So how do we tend to name our churches or movements? Below I will list five common ways names are derived and give examples for both churches and denominations.
Where Church Names are Derived
1. Named after a Geographical Location.
This is, of course, the only source of name in the New Testament. The church that is in Philippi. The churches of the Galatian region. The church of Antioch or Jerusalem. This is still a common source for a name. Saddleback Valley Community Church, later shortened to simply Saddelback, is a region named after a prominent mountain resembling a saddle overlooking the area where the church is found. Brooklyn Tabernacle is obviously named by its geographical location. Even movements that become denominations can start this way, such as the Moravians. Though they sent people all over the world, they are identified by their starting place, which is found today in the current Czech Republic. Even the Roman Catholic Church has its roots in geography, even though it has come to mean so much more than simply its location.
2. Named After a Founder or to Someone in High Regard
This is actually one of the most common derivatives of names in church history. The Montanists were named after Montanus of Phrygia. The Waldenses were named after Peter Waldo. The Franciscans were of course named after St. Francis. There are many denominations today that are still named after their original founding father: the Lutherans and the Mennonites are two examples. There are also many churches named after saints. St Cornelius
Parish is around the corner from my house and is a particular favorite of mine (my real name is Cornelius).
3. A Name that is Appealing.
While the previous two derivatives are most dominant in church history and the Bible, this category is quickly becoming the most common today. Choosing a name that is attractive to the world and unique in the community and even thinking about logos and promotional pieces has become normative. Willow Creek Community Church was selected without a willow tree or a creek, but simply because it was appealing. The Friends, often referred to as the Quakers, is an appealing name for a group that holds to pacifism and abolitionism as a core belief.
4. A Name that is Simply Pragmatic or Descriptive.
Sometimes names are chosen because they identify a unique quality about the church or movement. First Baptist would be an example of simply naming a church for pragmatic reasons. The Pietists, were called such because they valued living a holy and zealous life for God. Charismatics are named such because the word for gift is Charisma. Pentecostals are named such because they are seeking the same experience found in the original birth of the church on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
My own organization is called Church Multiplication Associates because it describes what we are about, and certainly not because the name so easily rolls off the tongue (or fits on a business card). We mostly go by the acronym CMA which tends to get us confused with the Christian Missionary Alliance (another descriptive name). I often joke that we did such intentionally to increase mistaken donations, but that is just a bad joke because there isn’t that much money in either movement.
5. Named by the Opposition.
One of my favorite means of deriving a name is not selected by the founders at all, but by those in opposition. Followers were first called “Christians” in Antioch by those opposed to the movement. The label “Methodist” was slapped on a burgeoning movement by those who wanted to identify a movement that was propelled in large part by simple and reproducible methods. The Quakers were called such because of their ecstatic response to the inner presence of the Holy Spirit.
I personally like this means of deriving a name the best because it means that others are noticing your movement and that you yourselves were too busy doing the work to worry about coming up with a name. Usually these titles are meant to be derisive but they actually become endearing. That being said, I am not so keen on being known as the “pancake churches” just because one denomination felt inclined to call us that because someone used pancakes and syrup in communion at a church breakfast one time.
From a pragmatic point of view these concepts are not bad, but they bypass something significant that the Bible can teach us about giving names. I will look at some of these ideas in the remaining blog posts on this subject.