Last week, Charisma published a provocative online commentary by editor Lee Grady. Lee is a bold analyzer of Christian culture and one of my former racquetball partners back when I lived in Florida in the late ’90s. In his April 16 column, “Tired Labels and Worn-out Wineskins,” Lee urges Christian leaders to reconsider the bewildering messages being sent by the names of some of our churches:
Would you visit a church called The Holy Assembly of the Fire-Baptized Brethren? Probably not, because it sounds elitist, self-righteous and really old-fashioned. Your unchurched neighbors would most likely drive a few extra miles to avoid passing the place.
Yet many church names today sound almost as strange and unwelcoming. We insist on using religious vocabulary from previous centuries to define ourselves, and then we wonder why people consider us out of touch.
I realize I am grazing into sacred cow pasture when I suggest that we reevaluate the terms we love. We like our labels because we are fond of our history. But if we want to reach our culture for Christ, we had better become willing to let go of the past.
Have you ever asked a non-Christian how he reacts to words such as Pentecostal, charismatic, Southern Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Mennonite or Foursquare? Do Methodists use methods? Do you have to be Anglo to be an Anglican? Why do some churches include “First” or “Greater” in their names? Greater than what?
I am not trying to devalue what God did when the Holy Spirit birthed these movements. But all labels have a shelf life. My hunch is that many names we use today carry expiration dates that have passed.
I think Lee raises good questions. Are some potential church visitors scared off by the archaic, religious-sounding titles they see on our church signs? When it comes to presenting a clear, inviting image to the world, should some of our church names be fair game for revision?
Lee goes on to suggest that some of the friendlier, nondenominational-sounding names that we find on a growing number of contemporary churches are a good thing. Though they often sound like streets in suburban subdivisions, names like Saddleback, Willow Creek, and Harbor Light are warmer and unencumbered by loaded religious jargon.
I get Lee’s point, and I’ve seen some polysyllabic church names that border on the absurd. However, is it always wrong to include key signifiers such as “Wesleyan” or “Apostolic” or “Reformed” in our church names? Aren’t these helpful codes for Christians moving into a new community who are in search of a familiar faith tradition? Or do we need to ditch the tradition for the sake of reaching more souls?
I wonder if we sometimes underestimate the power of sacred language. Many non-churchgoers may not understand the meaning of New Holiness Missionary Baptist or Incarnate Word Lutheran or Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, but they have a sense that it stands for something lasting; they know that God must be present there because that was the kind of church that Grandma Laura or their old neighbor Mr. Henderson faithfully attended. And that may one day be the reason they darken that church’s door.
Still, Lee’s challenge is worth pondering. Sometimes our churches and Christian institutions may be due a name change. But when and why? What do you think?