What’s in a name?

This week, for Spring Break, we travelled to my in-laws’ house. For the past several years I’ve watched the progress of an old super-market being converted into a new church building and remarked on it’s apparently completion to my mother-in-law, “It looks like their building is done.”

She nodded to be and said, “Oh yes, an a lot of people aren’t happy that they changed their name.” When I asked what she meant by that she filled me in, “Well it used to be identified as a church in the name, but they dropped that in their title when they moved. A lot of older members have left because they are so upset. But leaders have told them, ‘young people today don’t want to be part of a church which says which denomination it is.’”

Leaving a congregation because of a name change aside, there is so much to chew on here.

I think the church’s reason, at least as it’s been passed on to me, for dropping their denominational affiliation in their name is wrong 1. We make huge assumptions about what “young people” think of the bogey man of denominations. The truth is, I’m don’t think young people have a problem with denominations. In fact, I don’t think they much think about them at all, really. What I have felt personally, and now see as a pastor, is that what people seem to resent nowadays is the feeling they exist to keep an institution on life-support. This goes for any institution – schools, churches, denominations, museums, even government. When people feel they are no more than cogs in an impersonal machine which is falling apart, they reject it and go elsewhere.

Sadly, many of our denominations have failed to understand this issue. Unfortunately, so too have many congregations. As culture shifted and funds dried up, these organizations scrambled to keep the lights shining on the work that they were doing. Over the years the work has begun to play second-fiddle to keeping the heater working, the lights on, and the roof repaired. This leads to a sense of desperation on the part of “loyal members” who want to keep the doors open. Much energy gets spent on how to encourage “loyalty” in new members 2, so that the funds keep coming in. People sense this desperation, and are threatened by it. After all, when people go and seek out friendship what they want is a relationship, not a list of ways they can show their “loyalty” to the organization by spending their money.

Ironically, para-church organizations like Operation Christmas Child 3 and World Vision have figured this out. Even though the institutional relationship between these organizations and churches is one way, they have created a dynamic in which folks feel as though they are taking part in a genuine relationship. Shoeboxes can be tracked to a particular country, child sponsorship creates a real connection with another human, and the stories they share call people to join a mission rather than institutional loyalty. This dynamic is set up so well that when World Vision, an organization through which we used to sponsor two children 4, sends us a catalog of ways we can help support the mission with one-time gifts I spend time perusing it and pondering what we can do. One year, in fact, our Christmas gifts for our children’s teachers were donations to World Vision in their names. Why would I do such a thing? Because World Vision calls for loyalty to a mission rather than loyalty to an institution – in giving to them we feel that we’re doing more than keeping the lights on. Is this any more real than, say, giving to a denominationally-sponsored missionary 5? Not really, no – but it feels more like a free-will gift and less like the chained-demand of institutional loyalty. I think both individual congregations and denominations need to learn this lesson, and learn it quick. Language which calls for loyalty to institutional ties is seen as a chain. Language which calls people to the wonders of mission, is seen as relationship. Any time you mix the two types of language, as denominations often do, it’s the chain which will be seen. Practically speaking, the less you demand institutional loyalty the more likely relational ties will be formed.

I think this is what this church by my in-laws has really tapped into, and by all accounts had understood it long before they ever changed their name and moved to a brand-new building. They’ve given people an opportunity for mission and helped them form relationships. I worry that the name change, which was done for a poorly thought-out reason and seems to have damaged a number of relationships, will lead to short-term gain and long-term decay. That is, in setting themselves up as an institution poised to grow, they may have inadvertently created the monster of the institution becoming “the thing in itself.”

  1. You know, that makes me think I’ll have to set up an interview next time I’m out there. 
  2. Typically referred to as “young people.” 
  3. I’ve not been a fan of Franklin Graham personally for several years, but one of the biggest fall projects at Central is Operation Christmas Child. It’s blessed Central and given hope to lots of kids the world-over. 
  4. Both of whom have now aged-out of the program. We’re donating that money to other missions now. 
  5. Which we also do, by the way. Kit Ripley does some fantastic work with girls rescued from human trafficking and if you are looking for a project to support, this is a good donation to make.