• by Ralph D. Winter

My Pilgrimage in Mission

Originally published in 1995 in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, this auto-biographical sketch was later re-published in Winter's self-collected set of writings, Frontiers in Mission, 22-25. Now, almost 25 years later, it still speaks prophetically to the mission world.

I am deeply ashamed about the disastrous breakdown of morality in my country. Americans are world leaders in Bibles in homes and people in church, but are also world leaders in our divorce rate, illegitimate births, prison population, hand-gun killings, teen suicide rate, pornography export. I am ashamed. Our government spends millions in tax money to promote our deadly export of cigarettes (without warning labels). By that process alone Americans kill more people around the world than all the wars put together. And we provide most of the weapons as well.

I am ashamed but not puzzled. A minority of our population has been a major world force in exporting our faith. Our churches overseas don’t have a high divorce rate—nor as exaggerated an emphasis on individual freedom. But we have been unable to learn from our overseas brothers in Christ. In our country we have enormous concern about the breakdown of our families (which is a global scandal). And from this many other evils derive. But how will we wake up to the loss of the extended family if we can’t listen to the overseas church? Morality begins at home. But our schools, clinics, even congregations wean us away from our families. We need to be “free” from parents and even spouses.

How did I get these ideas?

Early factors in counter-cultural perspective

Don’t blame it on my parents. They were wonderful people, faithful and devout. Loyal Presbyterians, my parents were also strongly influenced by the interdenominational Christian Endeavor movement.

At some point I realized that my faith must be more than just inherited, and began to examine all sorts of other beliefs that were not a part of the inter-denominationalism exhibited by Christian Endeavor—Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. I can still remember the look of dismay on my mother’s face when she found me reading the Book of Mormon.

Further cultural loosening up took place over the next few years through World War II. The Bible itself demanded a total parting of the ways with the assumptions undergirding inherited culture. While in high school, I was involved in a sort of a Protestant version of the Jesuit order. The Navigators, which today has 4,000 members in 94 countries, was strong on discipline and Bible study, and involved serious daily and weekly commitments.

Attending the California Institute of Technology—all but the first year under the auspices of the Navy (a cross-cultural de-contextualizing experience in itself)—was a time of radical questioning of the social order in which I was born. Already scientifically inclined, I gained there a much deeper acquaintance with the wonders of nature (through Nobel prize-winner professors, etc.). Later, in seminary all this fused into a permanent merger of science and theology.

All of these influences were in one way or another distinctly “counter-cultural.” And CE, Navigators, Evangelicalism were all globally oriented. In that milieu it is not surprising that I came across one of the earliest anthropology books written by an American evangelical missionary— Gordon H. Smith. But that only whetted my appetite. A hefty 150-page chapter on anthropology by Smalley and Reyburn (in an American Scientific Affiliation book) made clear to me that anthropology of all academic disciplines offered more to a boy from the “Evangelical ghetto” than any other field of study.

My parents (and others) thought I would never settle down to a career. (The war gave me college tuition that helped me study in eight schools beyond college.) Would I continue in engineering? Then why, as a college graduate, go back to a Christian college to learn Greek? Or to a Bible school to study their unique method of studying the Bible? Why take two years of seminary if I was not going to be a minister? Why did I shift to an M.A. at Columbia University in Teaching English as a Second Language? (My family knew that I had initiated a movement to send evangelical teachers to a certain closed country, as well as opening the way for my older brother to head up an engineering school there.) Wycliffe’s Summer Institute of Linguistics seemed the logical next step in preparation for me to be a missionary. Why did I decide to go on for a Ph.D. at Cornell? There I majored in structural linguistics, minoring in cultural anthropology and mathematical statistics. Only then, because of my anthropology studies, did I go back to Princeton Seminary to become a “white witchdoctor.” After all, isn’t it the “witch doctor” that has the most influence in most societies, at least in non-Western societies? In other words, I concluded that ordained ministers possess incredible leadership opportunities.

