CLAD IN ILL-FITTING SWIM TRUNKS and a faded T-shirt, Bruce Wilkinson stepped gingerly into a small swimming pool late one May night in Namibia. "Oh, that's cold," Wilkinson said as he began an impromptu baptismal service for two white Namibians under an inky African sky. The two women had been baptized as infants into the Dutch Reformed church, a small Calvinist denomination in Namibia. But they had decided to be baptized again as adults by immersion, following in the footsteps of their husbands, both of whom are evangelical lay leaders. Such rebaptisms for bona fide church members are all but forbidden among most Protestant groups, including the Dutch Reformed.
"I know you believe God loves you," Wilkinson said to one of the women before baptizing her. "But do you believe God likes you?" A long pause ensued. The woman then broke into tears and nodded her head. Wilkinson baptized her as her family and friends applauded. He had helped yet another believer make a breakthrough.
The spiritual breakthrough has become the signature feature of Wilkinson's burgeoning global ministry. The news media have put the spotlight on his fabulously successful books, his new partnership with World Vision in the HIV/AIDS battle, and his stunning and unexpected relocation to Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002.
Such coverage looks at Wilkinson's achievements in isolation. Earlier this year, Wilkinson invited Christianity Today to travel with him, and I spent several days in May getting a more integrated picture of his ministry. I also interviewed Wilkinson outside Johannesburg, where he now lives with his wife, Darlene Marie, and their teenage daughter. Wilkinson's son, David, relocated to Johannesburg with his wife and two children in 2002 to work with Wilkinson's Walk Thru the Bible Ministries.
Wilkinson is one of a potent handful of evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren (Saddleback Church) and Richard Stearns (World Vision), who are convinced that Africa, especially Christian-majority southern Africa, is becoming a crucible for 21st century Christianity. Their focus on southern Africa is as much a strategic choice as it is driven by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
"If you live in the West, there are no ongoing structural reasons that force people's attention to Africa," Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, told me in a recent interview. "We cannot ignore the Middle East. We cannot ignore Korea or China. We can afford to ignore Africa. Please don't hear that in a cynical way. There are no particular reasons why Westerners have to pay attention to Africa, except when they feel like it."
Bruce Wilkinson feels like it. "God ripped open our chest, took out our heart, dug a hole in Africa, put it in, covered it with soil and said, 'Now, follow your heart and move down to Africa,' " he told me. Wilkinson's relocation doesn't fit neatly into the career foreign missionary model, but the relocation to Africa of a successful Western Christian is not without precedent. Some, such as renowned theologian and musicologist Albert Schweitzer, move to Africa and achieve even greater glory, while others launch hospitals, schools, or other ministries to lesser acclaim.
In Wilkinson's case, his new organization, Global Vision Resources, with offices in Atlanta, Georgia, and Johannesburg's high-tech Dimension Data corporate campus, provide a potent platform for networking. Wilkinson has kept one hand active at the bottom and the other at the top, from helping a remote desert village get a borehole drilled for drinking water to meeting with six African heads of state.
"He's had a huge influence here," says Nico Bougas, editor of Today, a leading Christian magazine in South Africa. Though he admits that Wilkinson has had less success with liberal mainliners and others who object to his conservative Bible teaching, Bougas said that within a short time, "He's made an impact." After spending just a few days with Wilkinson, I can see why.
In Namibia, influential Christians have begun a renewal movement that they call the Namibian Dream, anchored by an annual outdoor celebration, Transformation Namibia. They invited Wilkinson to be their keynote speaker for the May 1, 2003, gathering at a sports arena in Windhoek, the nation's capital, surrounded by the barren and beautiful mountains of the ancient Namib Desert.
Diamond-rich Namibia has not been as afflicted by pestilence or coups as have other African nations. With a Christian majority and a relatively prosperous economy, Namibia is a missions success by the numbers. But latent racism, chronic poverty, and white control of agricultural land have held back Namibians.
Louis and Therese Conradre of Campus Crusade put this situation in perspective. For 14 years now, since Namibia's independence from South Africa, they've been building relationships among business leaders and professionals. The couple told me that unity among black and white Namibians remains elusive. "Spiritual change is going slowly," Therese said. "White people are in their safe environment with their high walls. They remote-control into their homes."
