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.