The famous missiologist Ralph Winter passed away on May 20, at the age of 84. He was one of the most intelligent Christian men I have ever met. He was a genius. He was a mission geek in the truest sense – a man with a gigantic mind like a computer that continually processed everything, looking for patterns, for answers, for new discoveries. Having said that, his huge brain dominated his personality and I don’t remember him as someone who gave as much attention to the other areas of life as he did to that of academics and strategy. Quite common for intellectuals of his era.
I worked part time for 6 months at the US Center for World Mission in Pasadena, which was founded by Ralph and Roberta Winter, helping in the development of the Christian Foundations program. This was back in 1993-4 when we parked our old campervan at the USCWM and lived in it while I studied at Fuller SWM. Ralph’s office was next to ours and I saw him most days when I worked there but actually, we didn’t have many great conversations or moments together. At least not back then.
My most memorable time with him was a 90 minute phone call about Celtic Christianity that happened a few years later. He was intrigued that so many young people were tapping into the memory of the Celtic church and were structuring in a decentralized way [“sodal”] like the Celtic monastic orders. He spent most of his time on the phone talking and I hardly got a word in. His wife, who passed away in 2001, had just contracted cancer and he was on a mission to figure out the spiritual nature of diseases and perhaps find an answer. He loved to talk and teach and pass on knowledge and it was just great to have this legendary genius talk on and on about whatever came to his legendary mind.
I remember him as the man who put “unreached peoples” in our dictionary, who contributed great and unique ideas about the history and strategy of Christian mission, as one of the prime movers behind Perspectives of the World Christian Movement [which has a chapter of mine in the new version] and the guy who brought to our attention the two distinct structures of God’s mission [download PDF] that we sometimes refer to as modality and sodality.
For a taste of Ralph Winter at his best, I recommend reading his essay “The Kingdom Strikes Back: Ten Epochs of Redemptive History.” Read it on Google Books or buy the Perspectives manual to see it in context. And check out John Piper’s Tribute as well.