Celebrating Fifty Years Of Ministry
It hardly seems possible, but this fall— 2007—marks 50 years I have been in the Lord’s work on a full time basis. In this article I will share a testimony regarding my life, background, and beginnings in the ministry.
Each of us has a unique life story, some parts of which others can relate to. After all, we are all partakers of this mystery called “life.” Sometimes I have suggested to pastors that they build a sermon around their life story—including childhood, conversion, marriage, experiences, and how they were called into the ministry. It can help others to relate—to understand where they are coming from. In the Bible, Paul shared such a testimony on several occasions.
Going back just over 50 years ago now, I graduated from High School in Riverside, California—class of ’57. Some may recall a country music song by the Statler Brothers, “The Class of ’57 had its Dreams.” It tells about different ones—Tommy sells used cars, Jerry drives a truck, Frank works at the mill, Janet teaches school, Betty runs a trailer park, Jack’s in lab research, “and Peggy plays organ at the Presbyterian Church.”
Most of those mentioned in the song, it seems, did not realize their dreams—“things get complicated when you get past 18, but the class of ’57 had its dreams.” My “dream” in 1957 was to serve the Lord, to do his will, to be involved in his work.
My initial open door came that summer in a unique way. An evangelist who lived in Canada (Ottawa) asked me to help him in meetings as a piano player. “By faith,” not knowing just where this would lead (cf. Heb. 11:8), I sold my Cushman motor scooter for about $70, enough to pay for a Greyhound bus ticket to Ottawa. Though the bus left Riverside at midnight, some Christian young people were there to see me off, singing gospel choruses (some of these are still in touch today—50 years later). Soon I was traveling through cities I had only heard of: Salt Lake City, Omaha, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, etc.
The Canadian evangelist with whom I worked that summer was an older man. During that time I met a number of pastors, some who eventually asked me (on my own) to come hold meetings at their churches. Being young—I had turned 18 in August— they felt their young people could relate to me in ways they might not to an older evangelist. Those invitations, first in Canada, New York state, and then many open doors in California, provided the beginning of my ministry that has now spanned 50 years.
The families of my parents each moved to California from different parts of Missouri, settling in Riverside where my parents met and married. In 1939 when I was born, they were living in San Jacinto, California, about 30 miles from Riverside. It was Depression time, jobs were hard to come by, but work was available there. The construction of a 13-mile tunnel beneath Mount San Jacinto to carry Colorado River water to southern California had boosted the economy of the area. My father obtained work as a meat cutter in a grocery store.
Because the small hospital had no available space (due to a highway accident), I was born in the little house where my parents lived at the time. Many years later a church purchased an adjoining building and used this house for Sunday School classes.
Another interesting coincidence: thirty years after my birth, two elderly sisters who lived in a house—literally a stone’s throw from the house where I was born—became acquainted with my ministry and were a financial blessing for a number of years.
Soon after my birth, my parents moved back to Riverside and bought the house in which I lived all my growing up years. A stray dog we took in, “Blackie,” was a childhood companion during those years. I did not have any brothers or sisters.
As a boy, I would ride my bike a few blocks to the railroad tracks and watch trains go by, some of which were still being pulled by steam locomotives at that time. These were my favorites. Probably their size, the scream of the whistle, the smoke, and loud noise added to the intrigue. I still enjoy trains today, perhaps because of the nostalgic link with childhood. I have an HO gauge model train layout in the garage.
Because of my mother’s dedication to spiritual values, things like church attendance and Bible reading were a part of my life as I grew up. When I was nine years old, at the Riverside First Baptist Church, our pastor, W. W. Catherwood, spoke to my Sunday School class of about 100 children. I responded to his invitation to receive Christ as my personal Savior and later was baptized by him. He had been my mother’s pastor since she was a girl, he had baptized her, and also married my parents in 1937.
About 50 years after responding to this invitation, in the revolution of things, it would be a special time for me to speak from the pulpit of First Baptist Church. By this time the church had built a large new building, the old downtown building had burned down, people and pastors had come and gone, but a few still remembered me attending the church as a boy so many years before.
By the time I was about 13 or 14 I began to spend a lot of time reading the Bible. I had a hunger to see, for myself, just what the Bible says. I was amazed to find things in the Bible I had never heard; and some things I had heard, or assumed to be true, were not there!