What is necessary to bring unity again? "Blacks need us to acknowledge the depth of their hurts." she says. "Full unity and reconciliation is not possible without Jesus Christ. We must become friends."
The Namibian Dream movement is trying to build such friendships; it is one stream of a larger spiritual renewal underway in southern Africa that has gained little attention outside the region. Three years ago, Graham Power of Cape Town, South Africa, launched Transformation Africa with a stadium-based event not unlike Promise Keepers' 1997 Stand in the Gap gathering in Washington, D.C.
A charismatic business leader, Power hosted one event in 2001. One year later, the number of venues grew to eight. By May 1, 2003, 5 million Africans in 138 stadiums in 20 African nations gathered to sing, dance, blow shofars, beat African drums, and pray for revival and social healing. "Africa's time is now," Ron Gardner, a Windhoek pastor, told me. "We've got five years. The momentum will grow to a breakthrough or there will be persecution."
Transformation Africa's top leaders and Wilkinson have the same goal of focusing the power of Christians for a continent-wide spiritual and social renewal around biblical teaching. Southern Africa's conservative Christians provide the workers, while Wilkinson provides new strategies for evangelism, church planting, pastor training, and holistic outreach.
"God doesn't pick the big," Wilkinson told the May 1 crowd in Windhoek's Independence Stadium. "He picks the Davids. He looks for a small country. He is knocking on this nation's door. No more corruption in the church, the government, the media, or business. If you need to change, will you make the change, no matter how hard?"
The movement has not been without controversy. In Namibia, President Sam Nujoma agreed to attend the May 1 rally, but canceled at the last minute. Then, in a veiled reference to Wilkinson, a newspaper columnist warned against white American imperialists out to steal Namibian land and money.
But Wilkinson's work on racial issues has garnered respect among influential black leaders. "When he came here in November, he was able to make the white people say sorry to us," said Nangula Kathindi, secretary general of the Namibian Council of Churches. "The challenge to black people is to accept the apology."
Burning Bush at Wendy's
Wilkinson's global vision was years in the making, despite his reputed impulsiveness. As founder and president of Walk Thru the Bible, Wilkinson's relentless focus on Bible teaching had made his organization one of North America's most successful ministries, producing 11,000 seminars for 2 million people since 1976.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Wilkinson traveled to Russia to teach as part of a Jesus film convocation. "God did some things in that event that gripped my heart so much I began to weep almost every day," he says. In anguish, Wilkinson came back and laid flat on the floor, pleading, "God, I don't want to get involved with Russia." As he persisted in prayer, he finally broke down in an act of surrender.
A short time later, Wilkinson had a burning bush-like encounter that enlarged his vision for overseas ministry— a story that illustrates how he can sometimes make abrupt decisions based on an almost mystical sense of God's leading. In Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve with his wife's family, Wilkinson drove to a Wendy's restaurant for coffee and to reread a biography of China missionary Hudson Taylor. He was feeling restless and confused.
He sat in a corner booth and prayed, "God, tell me what do you want me to do."
Immediately he sensed God's reply: I want you to keep the Great Commission.
"What do you mean, Lord? Look at all this Bible teaching we're doing." He pleaded a second time, "So, Lord, what do you want me to do?"
I want you to keep the Great Commission.
His mind raced. He felt he couldn't work harder, and that he shouldn't work longer if he wanted to maintain a family life. "Lord, in what way am I not obeying the Great Commission?" he asked. He pulled out his New Testament and reread the Great Commission passage.
As he read the passage, the answer came back: I told you to go to all the nations and disciple everybody, and you've never obeyed me.
He replied, "Lord, I'm just one little person, one little organization. How can I go to all of the nations?"
It's none of your business how, just obey.
At that point, he broke down and wept. He says he confessed his sin of not making the whole world his vision and made a commitment: "Lord, from this moment forth I will live the rest of my life to reach every single nation and everybody in the nation to make disciples of them." He felt a deep sense of quiet.
