Of Church Names, Christ, And Culture

The Foundry, Resonate, Relevant, The Bridge, and Passion City are just a few of the contemporary church names noted by Dennis Baker and mocked by Url Scaramenga in 2010. A search for “contemporary church names” brings up a wealth of resources offering to help entrepreneurial church planters (or church re-branders) make a splash in their community. The Church Venture offers “119 cool church names.” One of the trends in church names noted by Thom Rainer is that they are becoming shorter because of the demands of the internet. A longer church name can leader to a long internet address (URL). The “7 Awesome Church Name Ideas” mocked in the Babylon Bee are virtually indistinguishable from what is already happening. Steve Fogg offers some practical tips for naming a church that might actually lead away from some of the more trendy and even irritating church names.

I have noticed the trend for several years but a recent trip where I was confronted by “The Radiant Church,” “Cross the Line,” and “Crossroads” as church names seemed to call for comment. I thought that this trend was a fad that would fade. It has not. My initial response was to think that it was a matter of taste and that my reaction was due to the fact that I can be a little curmudgeonly. After all we have no record in Scripture that congregations were named. The Apostles wrote to the congregations in various cities. I am not certain when congregations were first named but they seem to have been named by the high middle ages. Most likely this was due to the founding of multiple congregations in a single city.

My initial reaction to trendy church names was probably too tolerant. What I notice about the new church names is that they tend to be intentionally vague or clever. It is possible to see the implied metaphor in “the foundry.” The church might be considered a place where people are figuratively formed. A couple of times I have conducted services in buildings in which the temperature was over 100F and I am aware of church arguments where things have become heated but upon reflection and some investigation, however, I am unable to see what “cross the line” is meant to communicate. Does it mean that they are transgressing some social norm or is going to church there somehow transgressive? Who knows? “Radiant Church” is vague. Is the church itself radiant or will I become radiant if I attend there or perhaps both are true? Many of the contemporary church names could just as easily be coffee shops. That, I think is the intent.

Most all of the new church names are secular terms or categories being re-purposed for Christian use. To be sure, there is a long history of this in the church. Theologians, beginning with the Apostle John, have used heretofore secular philosophical terms to convey Christian doctrine. When John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word” he was radically redefining a loaded philosophical term. Still, for a very long time, churches have used identifiable Christian or biblical terms or names. Typically churches were named for one of the apostles, e.g., St John Lateran (Rome, the home church of the Bishop of Rome), St Paul’s (London), for the Savior (e.g., Cbrist Church), or e.g., Heiliggeistkirche (Holy Spirit Church) in Heidelberg. If not a biblical name, churches have long been named for notable Christians. Churches have long been identifiable religious places.

The new church names, however, blur the line between the sacred and the secular. The latter is more familiar to a post-Christian culture than the former. So, churches presumably use secular metaphors to try to connect to un-churched or post-churched Americans. The question is whether this sort branding or marketing really reaches non-Christians or is it really only connecting with those already committed to the faith but looking for something less traditional? Some studies I have seen and my experience in ministry (in both traditional and church-plant settings) tells me that non-Christians who wander into church expect it to be overtly religious.

Part of the attraction is that the new church name signals that this congregation is not your grandfather’s church. This is part of the problem. The church is not new. The church predates your grandfather. It predates your grandfather’s grandfather. Further, making the church “hip” has never worked out well. There is nothing in the New Testament (or the Old Testament) that would make one think that the Lord is interested in being “hip.” When the Egyptians were worship the Sun, the Lord denounced and forbade it as idolatry. The early Christian treatise to Diognetus (c. 150 AD) distinguished the Christians from the Jews (the Christians do not speak a foreign dialect) and the pagans (we share our goods but not our wives). The Christians were never regarded by the Greeks and Romans as fashionable. They were regarded as hopelessly backward. Jewish and pagan critics mocked the critics for worshiping a crucified Jew.

One of my biggest concerns about the new church names is the apparently intentional vagueness and subjectivism. If a congregation is named for a biblical person, the Holy Trinity, or even a Christian virtue, there is little doubt what the congregation values. What, however, does “Radiant” communicate? Is it about God, the congregation, me, or all of the above? How Radiant? To whom? Who says? By what standard? Again, how interested are the Scriptures with relevance? 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 seems appropriate here:

And I, when I came to you, brothers,did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (ESV).

Paul was not much interested in being Relevant. It is true that Paul wrote that he was a Jew to Jews (1 Cor 9:20) and as a Gentile to Gentiles in order to win both groups to Christ but it seems like a stretch to try to turn Paul’s Christian freedom for witness and mission into being Relevant. He was well aware that Jews and Pagans both regarded his gospel as a stumbling block and foolishness and yet he never shaped his message in order to become acceptable to Pagans and Jews.

Church names in themselves may be morally indifferent (adiaphora) but the reasons we adopt them and to what ends are not indifferent. Our intent and our desire to be accepted by the world outside the church is at issue. Our desire to do something clever or new and exciting is also at issue. I do think a reasonable case can be made against using annoying or cheap names even if a moral case cannot. Is the gospel of Christ well represented by ambiguous or even bizarre church names? This is a fair question and one that deserves more consideration than it has obviously received in some cases.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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16 comments

  1. It’s all about Marketing that particular church – and begins to approach the sellers in the Temple. It’s the logical outcome of pelagianism – (who needs the Holy Ghost?!)

    Blame Peter Drucker (Gone to his reward). Here’s how he would have advised that pathetic church that Noah pastored.

