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A Rose by Any Other Name
A church’s name can suggest its theology and be a means of connecting with the community.

Names have value. And then sometimes they don’t. My mother named me James at birth, and it can be found on certain documents. When I purchased a house a few years back the lawyer demanded I sign my legal name. I did but it felt strange.

How important is it to include a denominational label in the public name?

I haven’t been James since forever. All my friends, acquaintances, colleagues and family (my wife at least) know me as Jamey. It has been that way since my childhood and has basically stuck so hard it’s hardwired into me. I know several other men named James who carry the given name well, but not me.

I say that to introduce the idea of congregational names. What’s the name of yours? I’ve noticed of late that churches are becoming increasingly creative in naming themselves and increasingly willing to walk away from historic names to describe their church.

In our association, the Baptist General Conference of Canada, almost half the congregations do not include the name Baptist in their public name. In fact, almost 80 percent of the new congregations choose not to include the name Baptist in their public persona.

A recent conversation with a friend who thinks deeply on these kinds of matters made me smile. He suggested that most new churches are abandoning the historical identifying name of Baptist but more and more are becoming baptistic in their theology and behaviour. Be careful you don’t get caught in the crosswalk of that intersection!

How important is it to include a denominational label in the public name? The answer to every rhetorical question posed today seems to be “It depends.” The answer to this question is indeed “It depends.” Let me suggest it depends on your perspective and intent to communicate because names do have value.

Who are you speaking to as you communicate your congregation’s name? And what do you want to say? Like any parents thinking caringly about their newborn, you want a great name for your offspring.

You want a name that isn’t jaded or hackneyed. You want a name that will wear well over the years. You certainly don’t want a name that will blow up on the schoolyard making your child the butt of an ugly prank or joke.

But there are times when you choose a name for your offspring that transcends culture and reflects history (a family name) or strength of character (such as a literary name). You give the name and infuse strength into the situation by your choice of name.

Let me raise a case for including your denominational name in your public church life, somewhere.

…most churchgoers don’t seem to be affected by the label on the jar.

Some would disagree, citing that including the denominational label keeps people away from a local church. Maybe.

But most churchgoers don’t seem to be affected by the label on the jar. They make decisions about a congregation based on the contents of the jar.

If personal relationships are strong and friendships are evident then people stick around. If no relationships exist we shouldn’t be surprised if the pews or chairs start to become increasingly interspersed with empty spaces.

But when people leave a local church they don’t usually drop out entirely. They often land up in other denominational groups. I like to joke that when people leave the Baptist Church they don’t go to hell, they go to the Alliance Church, the Mennonite Brethren Church, the Pentecostal Church, etc. You get the point.

Most non-churchgoers don’t keep away because of the label on a church door. For the most part they don’t go to any church because it’s a foreign habit to them. And if they do go, they will go through a tremendous learning curve to become part of any church.

But when they do go, what will they learn about the theology of this people of God if the name is nowhere to be found?

Use your name somewhere and use it as a platform to teach your people what the best part of that name can be.

I like being known as Jamey. I even like being known as a Baptist. Billy Graham is a Baptist. I rest my case.

Jamey McDonald of Edmonton is the executive director of the Baptist General Conference of Canada. The BGCC has 106 congregations across Canada.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2007.




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