Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Changing the Name of a Church - Part 3

See previous articles: Part 1, Part 2

Another reason why a church might change their name is to try to remove perceived barriers to the gospel. This is most often the idea behind the dropping of denominational labels. There is a belief that denominational labels are a barrier to people who do not self-identify with that denomination. Thus, the label becomes a stumblingblock other than the gospel.

Is this true? Well, it’s undeniably true in some cases. These are anecdotal cases to be sure, but true nonetheless. But is it true in all cases? Who knows.

What makes it difficult to study this issue meaningfully is the fact that there are no two identical churches in identical communities, one with a denominational label and one without. There is no church that both has the label and does not have the label. Even if the churches are substantially similar, they have different pastors, different members, different gifting among the members, different guests, different locations, etc. And even if everything was the same except the name, that won’t tell you anything about your church and location. So any studies are always comparing non-identical things.

The best way to study the big picture is probably to ask questions of a lot of people in a lot of different places, even though responses to denominational labels probably differ from place to place. Ed Stetzer’s has done that and found that the name is at least a factor for SBC churches, particularly for younger people. How big a factor? Again, it is hard to tell. More importantly all of Ed’s questions won’t tell you anything specific about your ministry context. And in order to minister in your community, you need to know your community.

And you need to know yourself and your motivations. Why are you doing this? Of course, people around you will be quick to chime in and tell you why you are doing it, and you need to think carefully about it.

For some critics, dropping a denominational label is an automatic sign of compromise and deception, of hiding who you really are in order to attract more people.

For some proponents, dropping a denominational label is a no-brainer. In fact, someone (who works for a major Baptist organization) in identifying me as a “fundamentalist” said, “Do you still have Baptist in your name?” When I answered affirmatively, he said, “Well there’s that,” with “that” meaning the label Baptist was a sign of being a fundamentalist.

Now, make no mistake. I am a Baptist by conviction. I am a Baptist because Jesus said to be one (and remember, he only blessed babies; he didn’t baptize them).

Okay, so that’s (only) a bit tongue in cheek. But I am a firmly committed Baptist. And I don’t lower my voice when I say that. And our church name is still Grace Baptist Church. And I am Baptist enough to believe that a local congregation has the sole authority to determine what name their church goes by.

But the reality is that there are a lot of people who see a label on a group or building, and they have no idea what the label means, but they know it’s not them because if they were one of those they would know it. This is common in our Baptist churches. People see the name “Lutheran” on a church, and they have no idea what Lutherans believe or do, but they know they aren’t a Lutheran. The chance of getting them into a Lutheran church is slim-to-none, so long as the label is on the building. Is that good or bad?

Others see the label and they do know what it means, at least in their minds. So “Baptist” means Fred Phelps to them. Or “Baptist” means the churches who have pedophiles, or buses blowing horns outside their window on Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. when they are trying to sleep. Or “Baptist” means their grandmother’s church that was whacky to them. And they want nothing to do with any of that.

And who can blame them. I don’t want anything to do with any of that either. (Which is a good reason to be a Baptist; I don’t have to have anything to do with it.)

What is keeping these people, humanly speaking, from hearing the gospel isn’t the cross or the call of Jesus. It’s the name on the sign that they associate with certain things. They are judging a church based on something that has nothing to do with you.

Is that what you want? I don’t.

I don’t want people who God has called us to reach to reject us simply because of a denominational label that they may not understand.

And that is part of the core issue in this consideration: Who are we trying to reach? I imagine that, for most people, denominational labels only mean something to people who are already “in.” They mean little to nothing to the unchurched.

That means if someone is a Baptist already, having “Baptist” in the name may be more attractive to them (though I confess it would not matter to me). Newcomers to the community may be looking for a particular type of church and will look no further than the label.

But we have to ask the question: Has God called us to reach people who already agree with us?

If they answer is no, then we need to ask what, humanly speaking, is keeping us from reaching the people God has called us to reach.

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