What do we call ourselves? House church? Simple church? Organic church? What's in a name anyway? When we were children, our little immature spats would often involve calling each other names. “You are ugly”, “You have a big head”, or “You have big ears” were verbal weapons meant to embarrass our little opponent in front of our friends. The classic childhood response to these taunts was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Names may not hurt physically, but they do have an impact on us, often in ways we may have not considered.
There is an old African proverb that says, “It’s not what you call me that matters – it is what I answer to.” A name evokes an image. When you hear a name it creates a picture in your mind that creates a good or bad emotional response. In this edition of the NTCD Blog, I want to address two names – the first is the name or title ‘Christian’, and the second is ‘church’.
Many people have proudly adopted the name (or title) of being a ‘Christian’. However, the image of what a Christian is has become distorted in modern times. The term is not often associated with being Christ-like. Almost anyone you ask will claim to be a Christian – regardless of what they believe or how they live. When you combine this with the fact that many of these ‘Christians’ are no longer attending a ‘church’, which for years has been closely tied to those calling themselves Christian, it should alert you to a change in the religious atmosphere.
The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). There is some dispute among theologians as to who gave them this name. It is not, generally, known whether the name Christian was intended to be derisive or complimentary, but it is clear that this name was given to the disciples in order to separate them from the other religions of the day.
No longer are we simply Christians, but we are now Christians that are defined by a particular belief system that makes us distinct from other Christians. We identify ourselves as Baptist Christians, who attend Baptist churches, or Methodist Christians who go to Methodist churches, or Pentecostal Christians who go to Pentecostal churches, and the list goes on with names like Lutheran, Presbyterian, Holiness, Apostolic, and hundreds more. We generally worship with ‘Christians’ with the same beliefs. Our denominational names, whether we realize it or not, often lets the world know the parameters of our beliefs. Our labels are a reflection of our form of Christianity, and serve to subtly divide the Body of Christ.
A greater distortion comes when you hear of those who claim to be homosexual Christians, New Age Christians, liberal Christians, and the like. These people often redefine Christ to fit their beliefs. You see them in the media spewing their ‘live and let live’ philosophies under the banner of being Christian.
In recent years, a new name ‘non-denominational church’ has arisen. Like the other names, non-denominationalism points to a belief system. Think about it. What usually comes to your mind when you hear of a church calling itself a ‘Christian Center’, a Family Center, or even a ‘Worship Center’? These names often imply that such churches are Charismatic or possibly Pentecostal.
A recent study by the Pew Forum found that nearly one-fifth of the U.S. public and a third of adults over 30 are religiously unaffiliated. The assumption for those in the ‘church world’ is that these unaffiliated are not ‘true Christians’. But studies show otherwise. Many are firmly committed to Jesus Christ, but find no spiritual fulfillment in church systems. Some have migrated into small groups that meet in homes. Again, the tendency to camp around certain ideologies comes to the surface, as even among these groups labels are beginning to surface. First, the message coming forth was house church-ism. Slowly, I have seen the message regress into various forms of house church-ism. There are ‘house church groups’, ‘simple church groups’, ‘organic church groups’, ‘hybrid church groups’ and probably a few more. I understand the reason for the adjectives organic, simple, and house being used to define a particular type of church, but the fact remains that these adjectives have the unfortunate potential of creating new sects in the Body of Christ. They have the same impact as identifying a church by its denomination. Our names inadvertently and sometimes willfully separate us.
Recently, I was in a phone conversation with a woman who had left the denomination she had been part of for years. Her previous church had a strict dress code for women. In her new church, she bragged to me that she was ‘free’ to wear pants because she was now in a ‘Word’ church. Her statement made me think, “Aren’t all churches supposed to be ‘Word’ churches?” Shouldn’t we all be teaching the Word of God? By claiming to be a ‘Word Church’ was she inadvertently implying that other churches did not teach the Word of God? Even when we innocently say that we are ‘full gospel’, are we implying that other groups are ‘partial gospel’? Every time we embrace a name, it has the potential of creating another line of division in the Body of Christ.
I love the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. I want to emphatically make it clear that I am not against any group. I am not anti-denominational as much as I am pro-Jesus Christ. I grew up in a Baptist church. Soon after I was married, I joined a local Pentecostal church. For many years I served as a musician for a Methodist church, and before launching out on my own, I was the assistant pastor in a Charismatic Church. Among these wonderful people I often was involved in discussions of their doctrines. These discussions were often an interpretation of scripture that was intended to prove why they didn’t do things like the church across town. Or worse, in some cases they implied that their beliefs made them better Christians than the church across town. The early church dealt with this issue. Paul wrote “For it has been reported to me concerning you, my brothers, by those who are from Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," "I follow Apollos," "I follow Cephas," and, "I follow Christ." (1Corinthians 1:11-12). These first century believers were personality driven, which caused unnecessary division among them. Yet, in the twenty first century we are still repeating this same error. We continue to have a propensity to huddle around our favorite personality, doctrine, or style of worship. I wonder if we realize that the world around us could care less.
We can separate ourselves from each other with our names, but the world sees us as one and the same – and too often in a negative light. The world has attempted to define the church and what it means to be a Christian. People will attempt to control you by defining you first. We must not accept the world’s definition of who we are. I believe we must work to restore in the minds of all what the church is, and what it means to be a Christian. We must follow the non-compromising example of the disciples in the first century church whose lives earned the right to be called Christians.
In my book, No Longer Church As Usual (Second Edition), I espouse the importance of embracing the values of the first century church. The first value we must embrace is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Remember, ‘DISCIPLES’ were first called Christians in Antioch. The foundation of being a Christian is first to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. The more you sit at the feet of Jesus, the more likely you are to be dubbed a Christian by the world. You and I are not Christians because we proclaim to be one; we are Christians solely because of our relationship to Jesus Christ.
Jesus is still building His Church – His way in the 21st century. He is building His Church on the revelation of who He is – not with our myriad of eclectic beliefs. His building materials consist of lively stones that collectively form a spiritual house (1Peter 2:5). These lively stones are you and I who must embrace the truth that we are many members, but one body (1Corinthians 12:20).
Tim Kurtz is the founder of The Center for New Testament Church Development. The ministry was formed in 2010 with the mission to plant regional churches that reflect the values and structure of the first century church.