PATTAYA, Thailand – Though evangelicalism has emerged as a prominent voice and a powerhouse among today's major Christian movements, it was not long ago that the Bible-based movement was a small persecuted minority.
"Even in a place like the U.K. 40 years ago, evangelicals were despised. They were quite small and the liberals really set the agenda," says John Langlois, an executive council member with the World Evangelical Alliance.
Today, the evangelical community has grown to a global constituency of 420 million Christians and has become one of the most influential faith groups, often invited by public officials to lend an ethical voice or by the international community to lend a hand.
Even the World Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization of various Christian denominations, is now soliciting the support of evangelicals after having initially rejected them, according to Langlois, who marked his 60th year as a born-again Christian and is recognized for giving 40 years of counsel and leadership in the WEA.
Still, evangelicalism hasn't grown without its challenges.
Distorting the movement's image are wealthy televangelists who have millions of followers, Langlois charges.
"These clowns in America do not portray who we are. They are caricatures of us as Christians," he says.
"One of our problems is to change the perception of evangelical stereotypes like on God TV – rich TV evangelists strutting up and down the stage with an adoring congregation whereas most evangelicals around the world are not like that. They are ordinary people, probably in villages, despised by people, very poor. They're just followers of Jesus. And I want us to be just that, to be followers of Jesus," Langlois explains.
And part of being followers of Jesus is doing what he talked about the most – looking after the poor.
Langlois believes the evangelical movement must go forward with a more holistic Gospel, spreading its credibility and witness beyond preaching.
"They can't just go about preaching," he says of evangelicals. "They've got to help the poor. That's why The Salvation Army has always had a better image than some others because everybody knows that they look after the poor."
On Wednesday, WEA delegates gathered in Thailand for the organization's first general assembly in six years approved resolutions on committing to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, fighting global poverty, calling the church to action in the HIV battle, and caring for creation.
Over the past 40 years, the evangelical movement has matured, Langlois believes, as it is moving past its legacy of colonialism. Today, evangelicalism faces the challenge of breaking the perception that it is a western religion.
"You ask people what an evangelical is, and they'll tell you the United States," he says. "We are all equal ... it's a worldwide religion, bearing witness to Jesus Christ."
Langlois hopes the WEA can serve as a visible international face for the evangelical church.
Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the WEA, conveyed that point during the alliance's General Assembly this week, saying that evangelicalism is not just an office in Vancouver, Canada, where he is based.
"WEA is Egypt, it's Bulgaria, it's Uruguay, the United States, it's France ... it's Campus Crusade ... it's our community. We are WEA," Tunnicliffe emphatically told hundreds of delegates and members from around the world on Wednesday.
The WEA General Assembly in Pattaya, Thailand, concluded its gathering Thursday after five days of intensive meetings and vision setting. The meeting drew more than 500 evangelical Christians from over 100 nations, including representatives of Pentecostal World Fellowship, the Mennonite community, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Charismatic stream, the state-sanctioned China Christian Council, and historic mainline church bodies.
Other organizations represented at the WEA General Assembly included Campus Crusade for Christ, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and the U.S. Center for World Mission.