ORLANDO, Fla. – Reinhard Bonnke might be the most famous evangelist you have never heard of.
For the past 35 years, the German-born, naturalized-American pastor has been preaching the Gospel across Africa, converting an estimated 72 million people to Christianity and earning the title of the “Billy Graham of Africa.”
Now Bonnke is turning his crusading evangelism to America and starting in Orlando, Fla., where he has been based since 1999. On Sept. 27, his first major effort in the United States – his “Good News” crusade – kicked off at the Amway Center.
“What I have seen God do in Africa, I believe God is going to do here in America in a very blessed way,” said Bonnke, in an earlier interview at his Christ for all Nations headquarters in Orlando.
More than 250 Orlando churches were signed on to participate in the two-day event. Ron Johnson, pastor of One Church in Longwood, Fla., said he hasn’t seen that communitywide commitment since Graham came to Orlando about 30 years ago.
“I don’t know of a single person since Billy Graham who has been able to unify the churches as Reinhard has unified the churches in this city,” Johnson said.
Before this effort, the 73-year-old evangelist’s focus in the United States had been on fundraising for his African missions, collecting more than $12 million in 2012, according to Charity Navigator, an independent charity evaluator. But the evangelist said God spoke to him that America wasn’t meant just to be the collection plate for Africa – the United States needs to be saved as well.
“Every new generation is a new crop that needs to be harvested for God,” said Bonnke, who lives in West Palm Beach, Fla. “God has no grandchildren. He has only children, so being a born-again Christian is not an automatic thing.”
In Africa, Bonnke is a household name. In the United States, he’s best known among Pentecostal and charismatic followers, said Robert Rhoden, interim pastor of Calvary Assembly church in Orlando. The question is whether Bonnke’s message of healing and direct divine intervention will translate to a wider American audience, Rhoden said.
“There is much more cynicism in the United States. Our prayer is that God will send just the right people to the crusades who are open and receptive to the message,” he said.
Bonnke told the audience he was called to preach to Americans after he witnessed a man who had been dead for three days come to life, thus answering his prayer that God show him something he had never witnessed.
The same God who provided that miracle in Africa will transform America, he said.
“He will shake America. America will be saved,” Bonnke told the enthusiastic crowd of thousands Friday.
Bonnke is not without critics, who challenge everything from his crowd estimates (1.6 million at an event in Nigeria) to his faith-healing miracles of diseases cured, blindness reversed and the dead resurrected. They also credit his triumphs in Africa, but less success in Europe, to a message that appeals to African beliefs in the supernatural and superstition.
But among those eager to see Bonnke turn his attention to the United States, he’s the right preacher with the right message at the right time.
“I don’t think there could be a better time for him to come forth because people are hurting,” said Alex Clattenburg, lead pastor of Orlando’s Church in the Son. “I believe he has been prepared for such a time as this.”
And maybe this is the right time for an emotional, spirited, passionate believer in the power of Jesus Christ to cure the ills of a nation.
Graham, who turns 95 in October, has been unable for some time to lead the stadium-sized crusades that made him one of the best known and beloved preachers. Bonnke, while expressing his admiration for Graham, is willing to step into the void created by Graham’s absence.
“I honor Billy Graham. He is a category by himself. But he is now turning 95. I think we should allow him to rest,” Bonnke said.
Bonnke moved his Christ for all Nations headquarters to Orlando in 1999, taking over one of Darden Restaurants’ buildings in south Orange, Fla. The move from California was in part geographical – Orlando moved him closer to Africa – but also provided Bonnke with an easy jumping-off point for his fundraising efforts throughout the U.S.
And now Orlando provides a starting place for his plan to evangelize from “city to city, coast to coast, stadium to stadium.”
“He felt that God wanted to begin something here that would spread across the nation,” Johnson said.
Bonnke said his mission is to bring peace to a troubled nation.
“I have seen whole countries shaken by the power of God,” he said. “That experience in Africa has turned me into an incurable believer that God will do it in other parts of the world as well. And I pray for America.”