by Gary Corwin
The tally of Dr. Ralph Winter’s accomplishments are staggering to consider.
Dr. Ralph D. Winter was one of my heroes. Not because I always agreed with him. I didn’t. But because he always represented what I thought a missionary statesman should be: a visionary doer who combined a firm grasp on the wisdom of the ages with a clear analysis of the realities of the present. He used both to help shape a future that few had even considered and fewer still had the faith to believe was possible.
I mourn the passing of Ralph Winter for many reasons. He was a friend. He was a patient and generous colleague. He was a fountainhead of ideas the likes of which I doubt I will ever see again. He was a model of applied missiology—doing what needed to be done by using all the resources that God had provided, even when they weren’t immediately apparent. Although I can’t recall having personally heard him repeat Hudson Taylor’s famous dictum, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply,” he certainly operated on that principle.
The tally of his life accomplishments are staggering to consider, and many have reiterated them: a pioneer in theological education by extension; the most influential voice since 1974 in turning the focus of modern missions to unreached and least-reached peoples; the founder and entrepreneurial energy behind the U.S. Center for World Mission and so many of the enterprises that it has spawned (William Carey Library, William Carey University, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement—courses and compendium, etc.), to name just a few of the most far reaching and influential. Others will continue to provide more comprehensive and detailed analyses of this amazing list. Where I would like to turn is to another consideration—an envisioning if you will—of the world without him.
While no one is indispensible, there are many places where the absence of Dr. Winter will be keenly felt. “But where,” you ask, “will it be most pronounced?” It is probably not at those places where his name is most intimately connected—the U.S. Center for World Mission and its affiliated organizations. The reason why has to do with one of Dr. Winter’s other great strengths: he was a discipler of leaders and spent significant time mentoring those around him. He was also a great believer in the possibilities of youth. He fleshed it out as one who expressed great trust and gave large responsibilities to many young people who by age could easily have been named among his grandchildren. Over the years, many of these “youth” have become significant leaders in their own right, and will carry on many of the ministries that Dr. Winter started just fine.
No, I believe the places where Dr. Winter will be missed the most are at the cutting edge where old and irrefutable truths merge with faith energy to spawn new ideas. He was a master of preserving the tried and true by displaying its history and logic in highly readable fashion, and then, seamlessly as it were, launching a new endeavor that harnessed the tried and true together with new possibilities in new contexts. The Perspectives courses always struck me as this kind of hybrid—a common curriculum, personalized by highly experienced practitioner-communicators from the agency and mobilization worlds, unleashed on unsuspecting classes of students all around North America. And this done in such an organized and synchronized way that developing an energized and focused mission vision was hard for participants to avoid. Such was the visionary genius of Ralph Winter.
Another place where he will be sorely missed is in the forums of mission discussion in venues like the American Society of Missiology or the Evangelical Missiological Society. One could also throw in the grand international conferences related to world evangelization, such as the several that will be held in 2010 to carry forward the legacy of and commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Edinburgh 1910. Dr. Ralph Winter, of course, really hit his stride as a missiological force with the presentation of his famous paper, “The Highest Priority: Cross-Cultural Evangelism,” at the Lausanne Congress in 1974. But whether it was a grand international conference or just a small regional gathering in North America, Dr. Winter was always one to bring perspective to the issues at hand, and to throw in a thoughtful challenge of some kingdom-advancing project to stir the participants toward more effective action.
It’s hard to imagine another like Ralph Winter coming on the scene any time soon. Not only because no two people are ever exactly alike, but also because a combination of gifts, experience, passions, and faith such as his are extremely rare simply because of their breadth. And yet the history of God’s relationship to his people shows that he delights in surprises. Most likely the next gadfly of his caliber, if there ever is one, will come from the Majority World, the new cutting edge of missions. The soil may be just right. I think Ralph Winter would like the idea.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).