What’s In a Name?

A few weeks ago, when my husband and I traveled down to Boston to pick up our daughter at Logan airport, I noticed a very large sign on a Roman Catholic Church along the way, in Revere.

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I’ve been noticing other similar signs, all about the business of inviting, welcoming, even cajoling, people to visit, to attend, to “come back” to church. I can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness of the signage. Are there people who drive by and experience a sudden pang of guilt, realizing that they can’t remember the last time they went to church, then thinking that maybe it’s time they should?

At Old South, we’ve been talking—a bit—about our sign in the front of our church. Under our very long name, Old South Congregational Church United Church of Christ, the sign includes a message of welcome, along with a rainbow symbol, to indicate our open and affirming status. The last time we updated the sign, a few years ago, there was some discussion about that rainbow symbol. Wasn’t it enough simply to use the words “open and affirming”? I had argued at the time that it wasn’t nearly enough to use just the words, since lots of people have no idea what “open and affirming” means. The symbol, however, would convey a much clearer message. In the end, they agreed to include the symbol.

There’s another part of our sign, though, that’s getting an increasing amount of my attention: congregational. No one knows what that word means anymore. And I’m not just talking about people outside the church. There are clearly people on the inside who really have no idea what the word means either. And it’s a long word that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

It’s a problem. When we offer our welcome, what exactly are we welcoming people to?

The church in Revere with its stark, ginormous sign probably experiences not nearly as much confusion about what it is as we do in our little congregational church in Maine. Roman Catholics have a well-known brand. We Congregationalists, not so much. Although there are quite a few Congregational churches in Maine (and in the Northeast in general), we don’t necessarily have much of anything in common with each other. We are not even all part of the same denomination. It’s confusing, even for those of us who are active, faithful members of our own local church.

These days, when “outside” people encounter our full name, they almost always think it says “congressional” rather than “congregational.” This is not only troubling to me (what sort of people would have a “congressional” church??), but it offers an important clue suggesting a serious problem with the name so proudly and clearly displayed on the sign erected on our front lawn.

What to do about this situation is not at all clear. Names, after all, are important, and the confusion that is experienced may not be dispelled simply through a name change. It’s certainly part of our job to make clear who we are and what we do. That Trader Joe’s, for example, sells groceries is not at all clear by its name. Yet, most people know exactly what Trader Joe’s does because Trader Joe’s has been very good at marketing itself.

To change our name, or to begin a more aggressive marketing campaign—or both—is not simply about encouraging those “out there” to come join us. It would also be a good way of figuring out for ourselves who we are and what we are about. And, that would be a very good thing.




About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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