Larry Shallenberger answers, "What is an Evangelical?" | Sojourners

Larry Shallenberger answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Larry Shallenberger. Photo courtesy of the author.
Larry Shallenberger. Photo courtesy of the author.

When asked if I’m an Evangelical, I give the same answer I give when someone inquires if I’m a Shallenberger.

“Why do you ask?”

My dad taught me this response. He was one of five brothers who committed lot of mischief in high school. Admitting to being a Shallenberger cost him a few beatings that were intended for one of his siblings.

A generation later, I’m one among 67 first cousins. In spite of taking liberties with many of God’s commandments, my clan is slavishly dedicated God’s injunction to be “fruitful and multiply.” The result is that we’re like Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get. We’ve got our teachers, preachers, lawyers, and thieves, rumrunners, and convicts.

So admitting I’m a Shallenberger could result with me standing in for someone else’s beating. Or at least being on the short end of a case of mistaken identity.

I have the same qualms about copping to being an Evangelical.

For many, to be Evangelical is to be a political and theological version of Rain Man: Socially tone deaf and soothing ourselves by repeating doctrinal mantras.

“Hollywood sucks.”

“Ten minutes to the 700 club. Definitely.”

For others, the term Evangelical conjures the image of crowded minivans making annual pilgrimages to the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky. Admitting to being an Evangelical is conceding to being an intellectual bantamweight. This may or may not be true about me, but I have no obligation to advertise it.

So am I an Evangelical?

Did you know that Shallenbergers served in the Civil War with distinction?

Self-identifying as an Evangelical might get me labeled a political activist. Yes, I’m an Evangelical. I’m also a Republican. But touching these two labels together invokes pictures of voting checklist guides, culture wars, and the case of Visine needed to make Michelle Bachmann eyes blink. I‘m not a militant, taking the country back for God.

So am I an Evangelical? Did you know that the family name is actually Swiss-German? That explains our passive-aggressive nature.

The term "Evangelical" is like a pair of hand-me-down underwear. It's been stretched over so many shapes and sizes that it's lost its snap and doesn't fit anyone anymore. It’s been pulled around the circumference of Mars Hill, Seattle and Mars Hill, Grand Rapids. Billy Graham, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Jay Bakker Benny Hinn, Scot McKnight, Don Miller, Jimmy Carter, W., John Piper, Ken Ham, Jim Wallis, and Bill Hybels have all had their turn sporting this hand-me-down garment.  

Ask me if I’m an Evangelical and I’ll ask if you know where that label’s been. It’s rubbed against far too much junk for my taste.

Words lose their currency with overuse, it’s true. But it’s also true that a large part of my issue with being labeled an Evangelical is vanity.

I don’t want my unchurched friends to see me as intellectually soft, insensitive, and a bully.

I don’t want to be guilty by association.

So I create space between myself and those in the Church I fear might cause me embarrassment. At God’s big dinner, please don’t sit me next to that wing of the family.

Just saying that out loud makes me realize just how pretentious I am.

This is when I remember Jesus telling the parable about a wealthy man couldn’t persuade the “with-it” and producing members of society to take an afternoon off to attend his feast. Undeterred, the man sent his employees to fill the guest list with anyone they happened to find loitering the streets.

What’s an Evangelical?

Whatever definition we arrive at needs to include the admission that we aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. We’re prone to all sorts of shortcomings: Legalism and licentiousness, superstition and superiority complexes. Ultimately, an Evangelical Christian is someone who got their place at God’s table because a better person turned their nose down on the opportunity.

We, and by “we” I mean “me," would be better served by stop trying to decide who’s in and who’s out and be grateful for the invitation.


Larry Shallenbergeris a pastor and the author of Divine Intention: How God’s Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today. He apologizes on behalf of the book titling committee. Visit him at