalyst for Presbyterian World Mission, the global mission program area of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), www.pcusa.org.
It meant a great deal to me that Ralph Winter, a life-long Presbyterian, affirmed the value of this document right alongside a major Roman Catholic document on evangelization that had come out the same year. He was very pleased to see that the Frontier Mission Movement had a voice inside his denomination.
Following the adoption of the major evangelism policy paper, the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and a related “sodality,” the Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies (also started by Winter) went to congregations and participated in mission conferences to share the needs and opportunities for new efforts by Presbyterians and our global partners to reach the least-evangelized peoples of the world. Through their support and advocacy, new frontier mission programs were funded, both in the U.S. and globally.
AD 2000 and Beyond Movement
About the same time as Presbyterians were beginning to “ramp up” a renewed commitment to the frontiers in evangelistic mission, a new global movement arose. Known as the “AD 2000 and Beyond Movement,” this effort was a focused attempt by evangelical churches and mission agencies to find some way to engage every unreached people between its inception in 1989 and the end of the millennium. The “and beyond” phrase was included as a humble recognition that God did not always work on human timetables. But the idea was to see how many unreached peoples could be engaged by churches and mission agencies by the year 2000. Ralph Winter was not the organizer or head of the “AD 2000 and Beyond Movement.” But again, his thinking and strong advocacy were felt in AD 2000 circles throughout the 1990s.
During my years in the General Assembly, our World Mission Division worked closely with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship to link the PC(USA) with the AD 2000 and Beyond Movement. It was a great joy therefore when our denomination became the only traditional mainline U.S. denomination to endorse the AD 2000 Movement by action of the General Assembly in 1996. At that same Assembly, the church set a goal of engaging with 200 of the least-evangelized peoples of the world by the year 2000.
Whereas earlier mission mentors I have written about inspired me by their character and their impact on the cultures within which they worked, Dr. Ralph Winter directly impacted the focus and practice of my own involvement in mission for three decades. I am profoundly grateful for this personal legacy of Dr. Winter to me.
As the 20th century moved into the 21st, many of those previously unreached or unengaged peoples he lifted up at Lausanne in 1974 now have a church in their midst, a core of believers that is sharing the gospel in word and deed with their own culture. Much work still remains to be done but the Spirit is at work, and we are grateful to the strong impetus Ralph Winter gave to these past four decades of intensified frontier mission.
For those interested in a fuller account of the life and legacy of Ralph Winter, Harold Fickett has written The Ralph D. Winter Story: How One Man Dared to Shake Up World Mission (2013).
Associate Director for Mission