The Guy Who Obliterated Geography

Anyone who has been around missionaries or in a church that supports missions has heard the following verse many times.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19 ESV)

For many years, many churches and missionaries understood the words “all nations” as referring to geography. The command would be fulfilled when people preached and planted churches in every country.

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Today (December 8) in 1924, a man was born who would radically change that understanding. Ralph Winter would start the US Center for World Missions. He and the Center would grow into force promoting a new, not geographic, understanding of this verse. He so changed missions that most of you reading this have been influenced by his ideas.

It all starts with how we understand the word “nations” in this verse. In our modern world, we tend to read it as “countries”. But the word “nation” can also mean “people”, as in “the Cherokee nation”. The original word is εθνοσ or “ethnos” from which we get the word “ethnic”. At the time Jesus spoke this command, the known world was composed of people-states: groups of people with the same identity, language and religion with some political structure, often a kingdom. These were grouped together into the Roman Empire, which was not considered an ethnos or “nation” because of its diverse ethnic, religious and cultural nature. In other words, “nation” does not refer to a place, but rather to a people.

Other culturesEven though Ralph Winter was not the first to recognized this fact, he effectively promoted it. He changed the goal from taking the Gospel to every place to taking it to every people. Not only is this closer to that the verse means, it is much more effective. For one thing, preaching in a way that respects people cultures and takes them into account communicates better. The population of Ghana, where I work, is composed of over 70 people groups each with their own language, customs, and traditional leadership. The people groups in the northern part of the country are quite different in their thinking and culture from those in the south. That led to a Gospel gap where Christianity was widely accepted in the south, but spurned in the north. When Christians from southern Ghana moved to the north and started churches they were not effective at reaching people from the north. So churches in the north tended to be little islands of displaced southerners that had little impact on the places where they were planted. It became accepted to many northerners and some southerners that Christianity was for southerners only. When asked to church by a leading Ghanaian Christian, one man from the Dagomba people of northern Ghana said, “As for us, we are Dagomba”, meaning “Church is for you, not for us.”

As missionaries and churches in Ghana and around the world began waking up to concept of people groups, they became more effective. Local languages got attention. Forms of worship and evangelism were adapted to the culture. This approach based on people groups resulted in the acceptance of the Gospel where it had long been rejected, including among the Dagomba. These positive results have been well documented, as I noted in my blog Tome.

US Center for World MissionsWhen Ralph Winter passed into glory in May 2009 he left a huge legacy. He shifted missions back to a footing that is more aligned with Scripture and which is more effective. If it is no surprise to you that there are people groups which are unreached, or that the most effective ministry takes into account local cultures and languages, then you have been influenced by Ralph Winter.

My own ministry is informed and assisted by the focus he brought and many people groups (nations) around the world are grateful for it. Today, on Ralph Winter’s birthday, let’s thank God for the blessings he has brought to many peoples through the guy who obliterated geography in missions.