    Imagine if Noah had had the marketing gurus available to design him a people-importing program like they do today for the modern churches! If you were in such a guru’s office when Noah rang, you perhaps would hear something like this.

    “You’ve got HOW many there in the ark Noah?! “Eight thousand did you say?” “Eight hundred?” “Eight?!!! “Eight?!!!” “Good grief Noah, that won’t do!” “What on earth have you been SAYING to them!?” “Repent?!” “No no, no, no, NO! You must talk about what THEY think is important – doesn’t matter what it is, – DON’T tell them about what YOU think is important!”

    “They’re all wicked out there?” “Doesn’t matter! – so who’s perfect?” “They’re THAT perverted?” “Wow!” – “Anyway, tell them that God loves every single one of them with an unconditional love, and of course you know the old saying Noah; ‘Judge not!’.”

    “You’ve warned them it’s going to rain, did you say?” – “That they’re all going to be drowned?!” “Look, no-one’s impressed by threats these days Noah, particularly when its never happened in living memory and there’s no scientific data to back it up.” “Today, people want an ‘I’M OK-YOU’RE OK, ‘FEEL-GOOD” faith.” “It’s a real turn-off to tell them that they’re all sinners, and God is about to kill them! If you want backsides on seats, you’ve got to tell them what’s in it for them.” “Heaven and Eternal life?” “Well that’d be a bit too far-off for many, Noah, – yes they want something real satisfying and fulfilling, but they want it HERE, & NOW, not just there, then.”

    “And it sounds like YOU’RE doing all the talking Noah, sort of just telling them how it’s gonna be, and expecting a change in them BEFORE you let them be a part of what you’re doing there. “By the way, I LOVE the great big auditorium you’ve built!” It’s real DIFFERENT!” “So catchy – ‘THE ARK!’ – What a GREAT ministry-brand!” “But look, ask them all to go in there, perhaps all have a meal together, get into small groups, and let them go through your material and say what it means to them. – how they can see it adding to their self-fulfilment in life – get them successfully through their day, improve their marriages, kids, career, and so forth.” “Don’t insist that there is only ONE way to interpret your flood material, Noah.” “Let each say what THEY think it means to THEM. They love that sharing aspect.” “You’ll need to allay those fears you’ve unfortunately stirred up with your end-time preaching Noah.” “Stop telling them God is angry.” “Tell them God has a wonderful plan for their life – how special they all are to Him, how He just LOVES to watch them when they’re sleep, that sort of thing. It works a treat!”

    “Gotta rush Noah, time’s money ya know!” “Look, I’ll draw up a specially designed growth program for you.” “Seeing rain’s your thing, we’ll call it ‘40 days and 40 nights of Heavenly Refreshing’, or something like that.” “Look it over when it arrives, and perhaps we can seal the deal.” – “Gotta go now fella, there’s another Pastor called Rick on the line, and wants a word.” “Business is booming!” – “You gotta go too? It’s raining, you said?” “OK ‘bye!””

  2. I think location remains the best approach to naming a church. A church name should give you as much information in as concise a manner as possible. So naming a church by it’s location (city, town, district, street depending on how many congregations of the one denomination there are in the same city) and- importantly!- the denomination’s name should be in the title. The modern desire to escape denominational ties is very worrying and another sign of a total collapse in the understanding of what the local church is.

    And I think a Biblical case can be made for this. Mr. Clark is right to point out that the congregations in Scripture weren’t named, per se, but they certainly were identified: by their geographical location. That seems the most obvious explanation for the trend in church history to name congregations by their locality, and is certainly a good reason to do so today.

  3. Yes, protestants have often named their churches after apostles or other church fathers in the past, but should they? Is this a half-step down the road to veneration?

    • David,

      I doubt it. There are many Protestant congregations named after both canonical and non-canonical figures and I’m aware of no instance where it has led to veneration. The Reformers did not re-name churches. Calvin preached in St Peter’s. The other congregations in Geneva were named for biblical figures. The problems that arose in Geneva in the 18th century had nothing to do with buildings named for famous, pious Christians.

    • For Church of Scotland churches, you could always tell which side of the reunion of 1929 they came from by their names. The ones that were part of the old (mainline; generally more ritzy) church had saint’s names, while those who came from the Free Church generally had “secular” names (“Gilcomston South”, “Argyle Street”, etc.). Present day Free Church of Scotland churches would never have saints names.

      Don’t miss the ethnic identity factor: Presbyterian churches in England were often named “St Andrew’s” or “St Columba’s” since they were primarily for exiled Scots.

      So using names to communicate brand identity has a long history. I’ve also observed that Korean churches tend to have more aspirational names (“Joyful Church”, “Holy Fire” – though also the thoroughly Reformed “Little Flock”). I’m not sure if that’s connected to pietist sympathies, though that seems plausible to me; perhaps some of our Korean friends can illuminate that better.

  4. When I see these kinds of places, I almost think it deceiving. They try to entice people with the theatrics, to trick you in to a church.

  5. A hip and trendy church here in Seattle is named Quest and they have a big sign above the door with Malachi 6:8 paraphrased. “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly” I guess they think this is the good news. This is preaching the Law as if it somehow has the power to create in you the desire or even give you the desire to obey. It’s all about you, bruh. The lead pastor is also listed as a humanitarian.

    • Oh wow, the second church listed on the churchrelevance site has the same Micah quote. How original.

  6. “One of the trends in church names noted by Thom Rainer is that they are becoming shorter because of the demands of the internet. ”

    ? e.g., 104.18.47.110 ?

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