One of my professors at Princeton (Samuel Moffett) at that point was also serving as interim personnel secretary at the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. He told my wife and me about a position in Guatemala where the field request was specifically for a couple where the man was ordained and had graduate training in linguistics and anthropology , and whose wife was a registered nurse. You would have thought that that would have made the decision for us, and it almost did.

At exactly the same time, because of my degree and the nature of my Ph.D. dissertation, I was asked to join the faculty at MIT to help work in the mechanical translation of language—but only if I could promise more than two years. I was still very interested in the problems of language learning (as an aspect of the global mission challenge), and while at Princeton had worked out a Contextual Lexicon of the He- brew text of Genesis. In 1956 I gave a paper on the subject of vocabulary statistics at the Linguistic Society of America, and co-authored one with Charles Fritsch (a Princeton Semi- nary professor) in relation to Hebrew at the Society for Biblical Literature. It was a wrenching decision to turn my back on such a long-standing interest to go to Guatemala, but the “mission industry” did not as seriously support background academic studies; between mere academics and mission I chose the latter.

Before leaving for Guatemala we went through a really marvelous six-months-long “graduate school of mission” designed by our denominational board. This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. In that period we went through some inner-city, coal-mining, and other “sand- papering” activities, but we also had some really straightforward studies in a superb library of global mission, and we were exposed weekly to serious outside lecturers ranging from Communists, Muslims, Hindus, etc., to mission statesmen like Kenneth Scott Latourette and even seminary presidents like Henry Pitt Van Dusen. The formal Ecumenical tradition was made familiar to us. Board policies and back- grounds were exposited. Interpersonal relationships were explored at the same time.

All of these experiences were little more than a pro- longed prelude to our even more drastic cultural shakeup within the world of an “aboriginal” culture of the so-called New World, specifically the Maya of Guatemala.

Ten years in Guatemala

My wife and I and our budding family were sent to work in what was considered by our mission board to be one of its “conservative” fields. But after my studies and all the de-contextualizing influences through which we had gone, I’m sure we seemed liberal to most of the other missionaries. We precipitated a major rejection by some when, after a great deal of thought, we tried to promote the idea that the pastoral leaders in our mountain tribal churches ought to be trained in both theology and medicine (in view of that same span of functions of the native shaman). We also wanted to give certain minimal modern-day medical skills to local shaman as a means of protecting the people from careless medicine as well as to become friends with them. That idea encountered hopeless opposition. But we did train our budding pastors in various kinds of business activities that enabled them to be itinerant or at least would not tie them to the soil. Although bi-vocational ministry was pervasive in Latin America, it was a pattern often opposed by expatriate missionaries.

A fundamental insight of another missionary, James H. Emery (whom I had known in seminary), pointed out that residential seminary training, so prized by our (historically recent) Presbyterian tradition back home, was clearly a mixed blessing in rural areas where full-time professional ministry did not readily fit (does it anywhere?). I assisted him in bringing about an institutional revolution in the existing “seminary.” This made seminary studies available to the Mayas after they completed a government sponsored adult education program which we also set up and supervised nation-wide with the cooperation of all the major missions.

At Mexico City in 1963 I shared some of our experiences with James Hopewell, secretary of the WCC’s Theological Education Fund. This was while working for a few days as a translator at the first meeting of the transformed International Missionary Council, now the Division of Mission and Evangelism of the WCC. (Years later I was asked by the editor of the International Review of Mission to write an article on the IMC meeting in Ghana where the decision to merge with the WCC had taken place.) Hopewell decided to put some of the TEF money in our experiment in Guatemala, and later wrote a chapter for a hefty book I edited in 1969, Theological Education by Extension. The TEF also financed the sending out of 1,000 copies of this book to schools all over the world.