Stunned, Wilkinson blurted out, "I didn't really have a conversation with God, did I? Lord, if this really was you, confirm it to me!" He picked up the Hudson Taylor biography and opened it to where he had left off : Hudson Taylor was composing a letter to his sister and wrote: "Sis, I was walking on the seashore of the China Sea and I was praying, 'God, what do you want me to do?' And God said, 'I want you to keep the Great Commission.' "
Wilkinson bowed his head and told God that's what he would do. Within months he and two other top leaders launched the CoMission, an innovative education ministry in Russia. Wilkinson served as CoMission chairman for five years.
During Wilkinson's time with the Co-Mission, he sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down a Great Commission-related question: WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE IF IT WAS FINISHED?
"I needed a finish line," he says. He researched what percentage of a population needs to be influenced to influence the whole—2 percent, according to sociologists.
Wilkinson eventually set this finishing line: One senior Bible teacher for every 50,000 people, teaching three courses every year to no fewer than 100 people. He set an overall goal to train 120,000 Bible teachers to influence the top 2 percent of the world population. Wilkinson was 50 years old when he developed this outreach plan, called WorldTeach. He gave himself a deadline of 15 years, aiming to achieve this Great Commission milestone by 65.
By the end of 2002, WorldTeach, a strategy of Walk Thru the Bible, had 33,374 Bible teachers in 82 nations. Wilkinson wasn't persuaded that his plan was foolproof. WorldTeach was a bottom-up strategy. "The other half of the vision was top-down," he said to me, "because I don't believe 2 percent is enough."
On Friday, May 2, the day after Transformation Namibia, Wilkinson awoke to read the page-one headline in a leading newspaper: TRANSFORMATION NAMIBIA A STEP FORWARD, WORKERS A STEP BACKWARD. The labor movement's competing event on May 1 was poorly attended and disorganized. By contrast, Transformation Namibia was a visible success and a catalyst for another breakthrough.
On the way to the airport to catch the first plane back to Johannesburg, Wilkinson held an impromptu meeting with several key ministry leaders. During Wilkinson's recent trips to the United States, he said the HIV/AIDS pandemic is the worst catastrophe to befall the human race since the biblical Flood. For Wilkinson, like others before him, orphaned children have become an important focal point in the HIV/AIDS battle.
The AIDS orphan problem is one of many confounding social issues in Africa that defies solution because of its size and complexity. According to unaids, 20 million children 15 or younger classified as AIDS orphans are spread across Africa's 56 nations.
Wilkinson has taken two familiar efforts, child sponsorship and videotaped Bible instruction, to create an unusually integrated approach to addressing a major social problem. In southern Africa, HIV/AIDS has progressed to the point of being what public health professionals call a generalized epidemic. That means HIV has broken out of the at-risk populations of prostitutes, street drug abusers, and the sexually promiscuous.
A lively debate ensued on that Friday morning, as Wilkinson's airport shuttle sped down a desert highway to the Windhoek airport. Wilkinson probed his leadership team on how he could announce a new initiative to support AIDS orphans at his Secrets of the Vine seminar (based on his best-selling book) the next day in Pretoria, an event to be broadcast via satellite.
As the day progressed, Wilkinson developed his initiative. "God will provide," he said confidently. Some of his team agreed to get ideas from government, social ministries, and parachurch groups. They also agreed that donors could use cell-phone text messaging or the Internet to respond instantly.
Back in Johannesburg, Wilkinson blocked off his Friday afternoon for two things: lunch with Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, and a visit with pastors Mathebula Fickson and John Ngobeni, whose churches outside Johannesburg are in Tembisa. This township holds about 1 million people on the brink of absolute poverty with limited access to housing, employment, food, safe drinking water, and health care.
After lunch, Fickson, a short, thin man with a ready smile, walked Warren, Wilkinson, and David Wilkinson along Tembisa's dusty roads, lined with shacks. Women cooked over open fires, and shoeless children played with toys made of trash.
Later that afternoon, Fickson took Warren and Wilkinson to the back of his church sanctuary, a large blue and white tent provided by Judea Harvest, a church planting ministry. Another example of the Wilkinsons' vision lay before them: row on row of tomato plants, leeks, cabbages, lettuce, and green peppers butted up against the tent wall. "We feed 70 families with the produce from this garden," Fickson said, pointing to a plot about 60 feet by 80 feet.
