Interview: Dr. Ralph D. Winter, Founder of the United States Center for World Mission

It was while he was helping to establish a new School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary that Dr. Ralph D. Winter realized that the mission movement was overlooking many people groups and that there was a need for a specialized institution that probed the problems of missions.

So after ten years at Fuller, Winter left and established the Frontier Mission Fellowship in 1976, immediately initiating two major projects: the U.S. Center for World Mission and William Carey International University.

As stated by TIME Magazine-which recently featured Winter on their cover-story list of America’s top 25 Evangelicals-Winter “revolutionized […] missionary work overseas” with his “impassioned call for Christians to serve the world’s ‘unreached peoples’.”

On Friday, Mar. 11, the Christian Post had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Winter on the campus of William Carey International University in Pasadena, California. The following contain excerpts taken from the interview:

What type of works does the USCWM specialize in that distinguishes it from other mission groups?

We’re always promoting the cause of missions. We’re not recruiting missionaries, we’re recruiting mission mobilizers and critiquers. Our goal is to improve the cause of the Mission, working behind the scenes.

We’re involved in many frontiers, which by definition is an area in dispute. If it were clear it would be solved. If it isn’t clear it’s still a problem.

Generally speaking a problem is hard to explain or else it wouldn’t be a problem. Once a problem is clearly understood as a problem, the solution is relatively easy. So when we talk about problems, we’re talking about confusing things. Whether, for instance, you make a Muslim call himself a Christian to become a believer in Christ. People say “Oh, if Muslims don’t become Christians how can they follow Christ?” Well, Greeks became Christians without calling themselves Christians. Jews became believers of Christ without call themselves without calling themselves Christians. Why can’t Muslims become followers of Christ without becoming Christians? They’re thrown out of their families if they call themselves Christians. Why use the term? Now that’s a frontier. That’s a problem-a very serious problem all around the world. Missions to Islam are stumbling because they don’t understand that problem. So we’re trying to solve that problem.

In fact there’s a recent book called Juice. And he’s talking about the juice of an inventor. What is it that makes an inventor and inventor? He says these are not people who solve problems but these are people who identify problems. When you identify the problem. The solution is relatively easy. Inventors are usually distinguished not by the fact that they solved the problem. Inventors may be famous for solving the problems, but their real contribution was identifying the problem.

At the International congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974, you called for Christians to serve the world’s "unreached peoples," noting that there was a problem with the missions at that time. How were the missions being directed at that time when you made that call?

Most believers in the United States were sending missionaries to China, not knowing that there are hundreds of different groups in China. There are even many different Chinese languages. There is no one Chinese language. How can you learn to speak European? It’s a family of different languages. The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is similar to the difference between German and Italian. To stress subunits of the human tradition has been our great emphasis and to be more specific about where missionaries are going and what they’re doing.

Now, missionaries have gone many places, but have bypassed some peoples. And those people who are bypassed are call “unreached” peoples.

We were not the only ones who have penned this, but we were one of the major emphasizers of that point.

And so we began stressing the “unreached peoples” and others picked up the cause. TIME magazine called it the major new trend of the 20th century at one point. And now, practically everyone believes in unreached peoples.

Many people tend to confuse the concepts behind an “unreached” person and an “unreached” peoples. How can someone distinguish between the two?

Yeah, it is a confusing term. I don’t favor it myself. We favor the ‘hidden peoples’ or bypassed peoples instead of the unreached peoples. However, others stressed unreached, and we essentially went along with it. An unreached person is someone who has not yet been exposed to the claims of Christ--everyone knows that. But when you talk about an unreached people, what does that mean? We’ve settled, with many others, on the definition that an unreached people is a group of people within which there is not yet an viable indigenous evangelizing church movement. If there is not that there, then the people group is essentially unreached because until that is true, the average person in that group cannot accept Christ because Christ has not been made intelligible yet. But once there is an evangelizing church moment there they can join it.

The people we’re talking about has been defined as the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance. And that’s a very helpful definition.

So now as more Christians place their focus and efforts on the unreached peoples, in what way(s) should Christians support areas where there are viable indigenous evangelizing church movements? Should we continue to send missionaries to those areas, or simply provide support for them to carry out their own activities and move on to unreached areas?

