In February 2005, Time Magazine listed Ralph Winter (1924-2009) as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Yet Winter, who was raised a Presbyterian and ordained a Presbyterian minister, is not widely known among those of his own denomination. Fickett’s brief and engaging biography should help to alleviate this problem.
Among mission enthusiasts around the world Winter is best remembered for the groundbreaking speech he gave at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Fickett writes that the initial impression he gave at the conference was not inspiring: “He came across as the Caltech-trained engineer he had once been, a Mr. Wizard or ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy,’ illustrating his speech with complicated charts. He was a man born to wear a pocket protector.” Yet before he was done, Winter would electrify the audience.
Winter’s speech was an appeal for evangelism among the “unreached peoples” of the world. He made clear that in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) Jesus directed his followers to evangelize the ethne (defined as people groups, not nation-states) of the world. Though every nation-state arguably had a church by 1974, this could not be said of the thousands of the world’s people groups. The speech was a clarion call for a new era of mission, one that would be directed toward the “unreached” or “hidden” people groups of the world.
Winter did not come to this insight without extensive preparation and effort, which included a B.A. in civil engineering from Caltech, a M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in descriptive languages from Cornell University. He served as a Presbyterian “fraternal worker” in Guatemala for 10 years and then as a professor of mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. Not long after giving his seminal address at Lausanne, he established the U.S. Center for World Mission (USCWM) in Pasadena, Calif., and would remain at this institution for the rest of his life.
Fickett presents Winter as a genius who specialized in finding overlooked needs and suggesting inventive solutions. Some of his enduring achievements include the establishment of important mission institutions and journals and the Perspectives course, a popular 15-week class sometimes called “mission for the masses.”
Fickett does not fail to note that Winter could be difficult to work with because he constantly challenged conventional wisdom and could be abrupt. Also, he devotes three chapters to Winter’s late-life reflections on theodicy and “intelligent and malevolent design,” which may leave some readers wondering if Winter would have better served his legacy by remaining silent about issues well outside his areas of expertise.
Fickett’s sketch is a fine introduction to the life of one of the great missiological innovators of the last century that leaves the reader in no doubt of the subject’s truly brilliant and original, if sometimes quirky, mind.
MICHAEL PARKER is the PC(USA) Coordinator of the Office of International Evangelism.