Recently I chatted with Dr. Wayne and Bonnie Wilks regarding the upcoming 20 year anniversary of MJBI. During our conversation they reminisced about their early days of ministry: the hardships, funny stories and miracles. As I listened, I thought they truly are servant leaders. From personal experience over the last nine years, I have learned they have a unique ability to encourage those around them by seeing their gifts and strengths, and then building them up—all while giving grace for growing pains. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
How did the two of you get started in Jewish ministry, something that was relatively unheard of in mainline churches just a few decades ago? Who inspired you?
Bonnie: My mother first inspired me to love the Jewish people because they were the Chosen People of God. Later, working alongside of them living on an Israeli kibbutz, I developed a deeper love of Jewish people, their culture, and traditions. Pastor Olen and Syble Griffing also taught us how to love and give our lives in serving the Jewish people, as did Jonathan Bernis and Dan Juster who had a hand in sending us out.
Wayne: I received a calling to missions and the Jewish people in 1982 at the altar of Trinity Fellowship Church in Amarillo. It developed over the years at Shady Grove Church with such men as Pastor Olen, Robert Morris and Rabbi Marty Waldman. The culture at Shady Grove created an increasing love in me for missions and the Jewish people.
In 1996 you moved to Ukraine. Why?
Wayne: Jonathan Bernis was seeing a great harvest of faith among the Jewish people of the former Soviet Union. Communism had fallen and had stripped them of their bias against Yeshua. With thousands now believing in Yeshua as their Jewish Messiah, there needed to be a training institute to prepare leaders for Messianic Jewish congregations and ministry. We knew that was where God was moving among Jewish people and the need was great.
What were your impressions of the students then and the students now?
Wayne: In our first year, we had 30 students from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Belarus and Latvia. They were so unencumbered, coming with only a bag of their worldly possessions and making great sacrifices to be there. All the students (then and now) share the same zeal to fully serve Yeshua and their people.
Bonnie: Having seen the very first students, our “first fruits” class in 1996 and the many students since then, I have to say that there is really not much difference—only the change in time as it progresses forward. I see the same fervor and love for God’s Word and for the Jewish people in each class. God has sent such passionate people our way to be shaped and prepared to work in Jewish communities around the world.
There are many MJBI miracle stories. Which one has inspired you the most?
Bonnie: I will never forget in the early years when Wayne preached on Yeshua as the Passover Lamb in the Messianic congregation in Odessa, Ukraine. At the end of the message, a Russian Jewish woman came quickly to the front with tears streaming down her face. She said, ״This is the first time that I have understood that Yeshua is my Passover Lamb!״ It has been a miracle to see this over and over and become an eyewitness to the redemption of the Jewish people.
That is a beautiful image of what MJBI is all about that many fail to understand. Is that a challenging aspect of Messianic ministry? What else do people need to understand about MJBI?
Bonnie: The most challenging thing about being in Messianic ministry is helping the church understand the importance of the Jewish people around the world and the State of Israel. Everywhere we go, we are constantly teaching and educating, showing what God’s Word reveals about the importance of Israel historically, currently and in the future. What people need to understand is that MJBI is a Messianic ministry representing the Jewish people. Our foremost desire is that all Jewish people will have an opportunity to hear about their long-awaited Messiah and be trained and taught the Bible from a Jewish perspective. Jewish people have specific objections to the Gospel due to their culture and background. These things need to be taken into consideration. MJBI has endeavored to be sensitive as we present the Good News of Yeshua, and as we seek to train and equip both Jewish and Gentile believers who feel called to Messianic Jewish ministry.
Through all the challenges, what were your long term motivators and how did you stay true to the course?
Wayne: A sense of Divine calling…wanting to be in God’s will. Plus understanding the “fullness of time” for Jewish restoration and the Gospel.
Bonnie: In short, I’m to produce lasting fruit. Sometimes there would be ups and downs in the ministry, and it could be discouraging. But I always remembered that God called us to produce fruit and fruit that remains. Keeping my eyes focused on Jesus has helped me to stay centered and remain on task about producing lasting fruit. I think of the scripture from Hebrews that says, “But we see Jesus…” He did not waver and stayed true to the end, and I know that He gives me strength to do the same. Truly it has been the consistency and unchanging character of my Savior that has encouraged me along the way.
If you were starting MJBI tomorrow, how would your priorities differ from those in 1996?
Wayne: The top priorities would be the same: to focus on harvest fields or places where the Jewish people are the most open to the Holy Spirit, which is where we are currently working. From the former Soviet Union to South America to Africa, God is moving among the Jewish people. Today, I would also focus on the Church in China and other nations that are open to the prophetic “Israel piece.” Investing in young Millennials called to ministry is also vital, mentoring them in the importance of Jewish ministry and equipping them to impact their culture with this truth. I guess, basically, I would keep doing the same things, walking through the doors He opens.
Speaking about the future of Messianic Jewish ministry, what do you see for the future of MJBI?
Wayne: I am excited to see the next generation arising who will apply the Good News to the unique challenges of their day. I see greater expansion in MJBI’s ministry via internet classes and instruction. The Kadima program will launch MJBI into the future as the foremost Bachelor’s degree level program of its kind in Messianic Jewish studies.
Bonnie: I am very excited about the future of the MJBI. I know that our Executive Vice President Nic (and Tabatha) Lesmeister were handpicked by God. I believe they will take the MJBI to higher levels accomplishing what we have not—and reaching into countries and cities that we have not. God has made them ready for this task!
To hear more about the past and future of MJBI, join us in Arlington, Texas, on November 10th, 2016, with others from around the world for our 20 year Anniversary celebration, “Forward!” Go to forward.mjbi.org for more information.