Pretoria, just north of Johannesburg, is one of South Africa's most white and most prosperous areas. A four-lane expressway connects Pretoria to Johannesburg. It has fast-food restaurants, megachurches, and lush golf courses. The Dutch Reformed church in Pretoria, a large brick structure that seats about 1,500 and can beam the program onto a satellite, was the site for the annual Turn the Tide teaching event, produced by Walk Thru the Bible. Wilkinson, Warren, their wives, and several other church leaders led four days of training sessions broadcast nationally from the church.
All day Saturday, Wilkinson taught from Secrets of the Vine, the John 15-based book he wrote after his mega-bestseller, The Prayer of Jabez.
Halfway through his teaching, Wilkinson delivered on his commitment to launch a new effort to help AIDS orphans. He invited members of the audience to individually sponsor an AIDS orphan for 150 Rand ($20) per month. He also called on some to sponsor ten orphans. Then, Wilkinson announced that he believed God would move some individual or congregation to sponsor 1,000 orphans—"Just because God likes to show off."
By the end of the Saturday training session, hundreds of people had together pledged to sponsor about 3,000 orphans. One family and one business each decided to sponsor 1,000 orphans. A new ministry, Turn the Tide for Children, will work with local churches to identify and provide services for orphans sponsored under the program.
Too Old for a Big Mistake
Wilkinson's heady influence in southern Africa did not emerge overnight. It comes from years of effort in the region before The Prayer of Jabez catapulted him to celebrity in 2001. Martin Deacon, a Dallas Seminary grad like Wilkinson and a white South African who heads up WorldTeach and Turn the Tide, has worked with Wilkinson for 10 years. "I've known him before Jabez, during it, and now after. It's enlarged his territory, but I can't see that it's enlarged his head."
The morning after teaching in Pretoria, Wilkinson sat down for a wide-ranging interview about his final days at Walk Thru the Bible.
After he started WorldTeach, he says, he began to think about ways to move beyond his bottom-up efforts to fulfill the Great Commission. "I began to think, We need to get the biggest scoop at the top. What's the biggest scoop that there is? Movies and TV." He began developing ideas for feature films and television that would link to WorldTeach courses.
Just before the fall 2000 publication of Jabez, Wilkinson was engaged in an extensive debate with the board of Walk Thru the Bible about the ministry's strategic direction. After Wilkinson launched WorldTeach, the startup costs became significant. Wilkinson studied church history and found that there were only a handful of occasions when evangelistic ministry was self-sufficient. He was particularly attracted to evangelist D. L. Moody's plan of publishing his sermons, which Moody Bible Institute students sold door-to-door to pay their bills.
Wilkinson presented the Moody model to the Walk Thru board, suggesting they sell his books in the same way, but the board didn't agree. He went home to his wife and said, "Sweetheart, it's not going to happen at Walk Thru at this point for whatever reason. Let's pray and ask God for a whole lot of money so we can make it happen for WorldTeach. Let's pray for a year."
She asked, "How can we possibly make more money?"
He just said, "I don't know. But God's heart is in WorldTeach, and let's just ask him." Wilkinson emphasizes that he specifically asked for "a lot of money."
That year, Wilkinson worked on Jabez. He had little expectation that Jabez would be his answer to prayer. The first press run was only 30,000 copies. At the same time, WorldTeach was demanding more resources, so Wilkinson and his wife took out half of their retirement funds to underwrite ministry material for WorldTeach programs.
In 2001-02, Wilkinson pushed for endorsement of the WorldTeach-related film and video productions. Wilkinson was in the Hollywood area speaking to Christians in the entertainment industry. A prominent Christian couple told him afterward that he should minister to Hollywood. Wilkinson says he sought confirmation from other godly leaders about his top-down strategy. Then he resigned from Walk Thru.
"People felt betrayed. People felt it was impulsive. People felt I was in it for the money. My, my, my," Wilkinson said, shaking his head. The Wilkinsons traveled to Hollywood in early 2002 to hunt for a house (unsuccessfully) and Bruce began developing feature film and video projects.
