The Last Crusade
While many Americans may have never heard of Bonnke, his ministry, Christ for all Nations (CfaN), says over 76 million people have filled out decision cards in response to salvation invitations. Most of those conversions occurred in Africa. The harvest is especially bountiful in Nigeria, where Bonnke, a native of Germany, focused his ministry for much of the 21stcentury.
Earlier this month, the 77-year-old evangelist preached what is likely his last revival campaign.
“It’s his final Africa crusade, but most probably his final one ever,” says CfaN Vice President Peter Vandenberg. More than 1.7 million people attended the five-day crusade in Lagos, Nigeria, and that total topped 2.5 million across all livestream channels.
Bonnke started CfaN in 1974 in Johannesburg and moved to Frankfurt, Germany, in 1985. He has conducted gospel outreaches in 47 nations. The vast majority — tent and open-air evangelistic campaigns — took place in 34 African countries. CfaN has offices in nine countries around the globe.
“Bonnke’s ministry planted gospel seed and encouraged the Church all across Africa,” says Gregory L. Beggs, Assemblies of God Africa regional director.
Indeed, Bonnke has shown no trepidation in treading where few Christians want to venture because of poverty, interreligious strife, and violence. Although he has escaped foiled murder plots at the hands of Islamist extremists, Bonnke refuses to categorize Muslims his foes.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ is all inclusive, the love of God does not discriminate,” Bonnke says. “I do not preach against religions; I preach Christ. I do not consider those who oppose us enemies, because Jesus died for them as much as He died for me.”
Crowds typically grew in a weeklong revival when word spread about miracles occurring. In 2000, Bonnke preached to 1.6 million people attending a single meeting in Lagos, and, according to CfaN, nearly 1.1 million of those accepted Jesus as Savior.
“I still have only one sermon,” Bonnke wrote in his 630-page autobiography, Living a Life of Fire. “I preach the simple ABCs of the gospel.”
Beginning in his early years, Bonnke sought the cooperation of a wide spectrum of Christian denominations. Bonnke followed the crusade organizational playbook created by Billy Graham. Local pastors invest months preparing beforehand because their churches stand to reap the rewards of the outreach.
“I tell the pastors of the city I am an evangelist,” explains Bonnke, initially ordained by the Federation of Pentecostal Churches in Germany. “I bring my nets; I want to borrow your boats so that we together will have a mighty catch of fish and then pull that net to the shore. I will not take a single fish with me. I take my nets and go to the next city.”
Bonnke moved his headquarters to Orlando, Florida, 16 years ago, and in 2007 received ordination from the Assemblies of God Peninsular Florida District Council as an evangelist. He became a U.S. citizen in 2012, and embarked on his first U.S. revival a year later.
Candy Gunther Brown, a Pentecostal/charismatic historian at the University of Indiana, noted that Bonnke’s old-fashioned traditional techniques of crusade evangelism worked well in Africa.
“His meetings are big events,” Brown observes. “People come to his meetings often because they are sick, they are disabled, they feel spiritually oppressed.”
Even though Bonnke remains relatively unknown in North America, H. Vinson Synan, dean emeritus of Regent University’s School of Divinity, believes Bonnke’s legacy will be unparalleled.
“He will go down as the greatest mass evangelist of all time as far as numbers of converts and huge crowds that hear him speak,” declares Synan, who first attended a Bonnke tent crusade in Zimbabwe in 1986.
“I saw the greatest miracles I’ve ever seen,” recalls Synan, who 30 years ago convinced Bonnke to begin keeping meticulous records. “Blind people received sight, people walked out of wheelchairs. Everybody goes to Bonnke crusades — Catholics, Muslims, people from all religions, and those with no religion. There is nothing quite like that in the history of evangelism.”
Certainly, no Western evangelist has spent as much time in the sub-Sahara as Bonnke.
“Reinhard Bonnke rivals Billy Graham in terms of influence, it just so happens it isn’t centered in the United States,” Brown says. “He has a lasting impact in Africa because, like Graham, he really networks with local churches and emphasizes follow-up.”
Even after decades of preaching, Bonnke says many of God’s ways are mysterious.
“When I pray for someone and that person is not healed, I do not blame it on a lack of faith,” Bonnke wrote in his autobiography. “The longer I live, the less I pretend to know about the mind of God. I do not know why some are healed and others are not. I only know that sometimes it is the faith of a sick person that makes them whole, and sometimes it is the faith of others.”
Bonnke has passed the CfaN baton to Daniel Kolenda, whom he calls “a capable and anointed man of God.” Kolenda, a graduate of the AG’s Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, is a fifth-generation preacher. He began working in the CfaN mailroom in 2004 as a way to supplement his income as a church planter.
While still going strong, the German evangelist took the unusual step of promoting Kolenda to president and CEO of CfaN in 2009. For the past six years, Kolenda, 36, has been at Bonnke’s side, preaching to millions on his own as CfaN’s “lead evangelist.” Far from crusade evangelism being a relic of the past, Bonnke believes CfaN could realize even more salvation decisions under Kolenda’s mantle.
Synan and Brown commend Bonnke’s decision to have his successor primed and ready.
“It is the best case of a Timothy coming alongside for active training that I have ever seen,” says Synan, who believes Kolenda appears to possess the same drawing power as his teacher.