March 17, 2008

€œWhat’€™s In A Name?
by Pastor George Van Alstine

I’ve been in the ministry long enough to see a number of exciting new trends come and go among evangelical churches. Some have brought a temporary outburst of new life, but true church renewal seems only to come through long-term commitment to the Gospel and the Great Commission by church members, willing to be lead in fresh ways by the Holy Spirit. I’ve never seen clever, novel strategies to be very effective.

About twenty years ago, Baptist churches began to think of their names as a particular obstacle to evangelism and growth. The theory was that, in an age when denominational distinctives seemed less and less important, unchurched people would be put off by the name “First Baptist Churchâ€? because of a preconceived notion of what Baptists believe and how they practice their faith.

One by one, Baptist churches all over the US began to adopt new names. What started as a trickle soon turned into a flood. In the 1976 Baptist General Conference yearbook all of our denomination’s member churches had the word “Baptistâ€? in their names. I just looked through the 2006 yearbook and found that 520 of our 1034 churches have dropped the word “Baptistâ€? from their titles. That’s over 50%.

What names have they chosen? Here are a few I found listed:
Cross Winds Church
Silver Winds Church
Adoration Church
Life Connections Church
Epikos (That’s Greek)
Encounter Church
DOXA (That’s also Greek)
Oasis Church
The River
Tapestry Church
The River’s Edge
New Song Church
The Journey
Passion Community Fellowship
And my six favorites:
Ordinary Community Church
Threads Church
Hope to You All Church
enCompass Church
Church on the Ancient Path
The Banqueting Table
Yes, these are all churches within our denomination.

Now, I’ve never seen any statistics to prove that a name change from “Baptistâ€? to any of the above has positively effected evangelism and growth. But I have myself witnessed a disturbing trend for our fellowship of churches—that the name change is often an early step in a church’s drift away from the Baptist General Conference. The congregation’s commitment to the distinctive beliefs Baptist churches (at their best) have stood for grows weaker and weaker, as they move toward a more generic kind of evangelical expression.

In the most recent edition of “BGC World,â€? our president Jerry Sheveland announced how the BGC leadership intends to respond to these drifting churches: We will drift along with them! The article announces that, after careful deliberation, he and the Board of Overseers have chosen a “new missional nameâ€? for the denomination. The mysterious new name will be revealed at the June Annual Meeting. We are all waiting anxiously to see if it will have the same clarity in communicating the BGC’s mission as do the church names listed above.

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,â€? Juliet asked the famous rhetorical question, “What’s in a name?â€? She answered herself, “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.â€? Shakespeare was trying to remind us that the nature and character of a flower is much more important than what we call it. The same is true of people (like Romeo and Juliet), and of churches, and of denominations.

At Altadena Baptist Church, we’ve never seriously discussed dropping the name “Baptistâ€? from our title. If the name “Baptistâ€? has a negative meaning to people around us, we do everything we can, in word and deed, to change their perception of what the word “Baptistâ€? means, instead of replacing it with a more domesticated word. After all, the name “Jesus Christâ€? starts off for most people with a lot of negative connotations. When the early believers were first called “Christians,â€? it was meant as an insult.

Oh, and did I tell you that the BGC, under its “New Missonal Nameâ€? will be moving to Orlando, Florida? What does that symbolize?