Interview: Dr. Ralph D. Winter on Frontier Missions in India

The focus of this year's gathering of the International Society for Frontier Missiology (ISFM) was India – a country where Christianity is the third largest religion despite the fact that Christians make up only 2.3 percent of the entire population, according to official government statistics.

At the annual gathering, held this year in Dallas, attendants heard from a number of speakers including Hindu followers of Christ, former missionaries, an evangelism and church growth consultant, and an expert on global Christianity.

Also speaking was Dr. Ralph D. Winter, one of the founders of the ISFM and the U.S. Center for World Mission, who has been noted by Time Magazine as one of America's top 25 evangelicals.

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At the conclusion of ISFM's Sept. 15-17 meeting, Winter spoke with The Christian Post to share his views on frontier missions in a land containing one of the world's largest unreached populations.

The following are excerpts from the interview with the world renowned missiologist:

CP: Why is India the focus of this year's ISFM conference? Is it because there is not enough mission attention on India or perhaps because the mission approach to India has been wrong?

Winter: Well, I wasn't involved in the decision so I'm not sure what was the exact reason, but India is one of the most astonishing problems of contextualization. Islam is so near to Christianity that it doesn't seem like a big leap, but Hinduism is so radically different from Christianity that it seems to be an impossible leap. Therefore it is more of a critical area.

CP: The specific focus of this year's ISFM conference is sharing Jesus Christ with caste Hindus [The conference did not focus only on "high" caste Hindus per se, it simply did not focus on Dalits or tribals.]. Why has this population not been reached in the past? It is well known that there is a large Christian population among the Dalits (formerly known as untouchables). Are higher-caste Hindus more difficult or is it just that they've been neglected?

Winter: Strictly speaking, there are more than 600 million caste Hindus and, as a bloc of peoples, they have been neglected. However, the number of caste Hindus in India who are devout followers of Jesus Christ but who don't call themselves "Christians" is estimated to be upwards of 14 million. That's more than the number of devout followers of Christ who do call themselves "Christians" – perhaps two to three times as many! Because even in the United States, people who call themselves "Christians" – like Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists – are not all necessarily devout followers of Jesus.

Indian mission has successfully penetrated the Dalit sphere and that is a wonderful thing. You would have thought they would start with the top people – and they did try to – but it was their servants that they won to Christ by their examples. Somehow God takes the weak things to confound the wise; that is His way of doing things.

He took a young man from Nazareth of all places – in northern Palestine – when you would think He would have chosen someone from Jerusalem. He took a man named William Carey from Northern England, from a little town, to change the whole world.

So God has chosen the Dalits to prove to the rest of the caste system the transforming power of Christ, but that doesn't mean the rest of the system is going to become Dalit to become Christian.

So the question is 'Can we give this treasure over into a different earthen vessel?' and that has not been done.

In Islam and Hinduism, we insisted people come out of their culture, which is not biblical. It is a misunderstanding of the Bible. It has not been successful, never will be, and shouldn't be. It is not what God wants. God doesn't want to destroy their languages or other cultures. He wants to refine them not destroy them.

CP: India has thousands of Hindu gods, a multitude of languages and cultures. How can we approach such a fluid mission field?

Winter: Well, stop and think. We already have a thousand words for 'god' and a thousand missionary translations all over the world. Hinduism is diverse but still these very diverse Hindus are more like each other than are the tribes in New Guinea. Tribal societies in New Guinea, which number close to one thousand, are radically different from each other.

So we are not unfamiliar with diversity; we just haven't been willing to face up to it. We would just prefer to classify all the Hindu things as one.

It is like this: you hear people say they have a friend that is learning Chinese. Well that is just as silly, technically, as saying you have a friend learning to speak European. What is European? Well, European includes a lot of languages; Chinese includes a lot of languages. There are over 100 significantly different dialects of Mandarin alone and 600 if you take into account the other subfamilies of Chinese such as Cantonese, Swatow, etc. Sometimes we are reluctant to face up to that complexity.

CP: Expert Todd Johnson of the Study of Global Christianity said earlier in the conference that over 90 percent of Christian evangelism is aimed at other Christians. That means less than 10 percent of evangelism reaches non-believers. What is your response to this statistic? Are you surprised?