Wilkinson traveled for three weeks in South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria in May 2002. After rallying Christians in Johannesburg to take a stand for marital fidelity, chastity, and honest government, Bruce and David, who had just relocated his own family to Johannesburg, talked until 3:15 a.m. "Dad, you preached one of the most important messages of your lifetime and you said that it only took one person to stand in the gap for Africa," David Wilkinson said. "You are that man. You are to stand in the gap for Africa and move here."
"Yes, I know," Wilkinson replied—but unconvinced, he prayed, "I'm too old to make a big mistake. Lord, I don't want to bring hurt to your name in any way. Would you please validate this?
"Here I am leaving Walk Thru. People have trouble with that. Then I announce I'm going to California. People have trouble with that. And now I'm going to Africa. Lord God, are you sure!" Wilkinson assembled prominent South African Christians. After they met three hours about South Africa's problems, one top executive said, "It's going to take someone from the outside who doesn't have an agenda and who is respected. You are that man."
Traveling in West Africa, Wilkinson was at an event cosponsored with Rick Warren and International Christian Ministries. He urged Nigerian pastors to return to the Muslim-majority North. "Stand up and come forward and shake my hand, knowing that you will not let anyone except the Lord stop you and you may die over this." About 600 Nigerian pastors did so, and a top Nigerian church leader later told Wilkinson, "God's anointing for Africa is on you." (More than 200 pastors as of late this year have signed up for theological training before moving north.)
Returning home, Wilkinson in July attended the annual Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) convention, where the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association gave him the prestigious book of the year award (a second time) for Jabez. But Wilkinson's keynote address backfired. According to a Publisher's Weekly account, Wilkinson's "altar call" for ECPA publishers to re-commit themselves to the Great Commission prompted negative reactions. Some viewed it as "manipulative" and "offensive." PW quoted Doug Ross, ECPA president, saying, "That room was filled with people who are doing something around the world." Ross, commenting to CT in September, said the speech was a "helpful wakeup call" in retrospect. "Bruce is a powerhouse leader and we need more like him." Another CBA attender said there was "a fair amount of anger" the next day as book publishers and editors discussed the event.
In It for money?
Despite occasional bad reactions (and scathing book reviews) in the United States, Wilkinson encounters relatively little criticism among African evangelicals. Wilkinson told CT, "I'm not serving the Lord harder here than I would anywhere else in the world. I'm not here to earn more rewards. I'm [in Africa] because he asked me to come." Still, he seems disturbed by the people who remain skeptical about his achievements or allege that The Prayer of Jabez is about personal financial gain, not growing in ministry.
In the wake of Wilkinson's initial success in Africa, more questions are surfacing about his conservative teaching and his wealth. Marilyn Berto, an Atlanta lay leader who has traveled to Africa with Wilkinson, said "I've heard people say, 'He's in it for the money.' Bruce is probably making a lot of money. But I can tell you he's giving it away as fast as he makes it."
Journalist Bougas said, "Some pastors accused him of being racist [when] he spoke about idolatry in some African-based churches, where there are still things like ancestor worship. He was being straight, and it is a major problem."
This fall, Multnomah Publishers will release Wilkinson's latest book, The Dream Giver. A parable, it opens with the memorable line, "Not long ago and not far away, a Nobody named Ordinary lived in the Land of Familiar." Wilkinson assumes the persona of Dream Coach, assisting an individual's spiritual pilgrimage.
And what about pilgrim Wilkinson's own progress? He wrote to me by e-mail from Johannesburg in late August: "The needs of millions truly burden our hearts. It's difficult to sleep at times. The territory has expanded so much that I only focus on Put your hand upon me and Keep me from evil."
Looking at African history, it's easy to see that more Westerners are changed by Africa than change Africa. Wilkinson's staying power may determine whether he can build on his impressive start or becomes a missions history footnote.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also posted today is "Never-Ending Gardens," about feeding Africa's poorest families.
CT Managing Editor Mark Galli reviewedJabez and The Secrets of the Vine.
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