John Piper’s Personal Tribute to the Late Ralph Winter

At 9:05 PM, May 20, 2009 Ralph Winter, the founder of the U. S. Center for World Mission died.

Nobody in the area of missions had a greater impact on me. Others had a greater impact on me in the area of missions, like Jonathan Edwards, but no one actually in missions affected me more than Ralph Winter.

First, he was a professor of mine at Fuller Seminary and introduced me to the stunning works of God in missions in the last two hundred years. His vision of the advance of the gospel was breathtaking.

He wore a bow tie in those days, iconoclast that he was, and was fined by the seminary for not returning our papers on time. None of us begrudged him his scattered approach to life. It was thrilling in those days.

Second, in 1974 at the Lausanne Missions Congress Winter reached up and pulled the unseen rope called “unreached peoples” that rang a bell that reverberates to this day.

This concept, and the subsequent emphasis on unreached peoples (as opposed to unreached “fields”) has been globally seismic in the transformation of missions. It gripped me and shaped all we have done in missions at Bethlehem ever since the mid 1980s.

Third, in the 1980s he bought a 15 million dollar college campus with virtually nothing in his hand to start the U. S. Center for World Missions; and he paid for it by persuading enough of us (thousands) to give “the last thousand.” Brilliant! I think I sent $2,000. Couldn’t resist the vision.

The point of the U. S. Center was to trumpet the vision that there are unreached peoples in the world, and then equip the church to reach them.

Fourth, Ralph Winter was probably the most creative thinker I have ever known. I mean, on any topic that you brought up, he would come at it in a way you have never dreamed of. He saw all things in relationship to other things that you would never think of relating them to.

This meant that stalemates often became fresh starting points. If you were struggling with a tension in your church, he might say: “Well, think about the Navy.” Or if you were having a marriage problem, he might say, “Did you notice how that bridge was built?”

Fifth, Ralph Winter befriended me. He encouraged me. In my most restless early days, he would tell me to stay at Bethlehem because I could do more by sending than by going.

Finally, he did not waste his life, not even the last hours of it. He was busy dictating into the last days. He taught me long ago that the concept of “retirement” was not in the Bible.

What a gift he was to the church. To the world. Thank you, Father, for the legacy of this visionary, risk-taking, creative, encouraging lover of unreached peoples who lived unstoppably for the glory of God.

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Watch Ralph Winter talk for four minutes about unreached peoples and what comes next:

See also RalphWinter.org.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.