Replanting a Church: Changing Your Church’s Name

We are working through an article by Scott Thomas on replanting an existing church, that is, renewing a church so that it grows and matures as a church plant does.

Scott writes,

Seriously explore a name change (Proverbs 22:1; Ecclesiastes 7:1).

  1. To communicate a change in focus; in approach; in product, a change in name can be effective if the product lives up to the change.
    1. If the only change taking place is the name, it will not produce the desired results.
    2. Changes need to be in place (or ready to launch) prior to a name change!
    3. What does your name communicate to the community in which it ministers?
  2. Do you believe your denominational label (or lack of one) is contributing to or detracting from your mission?
    1. Determine the cultural valuation of a denomination. Is it honored or dishonored in the community?
    2. This could be the greatest point of conflict in an existing body that has associated itself with a denomination both corporately and individually. Members of a church are prone to say, “I’ve been a Methodist (et al) all my life.”
    3. Likewise, a person may be adamant about not being a particular denomination. Neither position is healthy. With whom will your church be affiliated?
  3. Leading a church through a name change must be led by the mission statement. If your mission statement is “Retaining Our Members for Life,” you may not want to explore a name change. If it is “Penetrating the Darkness – Sharing the Light,”(tm) a name change is imperative.

It’s an important question that we often want to dodge. The congregation’s name is often our identity. We are the “XYZ Church of Christ.” Changing the name is unimaginable. But it’s an essential question to consider. After all, anyone replanting a church is leading the church to re-understand who they are. A name change just might help.

There are at least two critical questions any Church of Christ must ask itself repeatedly —

* Does calling ourselves “Church of Christ” or “church of Christ” impede doing God’s mission in this town at this time?

* Does calling ourselves the “XYZ” Church of Christ impede doing God’s mission in this town at this time?

Now, we need to lead with a little grammar theology. We have traditionally taught that a church may bear any scriptural name. We then list about dozen examples. We then name our church “Church of Christ” and never, ever name it anything else — all the while pretending we are not a denomination.

However, there’s not a single New Testament example of a congregation carrying a Yellow Pages name such as “West Side Church of Christ.” The “name” is always descriptive —

* the church at Jerusalem (Acts 8:1)

* the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1)

* the church in Cenchrea (Rom 16:1)

* the church of God in Corinth (1 Cor 1:2)

* the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Th 1:1)

* the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1)

* the church in Smyrna (Rev 2:8)

* the church in Pergamum (Rev 2:12)

* the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18)

* the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1)

In fact, in at least some of these cases, “the church” refers to churches at more than one location in the same city, and so it’s not even clear that these are all terms for a single congregation.

Clearly, the Bible nowhere refers to a congregation as the “West Side” or “Central” or “Fifth Street” church — much less “Church of Christ” or even “church of Christ.” Therefore, we are free to name our churches as God’s mission dictates. There are no rules and we should not presume to invent rules where God has made none.

“Church of Christ” is never found in scripture. The closest is Rom 16:16: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.” And here the phrase is clearly not the name (or even a name) of the churches but a description of whose churches they are. The churches are Christ’s churches.

By far, the most commonly term used for a church in the scriptures is “church.” If it weren’t for our anxiety to distinguish ourselves from other denominations, that’s what we’d call ourselves. We add “of Christ,” not because it’s required by scripture, but because it distinguishes us from the Baptists and Methodists. We’ve taken Rom 16:16 and denominationalized it — which is contrary to what we say our principles are.

Therefore, we should be willing to exercise the freedom God has given us — if doing so better serves God’s mission.

Why change “church of Christ”?

Personally, I’d never name a congregation “church of Christ.” The little “c” movement makes no sense because, in standard English, we capitalize proper nouns. And phrase it as you wish, the name you list your church under in the Yellow Pages or on your sign is a proper noun. How does it serve God’s mission to look ignorant of grammar?

I realize that the goal of the little “c” is to avoid appearing denominational, which is noble, but it just doesn’t work. It just looks strange. After all, if we build a building on Main Street and put up a sign that says “the church that meets on Main Street” or “the Main Street church” — why not just say “church”? Those driving by already know the building’s on Main Street! The only reason to say “Main Street church” is because, in our minds, that’s the name of the congregation — and it is. And it’s a proper noun. Capitalize the “c”.

Why might a church change “Church of Christ”?

