Is it right to choose a name for the church?
A few years ago I was speaking at a conference on Simple Church. We had many networks of churches represented there. My friend Wolfgang Simson was also speaking. Some of the networks represented from CMA were: Awakening Chapels, Big Fish Chapels, The Fountain, Apex, The Quest, Houses of Refuge, ValleyLife, Cross Roads and so on. When Wolf heard all of these names he became a little agitated, and felt that naming churches was egotistical and not right.
I resisted his assumption for a couple years. As with many things, however, I eventually came to see some truth in what he was saying. I began to bring the question under the scrutiny of the Scriptures and discovered that giving someone or something a name is not an idle exercise.
The Naming of things Belongs to the One who is in Authority
Naming things, however, is indeed something the Bible does have much to say about. You do not have to go very far in the Bible to find the concept of naming things. Right from the start God names Adam and Eve, but not all of the rest of creation. He tells Adam to name all the creatures of the earth. The creator placed the man as responsible over the created world. In such a role he is given the responsibility of naming all the creatures. And God is the one in authority over mankind, so he named them. Later Adam and Eve are able to name their own sons and daughters, and parents have been doing so ever since.
Giving a name in the Bible is a weighty responsibility. Names were not given randomly but chosen based upon the person’s unique personality or even destiny. It was a sober affair and often took some time to reflect upon. Usually, in the West, we choose a name that sounds nice or we do so in honor of someone we love or respect.
But naming something also has another important element to it. According to the Scriptures, the one who selects the name is one who has a God-given authority and corresponding responsibility over the one being named. Hence the reason why you may not want to buy a name for a star any time soon…that is a huge responsibility! There was a struggle about John the Baptist’s name because the crowd felt that normal routines were important, but the child born was anything but normal. God Himself was to name this special prophet and a mute man was healed just to declare it so. Even in vitro this person was a special servant of the Lord.
While choosing a name is a normal right of parents, there is a time when it was not their right. John the Baptist was an example. Jesus was also an example. It was made clear by the visitation of angels more than once that Joseph and Mary were not the ones who would select Jesus’ name.
A New Name for a life surrendered
Often, when a person had reached a life-changing moment where he or she were now under the strict leadership of God and God alone, the Lord would change their name. Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter and Saul became Paul. God selected names for them that indicated something special to them and also demonstrated that He was now the authority over their lives, rather then their own original parents. These were renamed by God to reflect a change in their life; most notably that God now was the authority over their life. They have become a new person under the Headship of the Lord God.
We have lost the significance behind naming things. In fact, if you pay $19.99 you can give a name to a star. Wow, imagine that, you can name a star all to yourself. Now, that is a creative money-making venture isn’t it? There is no overhead. No one had to buy the stars and then sell them to us. This creates revenue out of nothing. But is it right for us to name stars? No one ever really asked that question.
While we are given the authority to name the animals in the Bible, the naming of stars is well beyond the scope of our authority or responsibility. Only God has a name for the stars (Ps 147:4), we can’t even count the stars, let alone name them.
Now I fully understand the need to identify stars, so giving them a name is functional. The same can be said of naming churches. But I first think it is important to ask if we should name a church. It is dangerous to assume the authority over something that is God’s not ours. We have been granted authority to name animals, insects, fish and birds, but not stars and certainly not any special part of the kingdom of heaven. Our jurisdiction has limitations. So we should, at the very least, tread carefully when selecting a name.
When we set out to start churches in Long Beach CA we came to the time when we were to select our name. We brainstormed a long list of potential names. Then in a meeting of the leaders (about 12 of us) we kicked those names around, eliminated almost all and came down to two choices: Real Life Church or Awakening Church. We were split even on these two names. A name is a lasting thing that is not easy to change later on. Given the weight of such a task I instructed the leaders to each go home and sleep on the two names…but God had other plans.
That night at 4:00 in the morning I woke up. My wife will tell you, one of the things she has always envied about me is my ability to fall right to sleep and sleep soundly though the night, but this night I was wide awake and unable to fall back to sleep. What was really strange is that a Bible verse was in my head and I couldn’t shake it: Awake Sleeper and Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you. I suddenly realized that God had cast his vote and all other votes are discounted. Our church would be named Awakening. God chose our name.
Having a name is not an issue, but selecting your own name, as if you have the authority to do so is probably the more significant issue. Without names to identify us we would have a hard time even functioning. Names are practical and can be meaningful. But do we have the right to make such decisions ourselves when it comes to God’s family?
In Ephesians 3:14 -15 Paul writes, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”
I think that one of our problems is that we want our ministry to make a name for ourselves. We strive to create a brand name for our ministries. It doesn’t take much for a spiritual leader to have his or her identity wrapped up in the success of the organization that he or she leads. Eventually, the brand name of the ministry becomes almost synonymous with the leader. This is not a bad thing in the business world, but it is not what God’s kingdom is supposed to be like. In His Kingdom, the King is what is important, and frankly you and I are not Him. Our names are all subordinate to His; in fact, every name in heaven, earth and under earth will bow at His name (Phil 2:9-11).
In the New Testament there are not churches with unique names. They are simply the church in Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus or Corinth. In some cases they are the churches (plural) in Galatia (which is an entire region of Asia rather than a city). In other times they are the church that meets in “your/their house.”
I am not suggesting that we all drop our individual names and join together, although as I write that it does have its appeal. Several years ago a number of pastors in the city I was at would get together monthly and pray for the health of our churches, and city. We talked about creating a generic church banner. On a given Sunday we would all cover our individual church signs with this generic brand that simply said “church” and we would also each show up and speak at a different church that Sunday. It was a grand idea and I wish we pursued it more.
Pragmatically, we are way past being able to simply call all churches the church in (fill in the blank city). Too much history has passed and created a world in which we have divisions that cannot be ignored. We can have unity; I do believe that. But we now have designated names that we cannot abandon or we would be unable to communicate.