PASADENA, Calif. – The memorial service for Dr. Ralph D. Winter ran one hour past the scheduled ending time, but no one was complaining.
Instead, the more than 2,000 attendees clung to each story and each memory that was being recalled by family, friends and colleagues.
The children of the influential missiologist, who died last month at the age of 84, remembered a fun and loving father who included them in all his mission projects and adventures. His friends told amusing stories about the eccentric genius, who would often exasperate his colleagues with his unconventional ideas and habits.
But the underlying message in every testimony was that Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, lived a life that had a profound impact on the global Christian community as well as on individual lives.
"I loved this man for almost 40 years," said the Rev. Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose Driven Life.
Winter, it turns out, had a very long and intimate influence on Warren tracing back to when the present-day megachurch pastor was in his early twenties.
Warren recalled that the first big step of faith that he and his then newly-wed wife Kay made was committing to donate $1,500.95 to the U.S. Center for World Mission at a time when Winter was trying to mobilize one million evangelicals to give $15.95 for the cause of unreached peoples. Back then, Warren was in his early twenties and working with inner city gang members.
Later when the Warrens started Saddleback Church, it was Roberta Winter – Dr. Ralph D. Winter's first wife – who was the keynote speaker at the church's first retreat.
Through Winter, Warren learned that a church should not be judged by how many people it seats, but rather by how many people it sends to mission fields. Basing his church on that model, Warren said his church has now sent thousands of people to some 100 nations, and by next year, could be the first church to send people to every country in the world.
"He has placed a stamp on my life," stated Warren, who said Winter was one of three Christian leaders who influenced most in the world. The other two were world renowned evangelist Billy Graham and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.
And while many people have heard about Warren's PEACE Plan, a global effort to mobilize 1 billion Christians to combat the five biggest problems in the world, few know that Winter was the first person Warren called after God gave him that vision.
"He is the only one I know who thinks bigger than me," Warren joked.
Similar to Warren, Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis also shared about the deep impact Winter had on his personal and ministry life. Because of Winter's "relentless pushing," Piper said, he learned to "fix his gaze" on the unreached people.
Winter is best known for his presentation about hidden – or unreached – people groups at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. It was during this global conference convened by Billy Graham that Winter demonstrated through statistics and graphs that over two billion people still could not hear the Gospel in their own language and cultural setting, and that cross-cultural evangelism was still needed.
The presentation has since been hailed as a watershed moment that shifted the global mission strategy from one focused on countries and territories to one focused on distinct people groups.
An unreached people group is one that lives in a place where there is no viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement.
Winter had devoted much of his life advocating for pioneer outreach among unreached people groups.
Others who spoke at the memorial remembered Winter for his faithfulness, humility, devotion to sharing the Gospel, for being a visionary, and for his strong sense of integrity.
His younger brother, David, noted, however, that while there are many people who possess the qualities of being bright, energetic, and creative like Winter, they do not make a great impact on the world.
"It wasn't just genetics that made him who he is. But he made a choice," said David Winter.
"He took his gifts and decided to give himself wholly to the Lord and try to make a difference," said the younger Winter, who is the former president of Westmont College in southern California.
In addition to hearing testimonies, those who attended the memorial also watched a video on the life and legacy of Dr. Winter and sang his favorite hymns.
The memorial service was held at Lake Avenue Congregation Church in Pasadena, Calif. – a church that Winter had attended since he was in elementary school and until his death.
Winter died on May 20, 2009, at his home in Pasadena, Calif., after a long battle with cancer. He is survived by his second wife, Barbara, four daughters, 14 grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.