Last Saturday, Reinhard Bonnke, a prominent German evangelist in Africa, passed away at the age of 79. Bonnke’s ministry began in 1967 and lasted for 50 years. Millions of people attended his crusades, leading him to be dubbed by some as “the Billy Graham of Africa.”
In 2000, CT sent a reporter to see him in Nigeria:
Sunday night Bonnke delivered a sermon on the first chapters of Acts—when the apostles received the Holy Spirit. He then told the audience: "Jesus is here with all the fire you will ever need! Raise your voices! Receive the Holy Spirit now!" Thousands in the crowd began wailing, screaming, and crying. Frantically waving their hands in the air, many begged loudly for anointing. Bonnke gave a similar message on Saturday night to 1.3 million people on the crusade ground. Building momentum with the audience, the evangelist instructed the crowd to begin shouting "Alleluia!" until the Holy Spirit entered their bodies. "You are going to speak in new tongues—a language you have never learned," he told them. "It comes from your heart. Don't be afraid—this is fantastic!"
Behind Bonnke’s massive popularity was a deep sense of humility, says Nimi Wariboko, the Walter G. Muelder professor of social ethics at the Boston University School of Theology.
“Something that will strike you about Reinhard Bonnke and the way he relates to Africa and the way he works is that he believes in Africa and he loves Africa and he loves Africans,” said Wariboko. “… The man never portrayed himself as one of these white guys coming on the white horse with a savior mentality to save Africa. He didn’t ever pretend that God had called him to the whole world. His focus was on Africa and he never lost that.”
Wariboko joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss how a German evangelist became passionate about Africa, how he differed from other Pentecostal preachers, and how his work affected the church on this continent.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #190
When did you first become familiar with Reinhard Bonnke?
Nimi Wariboko: I became familiar with him around 1984. He had a massive crusade in Zimbabwe, where he invited 4,000 and evangelists from 44 different countries from Africa, and they had this big tent crusade, and it was in the news. And Kenneth Copeland paid for the tent by giving him $1 million. That was big money in 1984. One of the most popular preachers in Nigeria, Reverend Benson Idahosa, was the only African that spoke, and so that brought attention to Bonnke because having the two of them combining, doing something, that was big.
Bonnke did something unusual by inviting about 4,000 evangelists from 44 different African countries. So even though it was happening in Zimbabwe, it was a major continental event because people came from all over Africa just to congregate there, and he pulled it off.
What do you know about how he kind of got his start preaching in Africa?
Nimi Wariboko: One thing that most people don't know, but that scholars will get a thrill out of, is that Bonnke was born in Konigsberg, the same town as Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt. And I think the town was sacked by the Soviets, so he moved away from that place around the age of 10, which is about 1949, 1950.
As he says, he got the call as a child that his ministry was going to be in Africa. And according to his story, he has never seen an African; he had never seen a black person in his life. But he believed the woman giving the vision, that God had spoken to her, that he was going to preach. So based on that condition, he then traveled to the UK to go to seminary. And he said when he arrived there, the first black person he saw on the street, he ran to the person and said, "Can I take a photograph with you?"
So by 1967, he was about twenty-seven years old. Two years earlier, he has married his wife Annie, and they went to Lesotho and he started his ministry. But he could only get five people to come and he was very frustrated, and then within seven years, he realized that he couldn't do the job he is doing in a small place, so he went to Botswana. And the first day or so, a hundred people showed up, and the number kept increasing. So by 1984, when he blew into the world stage, or at least the Pentecostal world stage in Africa, he has been practicing this for seven years.
And the reason he became Pentecostal was that an American pastor had come to their town and healed his grandfather, and so his father became a pastor, and so Bonnke was born into a Pentecostal family, believing in healing and believing in the evangelism.
I think it's important for our listeners to know what was happening on the continent of Africa in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Can you give us a sense of what was happening with regards to colonization and also the new nations that were being formed?
Nimi Wariboko: At that point, in Africa, there was a lot of expectation that new things would happen. Because that was the decade of decolonization. So a lot of countries got their independence, so there was a lot of hope about Africa's growth and development. But at the same time, in this southern part of Africa, we saw the white minority rule--in South Africa or in Zimbabwe and such places. They were tightening the noose and apartheid was taking a more deadly tone. In the midst of this, you also have the Soviet Union and the American empires both try to win Africa's vote on socialism.
So it was a very tumultuous time. It was a time with great expectation, but also with some despair going on. And this was the moment Bonnke went in. This is why his ministry would take the kind of tone it took, not only evangelism but emphasizing healing and prosperity. He could see at that time and even up to today, not many Africans have access to good healthcare. They come to God expecting God to heal them. A preacher that does not recognize that, will appear not to meet their needs.
There was a high level of poverty, and so when preachers were talking about prosperity or flourishing, it was something to ameliorate what they were going through. And it was not what we have today, where the preacher is looking to buy jets and all sorts of things. But it was how will the Gospel of Christ, not only save people and take them to heaven but at least attend to their material needs, to make life a little bearable.
And so that was the period in the time that his ministry took off.
What do you think it meant to have this European guy come to Africa during the time of decolonization and try to spread his particular understanding of the gospel?
Nimi Wariboko: In the '60s was when the mainline churches, the Anglican, the Presbyterian, etc., were actually arguing for decolonization of the churches. So they were actually asking their white missionaries or leaders to go back.
But the Pentecostal movement was beginning to take off in Africa. And those involved in the movement, were open to accepting anybody because the criteria of what they were looking for was anybody who had the power of the Holy Spirit. And if you can demonstrate that you have the anointing of the power of the Holy Spirit, they'll accept you whether you are black, or you are white. The kind of ministry Bonnke was doing was not involved in that debate the mainline churches were having. The Pentecostals at that time were open and hungry for the power of God, and he came and preached the simple message of the Gospel.
And he was not the only preacher to come at that time that was coming to Africa to preach. But one thing that is important to make clear is that people should be careful not to attribute everything to the foreigners that came in. Because that is the language you get: that he was the most important missionary, the most important preacher in Africa, that African Pentecostalism, African Christianity is due to him. It's true he played a part, but that kind of narrative is wrong. Because that's the kind of narrative that has been going on about African Christianity for over 200 days. Scholars and historians would always attribute the gains made in Africa to missionaries that came in from outside, forgetting that they couldn't have done it without local help, without massive local help. And that's why I started by telling you that in '84, there were 4,000 Africans who came together from 44 countries to make that happen.
It has always been a cooperative effort. There's always local agency, there's always local churches, that make it happen. We should recognize that.
What do you think was Bonnke's unique contribution, or maybe a unique approach, to Africa? What made him different than other Western preachers that came to Africa in the 20th century?
Nimi Wariboko: Something that will strike you about Reinhard Bonnke and the way he relates to Africa and the way he works is that he believes in Africa and he loves Africa and he loves Africans. He's not coming in as a visitor. He's not coming in with the mentality that "I'm a savior coming in on a white horse."
The man never portrayed himself as one of these white guys coming on the white horse with a savior mentality to save Africa.
He didn’t ever pretend that God had called him to the whole world, his focus was on Africa and he never lost that. I was talking to my wife last night and I said, "That guy is consistent. For 1967 until he died, he had one vision: Africa. Africa must be saved. And he lived it and he pursued it till the day he died.” That kind of dedication is important because often you find Christian leaders, once they've succeeded in one place, the want to go on to create an empire in other places, but in never lost sight of his focus on Africa.
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