Well, if we want to be truly nondenominational, surely we need at least some of the churches to use a different name, right? After all, the primary meaning of “denomination” is a name.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “denomination” as —

1 : an act of denominating [to give a name to]
2 : a value or size of a series of values or sizes (as of money)
3 : name, designation; especially : a general name for a category
4 : a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices

That’s us. That’s especially us if we insist on a unique name. Indeed, the very notion that we can escape being a denomination by choice of capitalization or pretending not to name our congregations is mistaken. That’s just not what the word means. Nor does being a denomination mean we teach error. That’s not what “denomination” means!

In many communities, “Church of Christ” carries a stigma. In some, it’s because of the Boston Movement. In some communities, “Church of Christ” is considered Pentecostal. In others, it’s confused with the United Churches of Christ. In some, the Churches of Christ have managed to embarrass the name by their own sinful conduct.

A church plant in these communities could not sensibly call themselves a “Church of Christ.” The only reason to even consider doing so is our own denominational attitudes. That’s not a good enough reason to frustrate God’s mission.

More generally, we live in a post-denominational age. In many communities, a denominational name communicates to the people that the church is for people of that denomination only — even if this isn’t the church’s actual attitude. That’s just the reaction often felt in this Post-Modern world. And this is why Saddleback Community Church isn’t Saddleback Baptist Church, even though it’s a member of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Many megachurches have chosen to dispense with the denominational name, while remaining active in their denominations. But some very large churches have kept the denominational name. Tim Keller’s New York megachurch is called Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It depends on where you are and what part of the community you are targeting.

We live in an age where people no longer choose a church based on denominational ties. They see such things as anachronistic — even off-putting. They don’t know the difference between a Methodist Church and a Church of Christ — and don’t want to know. They want to know whether the church offers what they are looking for — which is rarely denominational loyalty.

Why might a church change “XYZ”?

Now, none of that means you have to drop the “Church of Christ.” Mine hasn’t. But you may well have to change your name to have a successful replant. You see, to replant a church, the church has to change its notion of who it is and what it’s about. And if it’s unwilling to give up its name, it also may be unwilling to give up its old bad habits and attitudes.

Therefore, I’d urge the church to change its name, even it’s from “Central Church of Christ” to “Main Street Church of Christ.” And I’d certainly capitalize the “C” and use a name that sounds like a name, not directions.

Finally, I’d seriously consider going with a name other than a geographic term. I might call the church the “LIghthouse Church of Christ” rather than “17th Avenue Church of Christ,” because the use of street address can make the church sound tied to that area. I mean, if the church’s mission is to the people on the north side of town, then by all means be the “Northside Church of Christ.” But if you intend to be a citywide congregation, pick a citywide name.

And, besides, getting away from our tradition of using a geographic name will be a good first step toward breaking with other traditions that may interfere with your participation in God’s mission.

Leave a Reply

  1. Certainly, part of the church's mission clearly is to reach those not yet in the church. But that's not the entire mission. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that the Father's will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. We're not just here to round up people to go to heaven. We're supposed to do the Father's will here, and to help others to do that.

    So what does that have to do with changing a church's name? We need to check our motives. If the purpose in changing the name is to distance ourselves from certain other churches, I think there is a sinful aspect. We should love one another, and should demonstrate our oneness to the world. Distancing ourselves from other churches demonstrates the opposite. Instead, we need to fix the relationship with those other churches.

  2. When I was in New Zealand, there were at least six distinct groups with Church of Christ in the denominational name. Besides "us" there were the Church of Christ, Associated (Instrumental Churches of Christ); the Church of Christ of New Zealand (an independent community church); the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints; the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints, Reorganized; and the First Church of Christ Scientists (aka, Christian Science).

    New Zealand is not unique. "Church of Christ" certainly does not convey what "we" think it conveys!

    The "name" of the church does not appear in the New Testament as one of the identifying characteristics of the church Jesus established. Its relationship to him is a trait, as well as the interpersonal relationships within the church. How it acts in the community is a trait of the church Jesus built – but I certainly do not see a "scriptural name" anywhere among the traits of the church the New Testament stresses for us.

    How can you give a unique name to something that is one of a kind? By giving ourselves a unique name we acknowledge that we are a "one-among-many."

    Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart [p. 22] cited an April 16, 2001 Newsweek article stating there are 33,800 different Christian denominations on earth, and commented, "The irony is that each of the 33,800 groups is 'right.'"

    Jerry S.
    A good post!