A born-again Christian for 60 years and a long-time member of a global evangelical body, John Langlois has witnessed the growth of evangelicalism from its despised, minority stage to the highly prominent Christian movement it has become today.
After joining hundreds of other evangelical leaders from around the world at the World Evangelical Alliance's General Assembly last week, Langlois sees the evangelical movement maturing but still struggling to break stereotypes and to take on a bigger role in society.
The Christian Post caught up with Langlois, an executive council member of the WEA, at the WEA meeting in Pattaya, Thailand, to hear his insights about evangelicalism and the growing global body.
CP: How has the WEA changed over the past 40 years?
Langlois: What has happened during the last 40 years is that the whole of the evangelical movement has moved from a small persecuted minority to a much broader constituency of now 420 million and more Christians around the world.
CP: What do you mean by persecuted? Do you mean by the government?
Langlois: Even in a place like the UK 40 years ago, evangelicals were despised, they were quite small and the liberals really set the agenda. And the WCC (World Council of Churches) did not want really anything to do with evangelicals. Now they're deliberately soliciting the support of evangelicals because they themselves has lost their message; the mainline denominations have declined hugely; and the only growing part of the church is the evangelical side. And so they're trying to bring the evangelicals in to the ecumenical movement which I support in some respects as long as we maintain our biblical traditions.
CP: How has the WEA played a role in that, in organizing evangelicals?
Langlois: The WEA has generally been very weak. In one respect, it tends to be very weak because of small staff, small budgets. But across the world, the evangelicals know that there is no other forum which they can turn to to express their unity. So a General Assembly like this brings together a lot of people from other countries who know this is their real home.
CP: And has the WEA grown stronger over the years?
Langlois: I think it has matured. The evangelical movement has matured. In some respects, well 40 years ago it was a legacy of colonialism. The churches are western churches with missionaries in various parts of the world and the major, great number of evangelicals were in North America and a few in Europe. Now, China's got more Christians, born-again Christians than any other nation. And that is where the center of the Christian church is going to be in the future.
CP: Really? I usually hear the center will be in Africa or Latin America.
Langlois: No. China. Because the Chinese church is a missionary church and they suffered persecution. What has happened in much of Africa is that there's been a veneer of Christianity and yet the corruption in the continent is huge. The Christians have not impacted society whereas in China, I think they will make a difference and I think the Chinese government … I have had discussions with the minister of state of religion in China. And they know that because they want the Christians to bring the ethical perspective to society.
CP: It does seem they're making more of an effort to show that they're helping Christians and printing Bibles.
Langlois: I think they are but they want to assure that the Christians do not have a political agenda. When I went to China in 1996, we had a meeting with the government. They said how do we deal with the clowns? And I said what do you mean by clowns? And they said, you know the funny people – televangelists, people like that, people who stand up and say I represent a million evangelicals, I'm a big person. And they just put them in prison because they do not want to have disharmony in China. In China, the major problem right through the centuries and the millennia has been disharmony in society – warlords everywhere breaking up the Chinese people. And they don't want the Christians to do that. They don't want anybody to upset political harmony.
CP: How do you view the evangelical identity and how it's changing or developing around the world?
Langlois: 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, they're very poor, they're just followers of Jesus. And I want us to be just that, to be followers of Jesus.
These clowns in America do not portray who we are. They are caricatures of us as Christians.
CP: How do you define evangelical?
Langlois: An evangelical is someone who's got a personal faith in Jesus Christ and who takes the Bible as his guidebook and lives by it without the accretions of tradition.
CP: Do you feel that identity is clearly displayed by evangelicals or are many confusing it?
Langlois: They've got stereotypes. They're not living like Jesus Christ. They can't just go about preaching. They've got to help the poor. And that's why The Salvation Army has always had a better image than some others because everybody knows that they look after the poor.
CP: So it's not just about the church but the holistic ministry, serving the poor, etc.
CP: What about the evangelicals' role in government or influencing government? Do you support or encourage that?
Langlois: I was in politics for 24 years, from 1990 until 2004.
CP: So that means yes?
Langlois: Yes. I was virtually the deputy prime minister in Guernsey Channel Islands.
CP: What kind of role do you want the WEA to play in the next 10 years?
Langlois: I want it to be a visible face for the evangelical church, primarily in the majority world, not just the United States and Canada. Now, you ask people what an evangelical is, and they'll tell you the United States. It's got to be worldwide and we are all equal and it's not a western religion. It's a worldwide religion, bearing witness to Jesus Christ.
CP: So you believe the path that evangelicals should take right now is advocacy, helping the poor … ?
Langlois: Just that. Holistic gospel. We heard this morning in the presentation that the greatest witness we can give is looking after the poor. Jesus talked about looking after the poor much more than he did about preaching. That is portraying who Jesus is. We say this is how we live as disciples.
CP: So something like Rick Warren's PEACE plan, mobilizing churches worldwide to help the poor, the sick and so forth, is that the direction evangelicals should be going in?
Langlois: I absolutely support it. But it's not usually done with a big program. It's individuals individually helping their neighbor like a good Samaritan. If we can mobilize resources for that, that comes as an extra stage. There's got to be local, personal commitment on the ground. When there's that then you can use the resources responsibly. That's why when the United Nations and others, governments, raise huge funds in supporting the tsunami, a lot of money never gets used for the right purpose because there's no personal commitment.
CP: So you see the future of the evangelical movement developing as more of an international face, in caring more for the poor …?
Langlois: And also we definitely have a place to play in the good governance of the world. We have got to say more in politics, but not to tell political parties or support this person or that one. We've got to have something to say in the financial crisis in our world, we have got to live within our means, we have not got to encumber the poor in America and Britain with mortgages they can never repay. And there was the whole question of the consolation of debt of the third world, because the world bank and IMF allowed money to be paid to African nations for development in the 1960s which they can never repay, and the World Bank should never have allowed them to take the money. It should have been done like a bank manager should – he looks to see what his client's earning capacity is, whether he's got family commitments, and whether he can repay.
CP: Would you say the church should play a bigger role in that rather than the government?
Langlois: Yes. The church has got to work with the government. The church should not run the government, but the church should be salt and light in society. And I've held a view for many years that if you've got two percent of people who are Christians, committed Christians, born-again Christians, in the society, it makes a difference.