December 7, 2006
What's In a (Church) Name?
Our historic church finds renewed meaning in a new name (and in the slow process of changing it).
Gordon MacDonald told us a while back that the church he serves was considering changing its name. It has finally happened. His account of a 180-year-old congregation's year-long wrestling with its identity is amusing and instructive. Read on.
About a year ago I filled some of this space with comments about changing a church's name. At the time our New England congregation (Baptist in background) was thinking about exchanging its 180-year-old name for something more adaptable to the times. I invited comment from all my readers. And all four of you wrote to me. (Just fooling). Actually, there were a significant number of responses.
Many e-mails were thoughtful and gave evidence that people had done their homework and accumulated useful insight about how and why a church's public moniker ought to be reappraised occasionally and sometimes changed. One or two respondents trumped me by writing that if I prayed more, Jesus would provide the name since it is his church.
A name is important. It can say something about who you are or who you want to be.
There are name-changes throughout the Scriptures. Jesus renamed Simon Peter in order to map out his journey to maturity. The early church called Joseph of Cyprus Barnabas because he was a fountainhead of encouragement. And Saul of Tarsus became Paul in order to contextualize himself in the Greek-speaking world.
I'm one who believes a church name ought to arouse curiosity, reflect congregational character, or provide some sense of meaning as to why a church or organization exists. My opinion? First Baptist Church doesn't cut it any longer. And most of our people agreed - some enthusiastically; others with a compliant shrug of the shoulders.
Our people studied church names and the stories of name changes all across the country. Some stories they collected ended well; others reflected the anguish a congregation can go through when a few become determined to fight change of any kind. Here in this church we're New Englanders, the people who didn't go west many decades ago when Horace Greeley suggested it. Those who did embrace change left us and moved to California. We who stayed behind continued to love our stained-glass windows, our pipe organs, and our hard wooden pews. Why should it surprise you, then, that name changes come hard?
It was a big day when our leaders unanimously affirmed their desire to go for a change. It was an even bigger day when we identified a name that every one liked. It just popped up in conversation. I'm not sure that any of us remember who had the idea. Jesus, perhaps! When we first heard it, we raised holy hands and said in concert, "That's it!" And we stopped looking. The name we picked was CenterPoint Church. It grabbed us, and it offered a meaning that we quickly embraced.
Not so the entire congregation. Admittedly, there were some strugglers out there. And we waited, month after month, for the last 20 percent of our people to jump aboard. Convincing the first 80 percent was easy. The last 20 percent, however, were harder to persuade.
If we'd gone for a 51 percent majority on the new name, adopting it would have been a slam-dunk. Even 66 percent would have been an easy sale. But, being the masochists that we are, our leaders decided that we shouldn't change the name unless 80 percent of the folks said "Ah-yup!"
The night of the big business meeting came. The name change was item number four on the agenda. The first three items, leaders reasoned, were simple, rubber-stamp matters that could be disposed of quickly. But there were three or four Baptist saints who left their rubber stamps at home and kept us all going for two and one-half hours before item four got to the floor. Result? Several advocates of the name-change, younger family people, left to get their children home to bed. Most of them didn't think their votes would be needed.
When the vote was taken three and one-half hours into the meeting, we fell six votes short of the required 80 percent. Soul-searching time for leaders! The next evening we voted 18-to-16 (something like that) not to sulk, to be gracious, and to back off for a while.
Fortunately, the name-change issue didn't die. And some months later people rose up (a biblical term) and said to our leaders, "Let us go around another time." And we did. During the time between the votes I met a number of times with opponents of the name-change initiative. We talked, drank coffee, and did a little laughing. Much opposition vaporized. Not all, but enough that when the vote was taken a second time, it passed. Not by a lot, understand, but far enough beyond the 80 percent mark that everyone knew we could become CenterPoint Church with joy and confidence. Forty-eight hours later a new sign was on the front of the church. CenterPoint Church. And in small letters below: established 1818. We had our new name and a reminder that we've been around for a long time.
CenterPoint: what does it mean to us? It says that Jesus is at the center point of our lives together. And it says that we like being a church at the center point of our city where we want to make a difference in community life in the name of Jesus. And, finally, center point reminds us that each of us are "center points" of loving and serving influence wherever we work, live and pursue community involvement.
You can build an entire church mission around that name and those three meanings. And that is exactly what we're trying to do.
Better this wonderful name - CenterPoint - than the one an Old Testament mother gave her son: Ichabod, meaning, "The glory has departed from Israel."
So now you know the rest of the story. And you know that even in New England, an old church can find a new name, a fresh vision, and a confidence that there is a wonderful future.
Pastor and author Gordon MacDonald is chair of World Relief and editor-at-large of Leadership.