I never met Ralph Winter, the missiologist who died last week, but through his writing and speaking and ideas he changed my life.
A few days ago I wrote a blog post in which I mentioned Ralph Winter, and the next day I learned that he had died.
Ralph Winter a veteran missiologist who 35 years ago sparked an emphasis on unreached people groups worldwide died at his home in Pasadena Calif. May 20 after a struggle with cancer. He was 84. In 2005 Time magazine listed Winter as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America noting that in 1974 at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne Switzerland Winter revolutionized missionary work overseas by calling Christians to look beyond national borders and serve the world’s ‘unreached people.’
Winter’s influence on me began when I attended SACLA, the South African Christian Leadership Assembly, in 1979.
There was a hall there where various Christian groups and NGOs were displaying their wares, and among them were many mission societies. It took me back to my schooldays when we had had speakers many of from some these mission societies, and I was rather surprised to find that they still existed. I collected their leaflets: the Sudan Interior Mission, the Sudan United Mission, the Leprosy Mission (formerly Mission to Lepers), and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (formerly the China Inland Mission).
I remembered the last one well. A former missionary called Melsopp came to speak to us at school on several occasions, and he showed us Chinese dress, and spoke about Chinese culture, and emphasised the efforts of the missionaries of the China Inland Mission to identify with Chinese culture. Along with other Western missionaries, he had been kicked out of China in 1950 after the communist revolution there.
But there was one stall that had something new and different. It was about “Unreached Peoples”, and it was manned by Debbie Bliss. I talked to her for quite a while, and she explained to me Ralph Winter’s concept of “unreached peoples”, and gave me more literature, which I read.
I was studying for History Honours at the University of South Africa (Unisa), and had done the first two Honours papers, but when I came to the last three the university put the fees up so that I could no longer afford them (I later worked for Unisa, and was able to complete the degree ten years later, with the help of a staff discount). But to continue studying I registered for a second bachelors degree, a B.Th., majoring in missiology — a choice influenced by Ralph Winter’s thought. At that time the B.Th. course was divided into 30 modules, which were cheaper than the postgraduate honours papers, so I could afford them.
At that time I was Director of Training for Ministries for the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, and my main work was training self-supporting priests and deacons. An influential section of the church-supported clergy were opposed to self-supporting ministry, and introduced rules and regulations designed to make it more difficult for people to join the training programme, so I left to become Director of Mission and Evangelism in the Anglican Diocese of Pretoria, and one of the things we did there was hold an “Institute of International Studies”, with the help of David Bliss (husband of the aforementioned Debbie Bliss). The course was based on a book edited by Ralph Winter, Perspectives on the world Christian movement, a collection of essays on various missiological topics. The essays in the book were a mixed bag, but the ones that impressed me most were two by Winter himself — The kingdom strikes back and The two structures of God’s redemptive mission.
At the “Perspectives” course we also had a video of Ralph Winter speaking about “The Kingdom strikes back”, and that was even more impressive than it was on paper. It changed the way I looked at church and mission history.
One of the points that Winter makes is in the section on “No saints in the middle?”:
It is wise to interrupt the story here. If you haven’t heard this story before you may confront a psychological problem. In church circles today we have fled, feared or forgot- these ten middle centuries. Hopefully, fewer and fewer of us will continue to think in terms of what may be called a fairly extreme form of the “BOBO” theory—that the Christian faith somehow “Blinked Out” after the Apostles and “Blinked On” again in our time, or whenever our modern “prophets” arose, be they Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Joseph Smith, Ellen White or John Wimber. The result of this kind of BOBO approach is that you have “early” saints and “latter-day” saints, but no saints in the middle.
Thus, many Evangelicals are not much interested in what happened prior to the Protestant Reformation. They have the vague impression that the Church was apostate before Luther and Calvin, and whatever there was of real Christianity consisted of a few persecuted individuals here and there. For example, in the multi-volume Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, only half of the first volume is devoted to the first 15 centuries! In evangelical Sunday Schools, children are busy as beavers with the story of God’s work from Genesis to Revelation, from Adam to the Apostles—and their Sunday School publishers may even boast about their “all-Bible curriculum.” But this only really means that these children do not get exposed to all the incredible things God did with that Bible between the times of the Apostles and the Reformers, a period which is staggering proof of the unique power of the Bible! To many people, it is as if there were “no saints in the middle.”
And I discovered that the Missiology Department at Unisa also operated on that assumption. After a look at the “Biblical basis of mission” they would jump straight to Western missionary movements after the Renaissance — there were no saints in the middle.
I remember in one essay I mentioned St Boniface, the English apostle to the Germans. I noted that since the English had immigrated to Britain from Germany in the preceding centuries, Boniface would probably not have had as many language difficulties as missionaries going from other places. Prof. David Bosch, who marked my essay, was quite incredulous. The idea had never occurred to him. Western missiologists, with one notable exception, simply ignored anything that happened in that period. The exception was Ralph D. Winter.
So when I came to do my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods I modelled it, in part, on Ralph Winter’s The Kingdom strikes back. Winter’s account of ten epochs of redemptive history mainly followed Western mission, but I thought the same could, and should be done for Orthodox mission, to highlight the “saints in the middle”. Some warned that this was far too broad for a doctoral thesis, which should be on a very narrow topic. But I thought that Western missiology was far too narrow-minded, and that something broader was needed. And Ralph D. Winter provided the inspiration to broaden it.
Thirty years ago the focus of my life switched to mission and missiology, and in that switch the thought of Ralph D. Winter played no small part.
So that’s how Ralph Winter influenced me. He influenced many other people, in many different ways. You can read about how he influenced Tall Skinny Kiwi here, for example.