Winter: I think that is a normal thing because what you mean by evangelism is re-evangelism. We need to face the fact that Christianity is one of the largest mission fields in the world and obviously they are the people that we need to renew and to revive. If you call that mission, then a proportion of missions is re-evangelization.

It is like saying 90 percent of all the children are dealt with by their own parents. Well that's normal. That's what you would consider normal. So I'm not amazed or displeased by that statistic at all. It is amazing that it's only 90 percent. It's amazing that 10 percent of our Christian leaders are dealing with non-Christians.

I'm not surprised at all because that is what you would think is normal.

CP: There has been criticism against evangelicals and Pentecostals for being too aggressive in evangelizing mainline Protestants. In light of this statistic what is your response?

Winter: Well, I say more power to them. Anybody who can help somebody else become a more devout follower of Christ is welcome to do what he thinks he can do. Now some of these 'upgrades,' as you might call them, are very superficial. Praying for God to change silver fillings to gold fillings isn't God's mainstream activity. I think He is able to do it but I don't think He wants us to bother praying to Him [about that] because that is something we can do ourselves.

It is like asking God to paint the back fence. Why would we do that when He has given us the ability to do it ourselves? So a lot of our prayers and so-called perfecting are making people more religious, making them into "saints" when God wants them made into "soldiers," enlisting them in a war – not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12) – but against evil, such as disease, poverty and corruption. That is my biggest problem.

We are making people into "religious" people when they should be serving others. We are making people into survivors rather than "soldiers." God is calling us into something like a "military conflict" with evil (not with people) and with all the works of Satan around the world. For us to be concerned merely with getting people into heaven and not going on to recruit them as soldiers is really a big misunderstanding.

CP: Can you discuss where you foresee frontier missions ten years in the future?

Winter: In my own mind at least, I am increasingly aware that people don't understand frontier missions correctly. They think it has to do with going where there is no Gospel. That is a frontier – a significant and important frontier – but I have written an article in the IJFM (International Journal of Frontier Missions) about 12 frontiers. [Places without the Gospel] is only one of them. There are many other frontiers that we need to meet.

Frontiers like the re-appreciation of science [and] fighting malaria – that's a frontier …. We don't have any theology for it (the latter) … [and] that is not the usual kind of frontier that we think of – we usually think of ethnic or tribal – but that's a frontier.

If we don't [address this frontier], we are disobedient to the Lord because God gave us science to glorify Himself. If we don't employ it, if we sing about everything else but the breakthroughs in science, we are double-minded people.

CP: I know Saddleback Church is spearheading a grassroots church-based HIV/AIDS initiative. What is your opinion on this?

Winter: Saddleback has all the right ideas but they think, I think, that most of it can be done by part-time Christians. In other words, to some extent, they are talking about an after-hours Christianity when it is the 40-hour a week that has to be conquered for Christ. It is what we do in our 40-hours that is at least as important as what we do in our after hours for Christ.

But they certainly have the right giants in view. When they talk about disease as a giant, they are absolutely right. But when they talk about caring for the sick as a cure for that giant, then it has nothing to do with it. You can keep helping people get well forever but if you don't help people defeat the disease itself you'll never run out of patients. So the medical pharmaceutical industry and the P.E.A.C.E. plan focus on caring for the sick when they should be fighting the diseases as well as caring for the sick.

 In addition to the U.S. Center for World Mission, Dr. Ralph D. Winter founded William Carey International University in Pasadena, Calif., and the William Carey Library – a specialized publisher and distributor of mission materials; co-founded the American Society of Missiology; assisted in the founding of ACMC (Advancing Churches in Mission Commitment); and helped initiate the International Society for Frontier Missiology.

He has also served as the general director of the Frontier Mission Fellowship – a mission society member of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association and the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies – and as the vice president of the Southwest Region of the Evangelical Missiological Society. He is currently, among other positions, the honorary chairman of The Christian Post International and Olivet University in San Francisco, whose chancellor is evangelical leader Dr. David J. Jang.

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