The same inner flame that burns as this stocky evangelist persuades crowds of more than a million in open-air crusades, smolders as he shares his calling, seated at his desk at his Orlando, Florida-based ministry, Christ for All Nations (CfaN).
"I may come across as being a person of passion," he admits. "But my passion is tempered with divine compassion. This compassion is what makes an evangelist."
No, Bonnke is not an evangelist enamored with visions of hellfire and brimstone, whose very presence in the room makes people doubt their salvation. Rather, he possesses the single-minded, white-hot burden for the lost that tends to spread to whoever hears him speak---not by using guilt, but inspiring others with his longing to see souls brought into the kingdom.
Just since 2000, Bonnke has preached to 50 million people and CfaN has documented 34 million decisions for Christ through followup cards. But after nearly 45 years of ministry, the German-born evangelist has no plans to take a "holiday" any time soon.
While crusade attendees report healings--from the disappearance of tumors to the restoration of sight--some have experienced miracles without even attending Bonnke's crusades.
In November of 2001, Daniel Ekechukwu, a pastor in Onitsha, Nigeria, was pronounced dead at a local hospital after a disastrous accident. Hearing that Bonnke was preaching at a nearby church, Ekechukwu's wife had his body brought to the church two days after the accident.
While several pastors were guarding the body and waiting for Bonnke to finish preaching and praying in the auditorium upstairs, they noticed Ekechukwu's stomach begin to twitch. Within minutes, he had regained consciousness and was sitting up and breathing. By this time, Bonnke had left the church and gotten on a plane--unaware of the events happening in the same building.
Some have criticized Bonnke's ministry, suggesting that those who attend his crusades come only to see the miracles, but he remains undeterred by such comments. "It's wrong to go after signs and sensations, as some do," Bonnke admits. "But God has always used signs to confirm His Word."
Recently, Bonnke sat down with Ministries Today to answer some of these questions, and to comment on the relationship of the evangelist and the local church, the future of mass crusades, and the benefits and limitations of signs and wonders in reaching the lost.
Questions and Answers
Ministries Today: When did you know that you were called to be an evangelist?
Reinhard Bonnke: Although I was called to ministry at the age of 10, it was not until 1959, when I went to Bible college, that it became clear to me that Jesus had specifically directed me to become an evangelist. I knew that it was now my task for the rest of my days.
Ministries Today: How do you see your relationship to the local church and your role in partnership with it?
Bonnke: I am a church-based evangelist, because I believe that biblical evangelism makes no sense if it doesn't lead new converts into churches. I bend over backwards to ensure that after my crusades new converts will find spiritual homes.
My relationship with the churches is first-class, because I say to them: "I come with my nets, and I want to borrow your boats. Together we will go out into the deep to cast the nets, catch the fish and bring it to the shore. I will shake out every fish on the banks, and I won't take a single fish with me."
Ministries Today: How do you see the role of an evangelist complementing the other fivefold gifts?
Bonnke: I see the ministry of the evangelist as very important, but always in harmony with the rest of the fivefold ministries.
When Jesus spoke about the good Samaritan, He painted a picture of Himself---the chief evangelist and the one who seeks and saves those who are lost. The parable should be an example for all evangelists to follow. We pick up those people who have fallen among thieves and are lying half-dead along the road, and we bring these people to the inn.
The inn is a picture of the church. It symbolizes the pastoral ministry. Thank God that the evangelist finds an open door so that he can bring those whom he has rescued and ensure that they will be nursed back to health, that they can become strong, and also go out to seek and save the lost.
Ministries Today: What is God looking for in an evangelist?
Bonnke: People come to me and say, "We like your passion." Passion can easily turn into fanaticism, but evangelists are not fanatical at all.
I believe that an evangelist stands out when he has the compassion stirring his heart that stirred the father when the prodigal son returned. He threw his arms about his good-for-nothing, smelly son and he kissed him. We can have the ministry of Jesus only to the degree that we have His compassion.
Ministries Today: You are a crusade evangelist. What do you believe the future is for crusade evangelism, such as yours, Billy Graham's and that of others?