Meanwhile, on our second furlough (in Pasadena) I was a visiting professor at the newly founded School of World Mission at Fuller, sharing insights from the theological education experiments in Guatemala. After being with Donald McGavran (of Bridges of God fame) and Alan Tippett (who had just finished his classic Solomon Islands Christianity as a WCC study) for that year, I was urged to stay on. I was reluctant to do so because there was so much to do in Guatemala, but leaders in my PC(USA) mission board decided to assign me to stay on. Was it because they wanted to know just what this new burgeoning school was teaching? Was it because they were aware of the negative reactions we experienced in Guatemala? Or was it because they realized that in this position what had begun in a corner in Guatemala might influence the whole world of missions? Again, it took some soul searching and a willingness to go in a new direction in terms of the overall cause.

From local to global

While on furlough that year at the new mission school at Fuller, I was also Executive Secretary of the Association of Theological Schools in Latin America, Northern Region (an accrediting association). In my travels in the 17 northern countries of Latin America I had a lot of opportunity to talk up the off-campus education of pastors. I was invited further south, speaking to groups of theological educators in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and in Brazil. At the end of my week in Brazil, the 65 or so who attended decided to start an association of theological schools in extension.

Ten years later I was invited back to speak at their annual meeting and to note their progress in theological education by extension (TEE). Again, at their 20th anniversary I was invited back, but this time I discovered that they had dropped out the phrase “by extension” in their title, and the basic ideas in their founding succumbed in a reversion to the residential tradition—even though all of the roaring growth of evangelicalism in Latin America consisted of movements which first selected charismatic leaders (and then trained them) rather than first training young people (and then hoping those young people would grow up to become leaders). Such is the influence of tradition!
In the ten years at Fuller I met missionaries from many traditions, with loads of diverse grass-roots experience in many lands. This period was for me personally an incomparable education. In those first ten growing years of the school students could not matriculate without at least three years of field experience. The result was as if I was the student and the students were the teachers! It fell to me to teach TEE, statistics and the history of missions. I was especially delighted with the history assignment which introduced me to a vast additional array of new insights. This became my major focus. Since seminary days I had been a disciple-at-a-distance of Kenneth Scott Latourette. My job now required an overall perspective of both historical and contemporary global realities. On the latter level I worked with Gerald Anderson to establish a scholarly society (the American Society of Missiology) which would bring together “Catholic, Conciliar, and Conservative” streams of mission scholarship.

I say “conservative,” although it would appear that, historically, the pietist-evangelical stream of Christendom has been anything but conservative. This actuality of un-conservative “conservatism” is revealed by the fact that I had no trouble at the IFMA/EFMA Greenlake ‘71 conference signing up 65 evangelical mission leaders as charter members of this new scholarly society in which Roman Catholics were scheduled to have a prominent place.

For the first three years of the ASM I was the secretary and de facto business manager of the society’s journal, Missiology, an International Review. This journal started out with a bang, in part because I was able to negotiate a merger with the 19-year old Practical Anthropology journal (and its 3,000 subscribers), a journal which had all along been an enterprising and sprightly product of what you might call radical evangelicals in the world of missions—many of them protégées of Eugene Nida whom I had followed with great respect ever since I had first met him twenty years earlier as a professor in the Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1948.

For an additional three years I was unable to shake off the business manager’s job, but it was not difficult in view of my experience for some years in the publishing firm called The William Carey Library which had been founded to assist in the publication of theses and dissertations that were pouring out of the Fuller School of World Mission in ever greater volume. Although we took a deep breath be- fore starting this publishing firm, it was a feasible undertaking for a person with an engineering degree, experience in small business development in Guatemala, plus teaching ac- counting both in Spanish and English. Little did I know that all this experience and much more would soon be required.

Two disturbing thoughts

The most momentous upheaval in my adult life came as result of a slowly growing awareness of two serious limitations in contemporary mission strategy. First, pioneer missionaries in the Protestant tradition had become planters and then caretakers and then, finally, not much more than spectators in a vast global network of “national” church movements. It was their pride and glory. At the same time, secondly, mission agencies from the West almost uniformly failed to pass on a pioneer missionary vision to the “younger churches.” Missionaries were now wonderfully helpful to national churches that had been the product of earlier pioneer work; they were not now helping those national churches to do their own pioneer mission work elsewhere.

