Saturday, November 3, 2007

What's in a name?

There is a perennial debate among North American church planters as whether or not new churches should include a denominational labels (in my case “Baptist”) in their name. Larry Baker (Kentucky Baptist church planting strategist) has offered a two recent posts on the issue and the comments to his post are as informative and helpful as the post itself. Here are a few points I would like to offer for consideration on the issue of leaving “Baptist” out of the church name. (In my next post I will offer points to consider when choosing a name.)

1. It is wrong to be intentionally deceptive. If the purpose of leaving a denominational title out of your name is a kind of “bait and switch” technique, then there is an ethical problem here. I would submit, however, that the overwhelming majority of church planters have no intention to make people think that they are something they are not, nor hide their denominational affiliation.

2. You cannot communicate everything through a name. Names, generally speaking, are short labels. With the exception of those churches with obnoxiously long names, church names tend to be 2-4 words in length. There is a limit to what you can communicate in four words or less. Including “Baptist” in a church name communicates something, but you cannot communicate what “Baptist” means. Many people are unclear what the word “Baptist” really means so that in many cases having the word in the name does not communicate anything.

3. Omission is not necessarily deception. Again, unless your name is very long, you cannot include everything in a name. The question is, what do you include and what do you leave out to communicate a different way? Are you deceiving people if you do not include everything here? Is it deception for a Southern Baptist Church to leave “Southern” out of their name? Must every distinctive of your church be included in the church name: “First Southern Inerrantist Exclusivist 7-Day Creation Contemporary Music Small Groups instead of Sunday School 3.5 point Calvinist Preach out of the NIV Serve Communion Once a Month Southern Baptist Church”. All of these are something someone might want to know. Not all of these belong in a church name. Who decided that denominational affiliation was the most important thing about a church?

4. There are other ways to communicate denomination than the name. A few examples I’ve seen include literature tables, visitor information packets, denominational missions posters, membership class, church website, etc. The most common way, perhaps, is to answer the questions of those who ask. In my first church plant, rightly or wrongly, we did not include “Baptist” in our name. We did communicate our Baptist identity in other ways and most people who wanted to know simply asked. I’ve visited other Baptist churches where you had to do extensive detective work to discover whether they were Southern, American, General, Independent, or something else. Each church must find its own way to communicate what is important and distinctive about their congregation—including denominational affiliation.

5. There are much better measures of denominational loyalty than the name of the church. “Baptist” in the name doth not a loyal Southern Baptist make. I would humbly submit that loyalty to your denomination has much more to do with involvement than the name of your church. Much more important, in my opinion, are missions giving and associational involvement. Even more important is commitment to the Great Commission.

Generally speaking, I am not highly concerned whether or not a church includes denominational identity in their name. I offer these points to suggest that we do not judge a church or church planter by their name alone.

You comments are welcome.


James said...

For what it's worth, I would not attend a church that was not willing to denote it's denominational affiliation up front, either in their name or on their signage.

If a church feels that public perception of its denomination is detrimental to its ability to reach potential members, it should work to change the perception of the denomination, not hide behind anonimity.

Todd Benkert said...

James, thanks for being faithful to provide your comments.I understand your point of view. Personally, I am more concerned about the ability to reach the lost that to reach the average consumer Christian.

The main justification for leaving denomination out of the church name is if by doing so, you might remove an artificial barrier that might otherwise prevent the gospel from receiving a hearing.

More on this in the next post. I would also recommend the KBC links in my post. My main point in THIS post is that we not judge a church or its church planter by what is NOT in their name.

-- Todd

James said...


I appreciate where you are coming from and given that I have had to explain being Southern Baptist multiple times in the past couple of months, I fully understand your concerns about artificial road blocks. (Being in the same city as Southern Seminary and its leadership tends to skew peoples perception of all Southern Baptists)

If starting a ministry/planting a church who's purpose is missional, I think one would be justified in the approach you mention in your post.

Others know better than I, but I only remember it being the Billy Graham Ministry, not the Billy Graham Southern Baptist Ministry. Seems like a pretty good precedence

Todd Benkert said...

Just for the record (this is not to you, James, but for my other readers), it is my opinion that whatever negative perception exists locally about our seminary has been quite influenced by a less than sympathetic press. I, for one, am generally pleased with the direction and leadership of our fine seminary.

Still, James' testimony illustrates the point: labels communicate a message and it may not be the message you intend.