Bonnke: After World War II, some said that the days of mass evangelism were over, but with Billy Graham, they really started.
There's an African proverb that says, "When sugar is mixed with sand, the elephant doesn't get it, but the ants do." Maybe my evangelism is the "elephant type," and there may be places where it will not work. Thank God for the army of witnesses, the ants, who can still extract the souls from between the sand.
Ministries Today: You've seen many dramatic miracles in your crusades. What is the role of signs and wonders in evangelism, and what are the limitations?
Bonnke: Signs and wonders are biblical, and in our crusades, they authenticate the gospel. People see it as such---especially people of other religions. At first, they may not come to listen to my preaching, but once they see how Jesus heals the sick, they open up, and they receive salvation.
Sometimes I'm referred to as a "healing evangelist." I would call myself a salvation evangelist, who also prays for the sick. Because sickness is not the ultimate evil, healings are not the ultimate good.
Sin is the ultimate evil. Therefore, salvation is the ultimate good. It is the greatest of all miracles. It cost God the most--His only begotten Son. Part of that is healing for the body, but this is temporal. Salvation is eternal, because our souls are immortal.
Ministries Today: When ministering in superstitious cultures, how do you keep the focus on Christ, when some would come just to see signs and wonders?
Bonnke: I've seen many witch doctors get saved in our crusades. They bring their fetishes, and we burn them in front of everybody with great rejoicing. This is a hallmark of my ministry in many places, and when you listen to those testimonies, it's absolutely fantastic. We see animists, idolaters and people of other religions receive Christ.
Ministries Today: How do you deal with the challenge of discipling people who come to salvation in your crusades?
Bonnke: We cooperate with churches, because it is of paramount importance that converts find a spiritual home. Before we decide to go to a city, we recruit and train counselors from local churches.
Sometimes we have thousands of churches cooperating. In a recent crusade we had 200,000 counselors on the field and 3.4 million people who received Jesus as their Savior. We assign new convert cards to churches based on how many counselors each church has.
Ministries Today: What will it take to evangelize the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu world in the 21st century?
Bonnke: I had a crusade last year on Easter in Khartoum, Sudan. I didn't expect too much. It was my first visit, and I knew about the situation in Sudan.
The first meeting, we only had 30,000 people. When I began to pray for the sick, the power of Jesus struck that place. A deaf mute was completely healed, and blind people received their sight.
The next night, we had 70,000, then 150,000, then 180,000, then 200,000---in the green square in the heart of Khartoum, Sudan, a Muslim country! That has given me faith for North Africa and for the hardest nations on earth.
Ministries Today: Has the American church become content financing evangelism without being involved in it?
Bonnke: Anyone who is financing evangelism is also involved in it. I preach the gospel to the poor. How could I do it if people will not financially enable me to do it? I believe that people who support my ministry participate in the eternal fruit of the ministry--those souls saved in Africa.
Sometimes, I think that, with so many involved with prayer and financial support, I hope that some part of the reward will be left for the preacher!
Ministries Today: What advice would you have for pastors who want to reach their communities, but are encountering a seeming lack of interest in the gospel?
Bonnke: In the parable of the sower, Jesus was the sower, and the seed was the Word. You couldn't get a better sower, and you couldn't get a better seed, but the yield depended upon the soil, and soils are different.
The results are not always the same, but if we stay close to Jesus and change our methods a little bit, we will find better results. A pastor who preaches the gospel and sees some negative results shouldn't be criticized. He should be encouraged.
Ministries Today: You are a very single-minded person. How do you maintain your passion for souls?
Bonnke: It's the Holy Spirit. It grips me when I see people come to salvation. I'm a tough German, but I could cry tears when I hear the testimony of how someone gets saved. The fire I got when I was baptized in the Holy Spirit at the age of 11 keeps renewing me.
We'll go on holiday when the last soul is saved. There's no way to retire now. Would you retire if you were in a rescue boat and you saw 100 more souls battling in the water? It's not possible, because evangelism is not a profession, it's a divine calling.