The Melanesian Brotherhood, mentioned in Tippetts’ incomparable analysis of the Solomon Islands was, for example, an unusual event in mission experience, historically. The very concept of “Third World Missions” was not yet discussed very widely. In 1981 I wrote an article for the International Review of Mission entitled “The New Missions and the Mission of the Church,” referring to the sprouting up of new mission-sending structures in the so-called mission lands. I was surprised that the keen eye of the editor, in pointing out certain details, also revealed in our early correspondence a total misunderstanding of the concept.

The hue and cry of the major denominational missions was to turn things over to national leaders and go home, or continue on in a very passive, humble basis. But, practically no one was concerned about the still untouched ethnic pockets which, in aggregate, amounted to a significant global reality—over half the world population. The theory that local churches will reach out successfully across cultural boundaries to near neighbors, however plausible at first glance, is all too often the least likely thing to happen—due to almost inevitable resentments at that level. Still needed are those who come from afar.

Doing something about it

After three years at the Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission I was asked to add an updating chapter to the seventh volume of Latourette’s History of the Expansion of Christianity, the unreduced version of which came out separately as a little book entitled The Twenty Five Unbelievable Years. There I observed that although between 1945 and 1969 the global colonial world had dramatically collapsed, the “younger churches” were for the most part left standing on their feet. The member denominations of the NCCCUSA had provided 75% of all American missionaries in 1925, but by 1969 far less than 10%, even though the total number (deriving from many new sources) was at an all-time high. As Latourette had generalized, vitality is usually accompanied by profusion and confusion.

In 1974, the first of the Lausanne congresses took place in Switzerland. I was asked to present a paper focusing on the remaining task of mission. In those days most mission writers were still talking in terms of countries or major religious groups. My focus at Lausanne was on the subtle barriers that subdivide human society at a vastly more detailed level than is implied by broad categories. (People used to think of “Chinese” as a single language when it would be equally reasonable to think of “European” as a language.)

Also by 1974 (after two years discussing it), the fledgling American Society of Missiology, had unofficially launched a “Call” for a meeting in 1980 comparable to the 1910 meeting at Edinburgh, a global-level meeting of mission executives focused on finishing the task. It brought together an even larger number of mission agency delegates, fully one third of them from the Third World, under the banner World Consultation on Frontier Missions, and under the “watch- word” of “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000.”

Looking back we see that a major shift of attention in mission circles has taken place as perceptions of the ethnic realities around the world have brought into focus “unreached peoples” no longer “unoccupied territories” (the 1910 phrase). Very little in the way of “territories” remained totally unoccupied by 1974, but literally thousands of “nations” (in the ethnic sense) were still sealed off by language and culture from any existing witness—and were not even on the agenda of scholarly and agency strategic dialogue.

The final plunge

By 1976 my own conscience would not let me continue as merely a professor. My wife and I felt we had to leave the scintillating and rewarding atmosphere of the Fuller School of World Mission and attempt to establish a major base for promoting and focusing increased efforts on outreach to those thousands of “frontier” groups within which there was not yet anything like a “national” church. The founding of the U.S. Center for World Mission and its associated university in 1976 and 1977, respectively, pitched us into a whole new world of pressure and anxiety and uncertainty.