There are many good things that Christians can do to help each other across the world. We need to do that. But to suppose we can help them evangelize and send missionaries by just giving money instead of sending missionaries is not a good idea. America can send missionaries where there are no churches, and so can the churches overseas.

There needs to be the development of schools, libraries, and other things that American funds can help with judiciously. But it’s a very great fear to build a building with U.S. funds. They say that a building in India that’s built with foreign funds will not be kept up. Only the buildings that they build themselves do they maintain. There’s also something called dependency, which is a very tricky thing. Money is the most difficult thing to use effectively in missions. The safest thing to do is put the money in a person with a heart of love, who goes and loves the people but doesn’t give them money. He helps them earn money. He helps them develop their own support. But he doesn’t say, “We’ll be pay this with foreign funds.”

Using money effectively is a very difficult thing to do.

If a church cannot grow without foreign funds, it cannot grow.

There is no growing movement in the world that is supported with foreign funds. The growing movements of Christianity are growing on their own steam without accepting foreign funds.

So supporting churches with foreign funds sounds like a good idea but it isn’t a good idea. It’s very troublesome.

What is another problem that Christians in the U.S. may not be aware of overseas in the mission fields?

Short-term missions are a dubious matter. Thousands and thousands of “short-termers” are going out and gaining a great deal. They’re learning and maturing. It’s a wonderful thing. I myself went on a short-term mission. I wouldn’t have been a long-term missionary if I hadn’t been on a short-term mission in my own life. But when I went to the field, I visited five different mission families. Most short-termers never see a missionary. They’re doing crazy things. My daughter went to Berlin under one short-term mission group, and Guatemala under another one, and she said, “Daddy, if thought that was effective mission, I would never be a missionary.” All four of my daughters are missionaries. But it wasn’t short-term missions that gave them that. It almost ruined their belief in missions. And so short-termers can’t do missions but they can learn. But we send shorter-termers to do missions. That is mistake. We should send them to learn. And they do learn. They profit from being cross culturally experienced. But you can’t save the world with short-term missions. And short-termers can’t speak the languages. In fact, I’m writing an article right now, “The Demolition of Missions,” on how to demolish the mission cause. And the answer is to send so many short-termers that the “long-termers” have nothing to do except take care of the short-termers, so then there’s not mission work being done. That’s the demolishing of missions.

Millions of dollars are being diverted from long-term missions to fund short-term missions. That’s like saying that education is more important than mission, because short-term missions is education. They’re not contributing to the cause of missions except maybe indirectly. You may eventually go back around and become a missionary, but many of them are vaccinated against missions by going on a short-term mission. They’re doing things that are not effective; they know it’s not effective. They earn stresses for two weeks or three weeks they’re under pressures. It’s kind of a horrifying experience. So they go home and say, “I’m glad I got over that” and they never want become missionaries.

I was encouraged because I saw missionaries. I saw the houses they lived in. I saw the sensible way they conducted their work. I saw the results of their work. I was well-impressed. But the average shorter-termer today never sees a missionary. They don’t know what missions are. They don’t find out. They come home and they have a scary cross-cultural experience and that’s it. And that’s all they ever want. And they don’t want to go back again.

What is a project that the USCWM is currently working on to help draw more youth into the mission field?

One of our frontiers is to try to solve is the problem of the attrition of pre-candidates-people who would like to be a missionary. If a 100 young people send an letter e-mail to the board stating, “Tell me more about your work. I’m interested in the possibility of being a missionary,” only 1 out of hundred ever goes. We’d like that to be 2 or 3 or 4.

The mission boards don’t have time to track all these peoples down. Some of our staff members are focusing inclusively on that problem. It’s a very serious problem.

More information on this and other frontiers USCWM is involved in can be found in Mission Frontiers-the bi-monthly bulletin of the U.S. Center for World Mission.

Mission Frontiers is dedicated to fostering a global movement to establish an indigenous, and self-reproducing church planting movement among all of the 10,000 unreached peoples (ethnic groups) of the world as soon as possible.

With a circulation of over 120,000 subscribers in 150 countries, Mission Frontiers is the most widely circulated publication of its kind, focused on helping Bible-believing followers of Christ worldwide to bring the Gospel of Christ to every people and nation, as seen in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 of the Bible.

To view Mission Frontiers in PDF format, visit

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