• by Ralph D. Winter

The Biggest Trend in Global Mission

Ralph Winter presented this paper at the Korea World Mission Conference in Wheaton, Illinois, in July, 2008. Towards the end of his life Winter reframed his missional thinking in light of renewal in his understanding of the Kingdom of God. In this chapter he explains his approach to mission in light of those developments.


The most important trend in missions today is a recovery from a gospel of merely personal salvation to a restoration of kingdom thinking. Everyone, both Christians and non-Christians, are talking about major world problems. Nowadays, for the first time in 150 years, we see a restoration of emphasis on the gospel of the kingdom, which in the Bible not only means personal salvation but transformation in this world—as in the Lord’s prayer, ‘Thy will be done on earth’.

To see the roots of this problem we need to go back to the Reformation. In the 16th century contention arose between the Latin speaking Christians and the German speaking Christians.

Confusion in the Reformation

Works alone don’t get people to heaven. In Martin Luther’s day a man named John Tetzel came through Germany with a big box on a wagon urging people to put money in the box in order to absolve them from divine punishment. He represented a fund raising campaign to help build a cathedral in Rome. His project was not something the Germans were very enthusiastic about. However, for Luther there was an additional problem. Luther’s scholarly reaction made clear that giving money—or doing any purely religious good works—will not forgive sin.

On the other hand, faith alone (that is, merely believing in the truth of creedal statements) also doesn’t get people to heaven. Luther’s alternative was to propose that a heart of faith is what pleases God as can be seen in scripture. However, in English, the use of the word ‘believe’ can be interpreted to mean merely believing the right doctrines rather than having a heart of faith. Merely mental assent to the correct doctrinal truths never saved anyone. Confusion on this point is still very common. People often think someone’s sins are forgiven automatically if that person says he believes merely that it is true that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the blood of Jesus atones for our sins. However, mere intellectual assent to correct doctrines does not save you.

Rather, the Bible plainly says, ‘Faith without works is dead’ (James 2: 20). For several years Luther condemned the New Testament Book of James. He assumed the second chapter of James denounces heart faith, when it actually denounces mere intellectual assent. Paul agrees with James when he refers to ‘the obedience of faith’ in Romans 1:5. There Paul brings the heart into the picture when he describes his calling as bringing about the ‘obedience of faith’ among all peoples. Evangelicals sometimes mistakenly think that the gospel is mere information. However, Peter speaks of people disobeying the gospel which indicates that the gospel of God’s kingdom is not merely an invitation to be received but an announcement of an authority to which we must yield and obey.

Apart from this theological confusion, the Reformation as a movement was more a cultural breakaway movement than a case of theological differences. This much stronger force creating the Reformation was the inherent divergence of the Germanic culture from the Latin (Mediterranean) culture. A similar breakaway movement occurred when Paul encouraged Greek believers to develop their own synagogues. A similar breakaway movement occurred when the Latin-speaking Roman Catholic church broke away from the Greek-speaking Orthodox church. In this sense the breakaway of the German-speaking church from the Mediterranean Roman Catholic culture was like the dozens of mission field breakaway movements today, which are attempting to resist a foreign missionary culture. In such cases national believers decide to start a church of their own, which is often very different from the missionary implanted form of Christianity. It is usually true that when a missionary tries to plant his own kind of church the people will eventually breakaway and develop their own kind. This is what happened in the Reformation. In such cases people may take sides and claim that one form is perfect and the other is imperfect Usually both sides are imperfect.

Confusion in Missions Today

Some mission agencies only plant personal-salvation churches. Their interest is in assuring people about going to heaven, and gathering people together to sing about heaven and God’s personal blessings. This can be very successful, because it is relatively simple to persuade people around the world to raise their hands in order to get to heaven and to be blessed personally. However, it is more biblical to introduce people to Jesus Christ and urge them to obey Him as their Lord.

Some mission agencies focus on relief and development work. They may help people physically and not lead people to a personal commitment to Christ. What they do is very helpful. But in many cases they have made agreements with governments not to mention Jesus Christ, and without the transforming power of Christ, development work is not very likely to succeed. We need to seek personal transformation, and build on that foundation.

