Gordon MacDonald told us a while back that the church he serves was considering changing its name. It has finally happened. His account of a 180-year-old congregation's year-long wrestling with its identity is amusing and instructive. Read on.
About a year ago I filled some of this space with comments about changing a church's name. At the time our New England congregation (Baptist in background) was thinking about exchanging its 180-year-old name for something more adaptable to the times. I invited comment from all my readers. And all four of you wrote to me. (Just fooling). Actually, there were a significant number of responses.
Many e-mails were thoughtful and gave evidence that people had done their homework and accumulated useful insight about how and why a church's public moniker ought to be reappraised occasionally and sometimes changed. One or two respondents trumped me by writing that if I prayed more, Jesus would provide the name since it is his church.
A name is important. It can say something about who you are or who you want to be.
There are name-changes throughout the Scriptures. Jesus renamed Simon Peter in order to map out his journey to maturity. The early church called Joseph of Cyprus Barnabas because he was a fountainhead of encouragement. And Saul of Tarsus became Paul in order to contextualize himself in the Greek-speaking world.
I'm one who believes a church name ought to arouse curiosity, reflect congregational character, or provide some sense of meaning as to why a church or organization exists. My opinion? First Baptist Church doesn't cut it any longer. And most of our people agreed - some enthusiastically; others with a compliant shrug of the shoulders.
Our people studied church names and the stories of name changes all across the country. Some stories they collected ended well; others reflected the anguish a congregation can go through when a few become determined to fight change of any kind. Here in this church we're New Englanders, the people who didn't go west many decades ago when Horace Greeley suggested it. Those who did embrace change left us and moved to California. We who stayed behind continued to love our stained-glass windows, our pipe organs, and our hard wooden pews. Why should it surprise you, then, that name changes come hard?
It was a big day when our leaders unanimously affirmed their desire to go for a change. It was an even bigger day when we identified a name that every one liked. It just popped up in conversation. I'm not sure that any of us remember who had the idea. Jesus, perhaps! When we first heard it, we raised holy hands and said in concert, "That's it!" And we stopped looking. The name we picked was CenterPoint Church. It grabbed us, and it offered a meaning that we quickly embraced.
Not so the entire congregation. Admittedly, there were some strugglers out there. And we waited, month after month, for the last 20 percent of our people to jump aboard. Convincing the first 80 percent was easy. The last 20 percent, however, were harder to persuade.
If we'd gone for a 51 percent majority on the new name, adopting it would have been a slam-dunk. Even 66 percent would have been an easy sale. But, being the masochists that we are, our leaders decided that we shouldn't change the name unless 80 percent of the folks said "Ah-yup!"
The night of the big business meeting came. The name change was item number four on the agenda. The first three items, leaders reasoned, were simple, rubber-stamp matters that could be disposed of quickly. But there were three or four Baptist saints who left their rubber stamps at home and kept us all going for two and one-half hours before item four got to the floor. Result? Several advocates of the name-change, younger family people, left to get their children home to bed. Most of them didn't think their votes would be needed.