Making the decision in the first place brought to mind the thought that “Risks are not to be taken on the basis of their probability of success but in terms of the potential of their result.” What we attempted in 1976 had little chance of success, but if successful carried high importance. That was enough to go on. This change from a settled professorship into a totally new, unsponsored project requiring millions of dollars was the hinge of our lives. One of our daughters came up with the thought that “Faith is not the confidence that God will do what you want Him to do for you. Faith is the conviction that you can do what He wants done and leave the consequences with Him.” At no point in the years of struggle to pay for a 33 -acre campus was I able to feel confident that we would succeed. What I never doubted for a second was that our efforts, whatever the risk, were worth investing in even the possibility of success. I recalled what Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators, had said in my hearing years earlier, “Never do what others can do or will do, if there are things God wants done that others either can’t do or won’t do.”

Across the years we have spawned many programs, but the more important growth has been in seasoned and dedicated members of the religious order (The Frontier Mission Fellowship) which is the basic entity guarding and governing our strategies. Without these real people and their long- term commitment and vitality the property for which we struggled so long would be worth nothing.

Now, eighteen years (and quite a few miracles) later, we feel deeply gratified by the small role we have had in the much larger swirl of God’s initiatives around the world focusing on the remaining frontiers of witness. All four of my children are occupied in global mission, on three continents. In all this we have constantly underestimated the number of people who are responsive to information about the work of God across the world. We have been sponsoring a 3- semester-unit study, offering it in 80 places in the USA per year. Over 22,000 have taken this 15-week program. The 944-page textbook associated with this course has topped the 100,000 mark, being used in over 100 colleges and seminaries. As a follow-on we are now in the midst of preparing a 32-semester condensed seminary-plus-global mission curriculum, the first part of which is ready and is being used in both colleges and seminaries. Designed for off-campus use, this will, we hope, be better than nothing for thousands of pastors around the world—who have nothing.

Sending and survival

To “Declare His glory among the nations” is not a technically definable blueprint for action, but it is sufficiently clear in its necessary outworking to allow a truly amazing global fellowship of literally hundreds of agencies linked eagerly, for example, in the unprecedented network of the AD2000 and Beyond Movement, an enterprise with a leadership no longer dominated by Westerners, a movement with a vision that outstrips that of most Western entities! For Archbishop Temple the younger churches were “the great new fact of our time.” Now it is the mission initiatives of the younger churches.

As with most of the others writing in this series, the most significant “lump” for me to digest in my lifetime has been the cross-cultural experience of a missionary career. On the basis of that experience I have concluded that the Christian tradition down through the ages could not have survived had it not attempted to “give away its faith”—that is, transcend the cultural institutionalization of its own experience in the process of mission outreach, the missionary process of sharing faith across cultures.

That is, with other writers in this series, in particular H.D. Beeby, I am convinced that one of the most important functions of the missionary movement is to continuously rescue the faith itself from becoming lost through institutional and cultural evolution and absorption, and that this rescuing, renewing process is largely unintentional and unnoticeable—the by-product of earnest attempts at cross- cultural outreach. Western outreach, however small and pathetic in any absolute sense, has inevitably involved many church traditions in “contextualization,” the startling and astringent process of “distinguishing the leaven from the lump”—to employ Eugene Hillman’s metaphor. That process of trying to make our faith understandable cross- culturally has in many different but vital ways pumped back into the home church a constantly renewed sense of what is, and what is not, the leaven. While a communal faith requires culture just as the crustaceans require a shell, the life is not in the shell.

Now, however, thanks in part to Lesslie Newbigin—and Beeby—I realize that the other end of contextualization is de-contextualization. Unless we become as serious about re- discovering the true faith in contrast to the assumptions of our own culture we will trumpet an uncertain sound wherever else we go. But it is even more dangerous to us if we lose sight of the obligations of our faith and become unable to save ourselves. This is a case where we must (here at home) depend on the insights of our own cross-cultural workers, and yes, brothers and sisters from the other, “mission lands.” Frankly, I see the world church as being not just the result of missionary outreach but by now an essential element in the survival of the West itself.

#RalphWinter #missions #contextualization #decontextualization #TheologicalEducationbyExtension #TEE #missiology


© 2023 by The Book Lover. Proudly created with

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey Google+ Icon

Contact Us