As a young man I listened to different preachers on the radio, representing quite a variety of beliefs and emphasis: Charles Fuller, Billy Graham, Thomas Wyatt, Oral Roberts, O. L. Jaggers, Jack Coe, A. A. Allen, Herbert W. Armstrong, H.M.S. Richards, Frank and Ernest, C. M. Ward, and some lesser-known names and local church programs. I read a variety of Christian books, booklets, and magazines. In so doing, I would always search the Scriptures to see if things were in alignment with what the Bible says (Acts 17:11).
I read the Bible—sometimes for hours at a time. I memorized scriptures—hundreds of them. It was just something I wanted to do, not realizing just how this would be such a vital part of my life in the years to come. Because of this, when I suddenly found myself doing the work of an evangelist in the fall of 1957, I was not without a sound basis for every message: I was a Bible preacher.
Looking back now, I realize how young I was. But at the time, it just seemed normal to do what I was doing. Young preachers in the Bible include Jeremiah and Timothy— even the apostle Paul, who was a young man at the time of his conversion (Jer. 1:6; 1 Tim. 4:12; Acts 7:58).
Though I have been in the ministry 50 years—from the time I was 18—I actually started preaching, now and then, earlier still. Through a chain of events that led up to it, my first attempt at preaching was when I was 15 at the Riverside Foursquare Church. My text: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Cor. 9:24). Over the years it has been interesting for me to ask pastors the subject of their “first” sermon. Most remember, including the text they used.
Traveling, doing the work of an evangelist, I did not have the opportunity to study for the ministry in a Bible college or seminary. But this does not mean I have lacked for study—then or now. It is heartening that there are colleges that have used books I have written and purchased them for their libraries.
Though totally unsolicited on my part, I have been honored with a college degree: Doctor of Divinity. The wording on the certificate is very kind:
Be It Known That RALPH WOODROW having demonstrated outstanding accomplishments as a faithful minister of the Gospel, and exceptional knowledge of the Word of God and commendable scholarship, is hereby awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity.
One preacher said, “I may not always agree with Woodrow, but you can’t say he hasn’t done his homework!” Well, perhaps; at least in some areas. Others, in letters, have said in effect: “We don’t always agree with everything you write, but you make us think and search.” That’s fine. No one person has the full or final revelation on everything. We are growing, learning, moving along the path “that shines more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18). I have long been content to present some things “as a study,” allowing each person to eat the meat and throw away the bones, if that be the case (cf. Rom. 14:5).
For five years—from 1959 to 1963— during the warmer months I held tent revival meetings in California, Arizona, and Texas. One night during a service someone threw a small bomb on the tent that exploded. Another time a stink bomb was thrown into the meeting. There were some who supposed all revivalists were hypocrites— it was about this time the movie Elmer Gantry came out. Sometimes there was rock throwing or hecklers, but the biggest problem was storms. The worst one was in Odessa, Texas, when the tent was badly damaged in 1963.
During the early 60s, I had radio programs on a number of stations, including superpower border stations heard in quite a few states—XERB, XEMO, XEG, and XERF. A dear woman, apparently seeing potential in this young preacher, had donated a piece of property to my ministry. This sold for $2,500—not a huge amount by today’s prices —but at the time went a long way in launching the radio outreach.
Then, as a result, a writing ministry developed, which would eventually become far-reaching. As an incentive for people to write in to the radio program, and as an extension of my speaking ministry, I began putting some of my messages into print. Year after year since 1961, I have written articles that we have shared with our mailing list.
There are many precious truths—things I have learned over the years—in the 16 books we publish. All together, counting translations, there are about 600,000 copies of books I have written in print.
In person one can only be at one place at a time, but things that are written can be many places at once. During his life, Paul probably preached to a total of several thousand people. But things he wrote have been read by millions for nearly 2,000 years, in many languages, in all parts of the world!
For these past 50 years in the ministry, I have functioned as an interdenominational evangelist. I have a love for all of God’s people. I have never believed God’s church is limited to one particular denomination, but is made up of all who know Jesus Christ as Lord and whose lives have been changed by Him. I have learned things, and have benefited in various ways, from different groups and ministries. I do not say, “I have no need of you!” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:21).
In one sense, I am an “independent”— free to accept all truth I come to see in the Scriptures—but in the broader sense we are all dependent. Within the body of Christ, we need each other. Each should be a team player, not a theological “Lone Ranger” doing his own thing.