Some mission agencies do both. The biblical record shows that Jesus accompanied His words with works of mercy. Many mission agencies seek both the transformation of individual lives as well as the transformation of society. The older missions rooted in the 19th Century, such as the early Presbyterian missionaries, the early Sudan Interior Mission and the Africa Inland Mission, have made major contributions to the countries where they have worked—universities, medical schools, businesses, technical and agricultural training schools. Mission agencies more recently founded are less likely to sense a responsibility for nation building. They may think that nation building is hopeless or that it is not their responsibility. A great trend today, returning to the 19th Century, is to pursue kingdom mission, which seeks to glorify God by including both personal as well as national transformation.

Confusion in Recent (20th Century) History

Evangelicals in the 19th Century were very influential. In civil government, and in a series of revivals, they not only focused on personal salvation but on the transformation of society. In the USA they founded 100 colleges, and banished slavery. In Korea, missionaries from that era founded universities. In America, the period between the end of the War of 1812 to the beginning of the Civil War was a period of huge transformation. The idea that this world was worth changing was a central emphasis. In China missionaries planted a university in every province of China.

Evangelicals in the 20th century tended to focus on prophecy and eschatology. In the 20th Century, however, most evangelicals did not go to college and felt that there was no use in trying to save the world. For them it was better to focus on personal salvation. For them, getting as many people as possible ‘saved’ was the most important thing, and was about all they could do. True, personal salvation is, in fact, the most important thing. However, some evangelicals tended to become experts in guessing about the future and the end of history. Eschatology became a very special interest. Since these evangelicals were mainly non-college people, they lacked influence in the public sphere. But, they did what they were able to do. They were active in inner-city missions. Instead of colleges they established 157 Bible Institutes. In their missionary work these evangelicals no longer founded universities but rather Bible schools and seminaries.

Some college-level evangelicals, however, continued to include the idea of changing society. These people even in the 20th Century retained the earlier concern for society but sometimes lost concern for repentance and faith on the part of individuals. The Student Volunteer Movement represented this college level society. The Student Volunteers established ‘Yale In China’ and thought in terms of university education. Their influence on state and federal governments in the 20th Century gradually diminished.

Thus, the USA today has inherited from the 20th century a huge and serious polarization. There are still many arguments about the primacy of evangelism over social action, not realizing that neither deeds without words nor words without deeds are meant to stand alone any more than you can separate faith and works.

Resulting Loss of Glory for God, and Disrespect for Evangelicals

As a result some people wonder, ‘Why is there so much evil in the world?’ Then ask, ‘Is there really a God at all?’ Many honest and thinking people today are aware of two things, first, the huge amount of evil in this world—corruption, dishonesty, violence, wars, disease—and, second, they do not see very many Christians fighting against those evils. They also don’t believe in Satan. As a result they are led to think that there must not be a God if there is all this hideous evil, or they believe that if there is a God He could not be both powerful and loving.

Thus, some people wonder why evangelicals are not effective in fighting this world’s problems and they even wonder about the validity of the Christian faith. The absence of any large, strong evangelical mission agencies working against global disease and corruption leads many to feel that the Christian faith does not make any difference in society or that Christians and their God do not care.

Are We on the Eve of a New Era in Christianity and Missions?

But things are changing. As the 20th Century unfolded, one by one within 50 to 90 years every one of the 157 Bible Institutes became colleges or universities. Most evangelicals, not gambling or drinking, thus eventually saved enough money to send their children to college, and that way gradually gained greater influence in society. More and more evangelicals by now see reasons to work against evil in this world and in human society, even though others may still feel that such concerns are a diversion from the gospel. Such concerns are, in fact, a change from the simple evangelical personal gospel but they are faithful to the biblical gospel of the kingdom. One sad fact of history is the near total absence of evangelicals in the university world for 50 to 90 years. This is a major reason why the thinking in the university world has become highly secularized and even anti-Christian. Now even Christian colleges and universities around the world are forced to use secular textbooks and secular interpretations of history coming from a secularized university tradition in which they were not involved for most of a century.

But the number of evangelicals worldwide is very large today. There has never been a time when evangelicals had greater ability, influence and responsibility! In the USA the number of evangelicals in public office and in Congress and the Senate is much larger than ever before. Mission agencies have greater resources, potentially, than ever before. God expects more from those who have more to offer and who have received more from Him.

Businessmen are getting involved in mission. Many urgent needs around the world can be filled by honest and good-willed businesses. However, businesses cannot operate when those in need cannot pay. Therefore, many needs can only be filled by mission agencies whose support comes not from those benefited but from good-hearted donors who want to help others.

