What's in a Name?

Names have always been important. There's a reason why "Judas" never tops the list of most popular baby names in any given year. When my wife and I were trying to pick out names for our children, we always had the same conversation: How will it sound with our last name, what does it mean, and how does it roll off the tongue when we're shouting up the stairs? All important factors! Whether we like it or not, names get tied to ideas and perceptions. Nobody hears the name of the now defunct company Enron and thinks it was a wonderfully productive service provider that did us all a lot of good. It's fascinating to watch business drop off all over the country when a chain restaurant all of the sudden finds out one of their stores was serving contaminated meat. And who wants to be associated with a name like Watergate?

When it comes to the names of churches, there is something wonderful about holding on to the same name for multiple generations, giving testimony to God's continued faithfulness. Every church has its share of ups and downs, and when they are able to persevere, God ought to be praised and the people of God ought to be thankful. However, there can be times when the name of a church is more of a hindrance than help, and a congregation should consider changing it to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of reaching more people. Let me explain why and how the church that I pastor recently approached this issue.

I have been the pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in a small Georgia community in the suburbs of Savannah for the last 9 years. I was never a fan of the church's name, but I also didn't think it was much of a big deal given a host of other things we were working to change. However, in time it was clear to our elders through discussions with people around the community that it was time to think of something new. When the discussions began, we weren't a declining or plateaued church, but we did have a desire to clarify and renew our identity in the community.

Some people couldn't pronounce our church's name, let alone spell it. The church was started as a primitive Baptist church that eventually had charismatic influences, only to later be dominated by moralistic teaching and practices. Over the span of 27 years, that's a lot to overcome when the last decade has been a concerted effort to be intentionally biblical and confessional in our faith and practice. When I arrived at the church in 2007, I was thankful that they had already left their previous denomination and adopted the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. However the church itself was far from being what anyone would expect from a reformed and baptistic local church, and the community had no idea anything had changed.

In a transitional community or big city, a church's name is not likely to cause a lot of problems. People come-and-go and neighborhoods change significantly from year-to-year, so reputations based upon a name aren't as entrenched as in smaller, less transitional communities. But all churches should be willing to ask questions about their identity and consider what they are capable of changing to more effectively communicate who and what they are without carrying significant baggage along with them. Changing a church name may be difficult for some people who have been in a local church for a long time, but churches that don't do what may be needed because sentimentality reigns in numerous areas are likely to fall away completely over time. Here are a few questions to ask when considering changing the name of a local church:

1. Is it easy to say, spell, pronounce, and remember? We were Ephesus Church. As hard as you might try, I'd be very surprised if you could create a list that included all the spellings and pronunciations we've heard from people over the years. It's clunky, it doesn't really carry any specific meaning, and I as compelled to regularly emphasize that our desire was to reflect the church of Ephesus in the book of Ephesians, not Revelation! The name of the church added a lot of words to my conversations as I regularly sought to explain and clarify something that should be able to stand on its own.

2. How does your community respond to up-front doctrinal distinctions? When we asked the congregation to submit name suggestions for us to vote on, we didn't want to include "reformed" but were happy to include "baptist" in the name. We're certainly not ashamed of identifying with our confessional reformed tradition, but particularly in the South, there is a lot of misinformation about what that even means, so we'd prefer to have that conversation face-to-face instead of on our sign. However, "Baptist" is a very favored distinction in our context, so we were happy to highlight it. It's one question we were comfortable answering for people up front without assuming it would be a barrier (although, we still have to distinguish that we're not those kinds of Baptists, just like our Presbyterian brothers often point out that they're not those kinds of Presbyterians).

3. What priorities does your church name communicate? If you were given a list of church names, you would likely be able to identify a lot about what they church values before ever looking at their doctrinal statement. A name like The New Hope Center of Healing and Deliverance, Inc. says a lot about where that particular group of people prioritize, just as much as a church called The Porch. We decided on Redeemer because we wanted to emphasize Jesus as our priority, and we wanted the name Church to be included, because we unashamedly identify as a local gathering of God's people.

4. What do people say when you tell them the name of the local church of which you are part? I hope it's obvious to thinking Christians that what everyone thinks of what we call ourselves as a local church is not our top priority, but we shouldn't ignore it either. If unchurched people are unwilling to darken our doors because of a bad experience in the past or because of a long-standing reputation, we have a problem that can and should be fixed.

Changing the name is simultaneously one of the easiest things that a local church can do to restructure in its community. Of course, none of this is helpful if the church doesn't consider and change, if necessary and permissible in Scripture, what gave them a poor reputation in the first place. Hopefully it doesn't need to be said that names are not what makes or breaks a church, but rather its faithfulness to God and His Word. Nevertheless, good leadership includes regularly assessing where the church is at and whether or not changes may be necessary. As for the congregation I pastor, we are very thankful to now be Redeemer Baptist Church and have already enjoyed some tangible results of our transition.