Looking back over these 50 years of ministry, I have so many good memories of people I have met and preachers I have known. I have had the opportunity to speak for many different churches, groups, Bible conferences, or camp meetings in the cities and towns which are listed at the bottom of this page. The times I have preached in these places range from one to as many as 50 times or more. Some extended meetings have lasted two, three, and even four weeks.
My first marriage was in 1962, and to this marriage was born one child, Ralph K. Woodrow, in 1965. At age 25 he was killed in a tragic automobile accident. My first wife is also deceased. Of my immediate family, only my mother and I are still living.
We do not always understand things we experience in life. I don’t understand why my son Ralph K.—known in later years as “Woody”—was killed in a head-on car accident, en route to church. He had been married for only five months—with his life ahead of him. The young man in the other car, who was also killed, was a Christian too. We learned later he was inserting a Christian music cassette into the tape player in his car, momentarily distracting his attention, so that his car veered across the white line and into Woody’s car.
Woody was very special to me, of course. He and I were alone together for a number of years. When Arlene and I married in 1986, she provided a good spiritual dimension in his life. Because of his untimely death, I have no direct descendents, children, or grandchildren. But, by marriage, I have three grown children: Dale Spencer, Yvonne Johnson, and Veronica Hawkins, who live in northern California—and seven grandchildren ranging in age (as shown in the photo) from 23 to 10 years old. I claim all of them, and they claim me; we have had many good times together.
Arlene is God’s gift to me. She is a talented, super-lady—cheerful, loving, pleasant, victorious. We have a beautiful life together. I am grateful for her Spirit-filled life. In addition to her ministry involvement with me, she has had the opportunity to speak for women’s retreats, Bible college classes, and the number of lessons she has taught for the women’s Bible studies here in the desert has passed 400.
During my 50 years in ministry, I have never had any other occupation, a testimony in itself to God’s provision. I have never made a big salary, but I can truthfully say my needs have been supplied. Our home for the past 21 years, though not elaborate, is nice. Our office at the back looks out over a lovely park-like setting enclosed by pyracantha, oleander, and bamboo. We have citrus trees and, typical of this area, there are 16 tall palm trees on our property.
The accompanying photos of Arlene and me go back to the times of our respective High School graduations. She grew up in Long Beach, California; I grew up in Riverside. But it was not until we were in our late 20s that we first met. Little did we realize then that someday we would be husband and wife!
Just over three years ago, Arlene sensed the Lord was speaking to her that we should bring my mother, Florence, to live in our home. She has been with us since then and is now 90 years old. All ministry duties continue, so we are doing double duty, as it were. It is a blessing to have her, but there are also daily challenges because of blindness and dementia.
Mom may not remember what happened a half hour ago, but she can sing old hymns from many years ago word for word. I can say a few words like: “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” “What a Friend,” or “How Great Thou Art,” and she takes it from there. Though in weakened physical condition, her faith in God remains strong. It is because of her that I grew up with Christian values. She was involved in my ministry from the start; now we are ministering to her needs.
In 1969, at the comparatively young age of 58, my father suddenly and unexpectedly died—apparently from an acute heart attack. He was always a hard worker and seldom went to a doctor. He probably never went for a checkup. I was preaching in Spearfish, South Dakota, when the word of his passing came. What a shock this was!
My father was a good and caring man, and in his own way believed in the Lord. But I had prayed from childhood that he would become a dynamic and dedicated believer. As I drove those many miles back to Riverside, thoughts and concerns regarding his spiritual standing raced through my mind. Had my prayers for him gone unanswered?
In August 1995, I came close to death myself with acute peritonitis, at which time emergency surgery was performed. The surgeon (apparently from Iraq or that part of the world) told me, holding a finger close to his thumb: “You came this close to death; God must still have a work for you to do!”
Going through something like this reinforces the saying,
One life will soon be past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.
I praise God for all he has done in my life, what he is doing, and what he is going to do! He is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we can ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). The best is yet to come!
In my most recent book, A BALANCED CHRISTIAN DISCERNS EXTREMES, one can read in a comparatively short time precious truths that I learned over many years —balanced biblical information about: Prayer, public confession, submission, sacred name, sickness, predestination, security, situation ethics, God’s will, open pulpit, contradictions, dreams, witnessing, women in ministry, instrumental music, worship choruses, misunderstood words, sanctuary styles, fruitless extremes.