Local congregations are now often actively sending their own laymen overseas. If a congregation carefully thinks through a long-term plan for a specific place it may accomplish a great deal. However, it is not often that a single congregation, with its limited experience and expertise, can figure things out correctly. A congregation may do good things but not the most strategic things. If they want to eradicate diseases that cause terrible suffering to people for example, they also need to help found and support specialized mission agencies. Waiting until people get sick and then treating their illness is not good enough, and is not the same as eradicating a disease pathogen so that people don’t get sick in the first place. This is not something lay people going on short trips overseas can accomplish.

New features in existing mission agencies and new features in new mission agencies are necessary. Existing mission agencies that focus exclusively on evangelization and church planting must realize that such efforts alone fail to provide an example of the good works that faith is supposed to produce (Eph. 2:10). Their churches may become merely places of refuge, places where people can concentrate on heaven and personal fulfillment without having to worry about transforming society at all. Newer missions must be concerned about the same wide spectrum of God’s concern. God wants His will to be done on earth not just in heaven.

If we do not recover the wide spectrum of God’s concern, do we continue in the 20th-century polarization? It does seem true that if we cannot reunite words with deeds we will be merely prolonging the tragic polarization which characterized the 20th Century.

How Can God Be Glorified and Evangelicals Respected?

Our mandate is to storm the kingdom of darkness. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says that He will build his church and the forces of darkness will be unable to resist it. These words of Jesus make clear that for His will to be done on earth, definite action must be taken against evil. And what is needed is not just action against human evil but against deadly germs, and against all the rest of the works of darkness. This is clearly both a spiritual and physical war. Spiritual warfare is commonly thought of as purely a spiritual matter of prayer. However, although Jesus healed by prayer (demonstrating His love), He was also showing us we must be concerned about physical threats like disease. Today we can fight, in God’s name, against destructive microbes with all of the knowledge we have gained about microbiology in the last 2,000 years.

Both micro good deeds and macro good deeds are necessary. In the 20th Century to the extent that evangelicals had limited education and wealth they still did all they were able to do. Now we can accept larger challenges and demonstrate God’s concern for all problems big or small. Only this way can we properly glorify God and regain respect for evangelicals.

We are saved as individuals. We must serve as teams. A final point here is that big problems usually require not just the work of concerned individuals but groups of organized individuals. Very few young people will become full time ministers, missionaries or mobilizers. Most will be working in some other work, usually in the marketplace. That ‘lay’ work must also be a calling. Some work contributes more vitally to the extension of God’s will in this world than other work. We must not assume that the highest paying job is automatically God’s will. We are all called to do what we can do that will be the most effective in extending God’s will in this world. Almost always this will require a business team or a mission team in order to be effective.

How Can We Keep Our Priorities Straight?

If our mandate is to storm the kingdom of darkness, are there priorities? It seems obvious that the highest priority should be to go where that darkness is deepest. That then means clearly to go to those places where Jesus is not yet known. That then means that we are talking now about the thousands of remaining ‘Unreached Peoples’.

However, priorities cannot necessarily be dealt with one at a time. Often more than one priority must be acted on simultaneously not in sequence. We need both to save people from sin and from malaria. Every day in Africa alone 45 million people are withdrawn from the workplace due to malaria. We can’t just save people from sin and ignore malaria which kills four children every sixty seconds. If millions of dollars of aid money is being diverted we can’t give first and fight corruption second. In many countries medical schools and nurses training schools have been set up with foreign aid, but the average person cannot pay for such medical services so most of the doctors and nurses so trained leave their own country for jobs in Europe or America. Rural development and rural health must be achieved simultaneously.

Communicable disease is at the top of the priority list of world problems. Nevertheless 90 to 98% of all medical and pharmaceutical activities are focused on treating the sick not on conquering the diseases that make them sick. In America it is still true that 90% of all deaths are premature and are due to disease. Where is the Christian mission agency which is focused on the eradication of disease? The Gates foundation is. Within the PCUSA there is now the Presbyterian Institute for the Eradication of Disease. But it is just starting.

Evangelism is the highest priority. But it becomes weak and lacks credibility if it does not generate committed believers who will tackle the world’s problems. A massive shift in that direction is already becoming The Biggest Trend in World Mission

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