Renaming your church?
Pastor Chris Thomas shares his experience
How you are known? That’s what a name is... how you are known.
But, of course, that needs to be based on who you are, or you are acting under false pretences. God doesn’t do that — when he makes himself known as YHWH or Jesus, it’s a faithful and true witness to who he is. A name conveys who you are.
How then do you decide a church name? For many, the church has already got one — inherited, or given from the ‘parent’ church. Continuity is valuable — we hold firmly to the tradition handed down to us: and the gospel and the God who gave it are unchanging. On the other hand, we evangelise a changing world where:
* Language changes, and meanings too.
* Cultures change, and perceptions too.
* Techniques change, and opportunities too. For example, we found 75% of people come to our church through the internet, which didn’t exist when the church was named. We contact local people most broadly through colourful printed material: the means we use to make ourselves known do impact how we identify ourselves.
Known by whom?
When naming a church, or changing its name, we need to ask, ‘Who do we want to know us?’ ‘What will this name communicate to them?’ It’s most natural to think of names which have rich meaning to Christians. Yet we want to make ourselves known to the world for the sake of the gospel; so if a name which has become precious to us does not communicate anything positive to the community in which God has placed us, it probably needs a rethink. You see, church names are an issue of gospel effectiveness, not a box-ticking aid for Christians trying to find the church they like most.
Who are we?
Over the past few years, we at Bournville Evangelical Church became more aware of the significance of how we present ourselves — so we started a review process! We wanted to get things right for the next 7-10 years. Richard Underwood (Pastoral Director of FIEC) offered to help the church membership and friends through an internal review to take our temperature.
We did so confident in our foundations: our core beliefs, structures, and ministry emphases (Word and Spirit, prayer and community, outreach). Richard helped us look again at who we are, and what we are called to be. He made us ask whether how we functioned was consonant with the gospel we claim as our driving force. Having reviewed these areas, we knew ourselves better and so could determine how we should be known.
One specific point which emerged was that the word ‘evangelical’ in the church name did not communicate well. It’s accurate as jargon: we are thoroughly evangelical in the richest sense of the word — but when we are introducing the church to outsiders, it’s a turn-off. Why? Possibly fed by international news and broad use of the term, this word now conjures up Qu’ran-burning, gay-hating, happy-clappy, unthinking fundamentalists (another hi-jacked word). So, to faithfully communicate the character God had given the church, we probably needed a name change!
That was the easy bit. What new name would accurately make us known to outsiders? Five suggestions came up from church members — Emmanuel, Christ Church, Cornerstone, Trinity and Oak Tree Church (the latter mainly because the hall in which we meet is on Oak Tree Lane). As we thought and talked, it became clear that the consensus was coalescing around Oak Tree Church. It was noted that the more theological ‘church’ names merely communicate ‘religious name’ to an outsider — not the name’s meaning.
Seeking wise advice
At this stage, we received comment and then took advice from Christians working in marketing, design and branding. Yes, we should have done that first, for a more informed approach! However, we were glad to have involved the church fully from the start. We were pointed to the horribly named ChurchMarketingSucks website, and the Igor Naming Guide. These made the point that, in our culture, there’s much to be said for names that present a picture, rather than are literally descriptive (think ‘Apple’ vs. ‘IBM’): names that fuel the imagination rather than inform the mind. We were encouraged to consider names which would bring the associations we wanted — such as life and rootedness. We took the point, which confirmed our attraction towards ‘Oak Tree Church’ — a name which has some biblical allusion, but a local feel for our Bournville area (remembering that the name is for the unconverted to know and find us, not for attracting Christian cognoscenti). Non-Christian friends confirmed that they found it a welcoming name. So, we adopted Oak Tree Church as our working name, although legally we keep the old name until we change the constitution.
Logo and launch
Logos are a big deal, particularly in seeking to reach an image-loaded culture. But what potential for endless debates and tweaks! The deacons gained approval to come up with a proposal. We engaged a Christian designer (you’d get an architect for the building!) and having outlined to him something of the character of the church, we considered three options he drafted. One was tweaked a couple of times, with feedback from non-Christians, then presented to the congregation. We had no alternative, but did give people the power of veto. If people had said ‘No’, we would have gone back to the drawing board. It got a ‘Yes’!
Happily, this process coincided with the church’s 20th anniversary, and we made that service a re-launch under the new name and logo. We invited past members, and all conceivable local players: schools, the MP, other churches, local councillors, and representation from companies and voluntary groups (having sent most of them church Christmas cards previously). There was a good turn out and we had a joyful day of thankfulness to God, from which everyone departed with a commemorative mug (with logo).
Name the fruit
So now we have started to function with a new name. It’s rather early to gauge the results, but we have more confidence in going to people with a name we don’t have to explain away. It’s been quite a lengthy process, but going through it together has enhanced, not threatened unity. It cost us several hundred pounds, but it’s been money well spent to improve our gospel effectiveness. And so we trust and hope that our new name will bring glory to the only Name that counts.
Please feel free to contact the author to discuss any of the issues raised in this article: firstname.lastname@example.org