If you send $10, this will pay for the book, including first class postage. But, so no one is left out, you may send an offering in any amount for the book.
Without me asking any to do so, we have a small group of interested people, scattered here and there, who faithfully send an offering to this ministry every month. In this way a few, comparatively speaking, have blessed many. THANK YOU!
Payment for books or offerings can be made by check, money order, credit card, or PayPal—by mail, phone, fax, or Internet.
50 Years of Travel
ARIZONA: Coolidge, Flagstaff, Phoenix, Pinetop, Prescott, Tucson, Williams, Yuma. ARKANSAS: Dennard, Ft. Smith, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Mountain Home. CALIFORNIA: Anaheim, Arlington, Armona, Artesia, Atwater, Bakersfield, Baldwin Park, Banning, Barstow, Bellflower, Bermuda Dunes, Blythe, Boulevard, Brawley, Brea, Cabazon, Calexico, Camarillo, Cerritos, Chico, Chino, Chowchilla, Colton, Corcoran, Corning, Culver City, Delano, Desert Hot Springs, Dinuba, Dos Palos, El Cajon, El Centro, El Monte, El Segundo, Elmira, Escondido, Fair Oaks, Fillmore, Fontana, Fresno, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Gardena, Glen Avon, Glendale, Grass Valley, Hanford, Harbor City, Hawthorne, Home Gardens, Huntington Beach, Huntington Park, Imperial, Indio, Inglewood, La Puente, Lakeport, Lancaster, Lemon Grove, Lodi, Loma Linda, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Los Molinos, Lucerne Valley, Lynwood, Mentone, Merced, Mira Loma, Modesto, Monterey Park, Moreno Valley, Morongo Valley, National City, Norco, North Long Beach, Oakland, Oak View, Ojai, Olivehurst, Ontario, Orange, Orland, Palmdale, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Panorama City, Paramount, Pasadena, Pico Rivera, Pixley, Porterville, Port Hueneme, Rancho Mirage, Red Bluff, Redding, Redondo Beach, Rincon, Riverside, Rosedale, Rubidoux, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Jacinto, San Jose, Sanger, Santa Ana, Santa Cruz, Saticoy, Scotts Valley, Seal Beach, Shafter, Sky Valley, Spring Valley, Sun City, Sun Valley, Thousand Palms, Three Rivers, Tulare, Turlock, Ukiah, Van Nuys, Venice, Ventura, Victorville, Visalia, Wasco, Weaverville, Westminster, Westmoreland, Willows, Woodcrest, Woodlake, Woodland. COLORADO: Colorado Springs, Denver, Lakewood, Westcliffe. DELAWARE: Clayton, Wilmington. GEORGIA: Marietta (Atlanta). HAWAII: Camp Timberline, Honolulu, Kahuku. IDAHO: Meridian (Boise). ILLINOIS: Darien (Chicago). INDIANA: Indianapolis. LOUISIANA: Baton Rouge, Loranger. MARYLAND: Chestertown. MINNESOTA: St Paul. MISSOURI: Cameron, St. Joseph. NEBRASKA: Chappell. NEVADA: Elko, Las Vegas. NEW MEXICO: Alamagordo. NEW YORK: Mt. Sinai, New York City, Northrose. NORTH CAROLINA: Salisbury. OKLAHOMA: Tulsa, Porter. OREGON: Eastside, Jefferson, Junction City, Klamath Falls, Lafayette, Myrtle Point, Portland, The Dalles, Turner. SOUTH DAKOTA: Belle Fouche, Rapid City, Spearfish. TEXAS: Amarillo, Carrollton, Conroe, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, Irving, Lubbock, Midland, New Braunfels, Odessa, Pasadena. WASHINGTON: Battleground, Blaine, Longview, Puyallup, Tacoma, Toppenish, White Salmon. WISCONSIN: Milwaukee. CANADA: Carleton Place, Chatham, Guelph, Kaladar, Langley, Moncton, Ottawa, Perth, Sharbot Lake, Smiths Falls, St. Catherines, Toronto, Vernon, White Rock. Tr Travel in other countries includes Mexico, Denmark, Greece, Switzerland, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt.