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Every Tribe, Tongue and Nation: Ralph Winter's Legacy

Chuck Colson | BreakPoint | Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Every Tribe, Tongue and Nation: Ralph Winter's Legacy

June 3, 2009

The Church on earth recently lost a great visionary. You may not be familiar with his name, but it’s likely you’ve witnessed the results of Ralph Winter’s strategic thinking.

If you’ve ever heard the terms “unreached people group,” “frontier missions” or “10-40 window," it’s because of Ralph Winter’s catalytic effect on the Church to fully embrace the Great Commission.

A retired missionary, professor at Fuller Seminary, and Ph.D. in linguistics, Winter burst onto the international stage in 1974 at the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization. There among Christian leaders like Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and John Stott, Winter blew the lid off some of the most pernicious misconceptions of the day. Because the Gospel had gone to every continent and nearly every country, many people had begun to assume that the work of missions was over. They thought that the only thing now was for local Christians to engage in evangelism.

In a paper circulated prior to the gathering, Winter wrote, “The awesome problem is . . . that most non-Christians in the world today are not culturally near neighbors of any Christians, and that it will take a special kind of ‘cross-cultural’ evangelism to reach them.”

Winter knew that if every Christian in the world shared the Gospel with his neighbors, only half the world would hear it.

To illustrate his point, Winter explained the case of the Batak church in Indonesia, where the Gospel had taken root and people were actively evangelizing. But because of Indonesia’s mosaic of languages and people groups, for the Batak to reach others—even in their own country—they would have to engage in cross-cultural missions.

With America becoming more and more multicultural, and with our secular neighbors not even speaking our language, we would do well to see our evangelism at home as Winter taught us to see it around the world.

Ralph Winter’s strategic emphasis on reaching not simply every nation with the Gospel, but every people group, dramatically altered the strategies and budget allocations of missionary organizations around the world. In fact, Billy Graham wrote, “Ralph Winter has . . . accelerated world evangelization.”

A few years later, Winter founded the U.S. Center for World Missions and soon after the William Carey International University. He had no financial backing at the time, and only $100 to begin with. Audacious? Yes. But as Winter wrote, “We were willing to fail because the goal we sensed was so urgent and strategic."

But the center did not fail. Since then the center has not only trained thousands of missionaries and support personnel, but also has worked tirelessly to bring the vision of reaching hidden peoples to the wider Church. The Perspectives Course, a college-level course the center sponsors, has equipped almost 60,000 lay people round the world with this vision.

In 2005, Time magazine included Winter as one of the top 25 most influential evangelicals. Last year, the North American Mission Conference gave him the lifetime service award. But no doubt Winter will take greater pleasure in meeting the men and women from every tribe, tongue and nation who praise the name of Jesus in glory—all because of his passion to spread Christ’s message.


Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.