What’s in a (church) name?

We had an elders’ day in one of the churches where I serve last weekend. The theme was trying to imagine the church we wanted to become and to begin finding some steps in the right direction. I had anticipated a variety of possible avenues that we might decide to explore but the two for which most enthusiasm were expressed were both unexpected to me. Some of those there were really excited about exploring the possibility of building on the role music outside worship plays in our common life and establishing what one might call a “music ministry”. I’m not very musical myself but I share the sense that this is an area we could well develop.

What I want to write about, though, is the other surprise, the real buzz that some felt about changing our name. Currently we are Potters Bar United Reformed Church and few if any of those present felt that was a good name and quite a few thought it was absolutely terrible. What’s more we all know that it isn’t actually a name that is widely recognised or used. Our very well used hall is named after a benefactor and is called the Tilbury Hall. That name is very well known indeed. It was generally agreed that our site was primarily recognised as Tilbury Hall and that for most residents of our town the presence of a church there is not a prominent feature. Indeed last year our nursery rebranded itself from Potters Bar United Reformed Church Nursery to Tilbury Nursery since this would actually mean something to far more people.

In the days since I’ve been thinking about the process of renaming and rebranding (we thought if and when we change our name we will change our whole visual identity including the way the front of the building looks from the street). I’m actually rather thrilled by the prospect. This is not so much because I think a new name, in itself, will matter much. It’s because I expect the process of finding and agreeing a new name will be one that will really challenge us to think about who we are and who we want to be, what we want to announce about ourselves to our neighbours.

Is our primary identity one rooted in our traditions and history? If so we might want to reach back and use a name referring to one of the great figures of the Reformation or of English Protestantism. Calvin church, anyone, or Bunyan? Perhaps we could look to a more local identity stressing our deep and strong connections to the town we are located in, one of the “Community Church” type names might capture this. Maybe we would like to stress the ecumenical nature of our particular denomination, stressing “unity” in our name. Maybe we want to continue to honour the benefactor who paid for our site by keeping the Tilbury connection? In thinking this through we have a great chance to clarify for ourselves why we think we have something distinctive and important to offer to a locality that is in no way short of churches.

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