From the Reformed Quarterly Spring 1988 Bulletin.
Dr. Ralph Winter is founder and director of the U.S. Center for World Missions in Pasadena, California. A former missionary to Guatemala and professor of Missions at Fuller School of World Missions, Winter is a leading authority on unreached peoples. He also helped found the Theological Education by Extension Program,
a movement which has now spread around the world. Winter is the author of several books, including “Theological Education by Extension” and “The Twenty-five Unbelievable Years, 1945-1969,” along with numerous articles. As the speaker for the RTS Spiritual Life Conference this year, Winter urged Christians to make missions awareness a top priority.
Q: How can a person know he is called to the mission field?
A: Many believers all over the world today feel they are not called to be missionaries. They think they must have a special calling. They all have the same perspective, “Not me! That’s someone else’s job” when, of course, the mandate is to everyone who is a believer.
That does not mean that everyone is supposed to be a missionary. Missionaries are only one kind of soldier in the war we are fighting. And the real question is not whether you are a tail gunner in the army. The question is, “Are you part of the war effort?” The question is, “Are you under orders?” The question is, “Do you know there is a war on? Do you order your life in terms of the priorities of the cause?”
We must allow this analogy to penetrate our consciousness. God is not going to push us. He merely asks us again and again, “Do you know there is a war on?”
Are you willing to let wartime priorities reorganize your life right now? I don’t care a snap whether you become a missionary or not. It is true that we need more missionaries, but a truly missions-minded pastor outweighs the value of ten missionaries. This country will be unable to contribute even a small percentage of its capability to the cause of missions if it’s not possible for the average person in the average church to get a handle on what God is doing in missions. Americans just don’t have any idea about the Christian movement around the world. We’re slumbering, unaware of the possibilities.
Q:What’s the reason for this problem?
A: Everybody is guilty of underestimating the Holy Spirit. Right down to the lowest Sunday School teacher, we are in a spiritual malaise compared to where we ought to be. A lot of times it isn’t an intellectual problem, nor a problem of communication. The information is there, right in front of people’s faces, but they are blind to its significance. The vast majority of people are just not interested in missions information. They are preoccupied with other things — football, their love life, you name it. The still, small voice of God is being crowded out by every other triviality of our lives.
Also, there is a great discrepancy between what we hear from the media and what is actually occurring. Nicaragua recently had its first nationwide missions conference; many denominations were represented. You did not read about it in any newspaper, but it happened. Rightly understood, this global enterprise of God’s would be on the front page of the “Wall Street Journal” every day. All over the world God is using people, taking the weak things to confound the mighty.
You can choose to get along without it. In this country, you can live and move and have your being in a Christianity that is devoid of the Great Commission. Or you can link yourself with this mandate of history and suddenly things will come into focus that were never clear before. Your understanding of the Bible, all of church history, and all of the world’s political situations will be radically rearranged. This is because the mandate of God is not only central to the Bible but is central to everything else.
Q: You have said that Christians have a “window of opportunity” before them where missions is concerned. What do you mean by this?
A: I believe we have 24-36 months in which to make the case that the world can be reached by the year 2000 and that there is reason to organize and mobilize for that job. Or within 24 months, people will begin saying, “Is it too late? We can’t do it.” One hundred years ago there was quite a movement to reach the world by 1900. But instead, money was squandered on the Gay Nineties. Today, we can make the same mistake.
However, today it’s no longer a question of what the Americans are doing. The Singaporeans already have sent 384 missionaries — half of the university students there are Christians. It may well be that the next twelve years will be dominated, not by American missionaries, but by Singaporeans, Koreans, Nagas, and Nigerians. God does not need America. It’s only a privilege he has extended to us to continue to be involved in his global campaign.
If Americans are going to be Americans first and Christians second, they will never be missionaries. Jesus will look out upon this country, out upon a civilization which can crumble to dust overnight and say, “You did not know the time of your visitation.”
Q: You are an authority on “hidden peoples.” Who are they?
A: These are groups of people who are sealed off from the existing Christian outreach. They are sealed off linguistically, economically, culturally and by invisible barriers from any real opportunities to be Christians unless there is within their group what we call a viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement.
An adequate presentation of the gospel includes not only the message of salvation, but also this indigenous church. To become a follower of Jesus Christ, one must follow Him in the fellowship of his church. I do not mean that someone could not be converted in a jail. But the main avenue of outreach and invitation to the kingdom of God is fellowship with those who worship Him. Every human being ought to have that opportunity.
Q: How many of these “hidden” groups exist in the world today?
A: About 17,000 — half of the world’s population. Most of them are tribal groups, a large number of which have only a small number of people. All of them lack a viable, indigenous, evangelizing church. That does not mean there are no Christians or missionaries. However, only one-tenth of the missionaries work here, and half of those are Wycliffe Bible translators.
The other half of the world’s population is gathered into 7000 relatively large groups of people. These can be divided into three groups — the committed Christians, the nominal Christians, and the non-Christians. Ninety percent of the missionaries work in this half of the world because this is where most of the mission fields are.
Q: What is the U.S. Center for World Missions?
A:We are a servant of the mission agencies trying to help them awaken the churches to the importance of missions. Three hundred people from over 70 evangelical missions agencies work at this cooperative center to focus strategy and mobilization efforts on the needs of hidden peoples.
We’ve launched the “Global Prayer Digest,” a missions devotional booklet, now used by 36 different denominations and missions agencies. Also a radio program, it is broadcast by over 500 radio stations as often as five times a day to an estimatedaudience of five million people. The Center has also made available “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement,” a college extension course covering the entire sweep of missions. It is taught in 29 states and six foreign countries to over 2000 students, and the texts are used by over 100 Christian colleges and seminaries.
We are setting up a vision network which we hope will impact 70,000 people monthly with the very latest missions information. We plan to make videotapes available to people in every zipcode in the nation. We are excited about what God is doing at the Center. We are so busy we can’t even open the mail. Through no effort of our own, God is bringing to us people who are seeking the Lord and are waking up to God’s tremendous plan. Our prayer is that more and more people will see the light.
If you would like more information about the Center, write to them at the following address: U.S. Center for World Mission, 1605 Elizabeth Street, Pasadena, California 91104