What’s In A Name?: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
So, over this last month I moved my mother into assisted living. That has meant clearing her house to prepare it to put on the market. There are a few different routes that will get me to her house in a brief fifteen minute journey – a journey I’ve been taking multiple times. Each route is filled with churches. At least, I assume that they are churches as the vast majority have names emblazoned on signs that seem to say everything but “church”.
Driving, I pass “The River”, “The Crossing”, “The Encounter”, “New Horizons” and “Common Ground”. Taking a different route, I find myself seeing “The Vineyard”, “The Journey”, “The Well” and “Healing Streams”. This, of course, is not to mention those I drive by on various errands, such as “These Are They”, “The Father’s House”, “Destiny Center”, “Glory Point”, or indeed, one that I occasionally visit, “The Table”.
Also noticeably absent from the buildings housing these assemblies was any sort of recognizable Christian iconography. I did see one stylized Celtic cross among the various graphic representations of clusters of grapes, rivers, sunrises, winding roads and all the rest.
I wondered, “How does this all fit in with the Christian tradition?”
While some Roman Catholics consider the Upper Room to be the first Christian Church, I began to look for something more tangible. My friend, Prof. Dennis Groh, pointed me in the right direction. It would seem that the earliest church that we know of is that of the Dura-Europas in Syria, although it seems to have originally been used for another purpose before it became a church. (There is also an early house church associated with the Roman army town of Megiddo.) Nevertheless, Dura-Europas dates from c. 250 and is replete with Christian imagery. Additionally, important texts were discovered there, including some with eucharistic prayers closely related to the Didache. These, however, were house churches. The first purpose built Christian church of which we have evidence is that of the Aqaba Church in Jordan. It is considered to date from between 293 and 300, therefore predating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Originally built to accommodate about 50-60 people, there was evidence of lamps, a screen dividing the altar area from the congregation and the fragments of a bronze cross were found. It was distinctly Christian in form and use.
As I began to look at other early churches that have survived from the patristic era, the names of the churches were fascinating. Some (as mentioned above) were named for their location or to mark the place where an event in the life of Christ took place. Many were named for a particular martyr, often because the church was raised near to the martyr’s grave. Many, if not most, of the other extant fourth and fifth century churches were named in honor of the apostles or of the Virgin Mary. Some were places of pilgrimage, such as the so-called House of Peter in Capernaum, which became memorial churches in due course. Moreover, these churches were replete with Christian imagery and iconography. While often plain on the exterior (perhaps a holdover from the era of persecution) the interiors contained frescoes, mosaics and much more that is now lost. They were distinctly Christian. Moreover, they were distinctly Christian in the culture of late antiquity that considered Christianity to be somewhat of a novelty. They wished to be known as “church” and to invite the world in which they lived to become of part of the tradition which they had inherited.
Now, many of the modern churches with interesting names are not interested in being a part of any tradition, although in reality many are now a part of a non-denominational tradition of musical performances, followed by a lecture with the addition of extemporaneous prayers and, perhaps, a song or two before dismissal. More problematic, at least in my opinion, are those churches who claim to be part of a tradition, or are desiring to be part of a tradition, who clearly do not seem to wish to be identified as a “church”. The designation is avoided in name, appearance and yes, even down to a semi-liturgical service conducted by someone in skinny jeans who tosses a stole around their neck.
In my mind, it is a matter of identity.
As a Christian, I cannot separate myself from the past, nor from the identity that the past provides. It is not merely the Church’s history, it is my history. The Tradition within that history continues to inform and enrich us. And, to a great extent, that Tradition provides our identity, both individually and corporately.
The canon of Scripture did not appear on a velvet pillow descending from heaven. It came to us through the Tradition.
Our modes of exegesis and interpretation were not discovered by us as a prize in a cereal box. They have been handed down to us.
The creeds we confess did not simply “happen”. In the first instance they were formulated in connection with worship, baptism and the eucharist. Later creeds were hammered out in conciliar gatherings. In both instances, they come to us through the Tradition.
Yes, forms may change, language may change and even buildings may change, but our faith is that which was “once delivered”. Paul, just decades distant from the events recorded in the Gospels, realized that he already stood in a tradition that he was both passing on to the next generation, even as he invited those to whom he wrote and spoke to become a living part of that tradition. It seems to me, that our desire to “market” ourselves as an entity that avoids the word “church” is problematic. I think it is primarily problematic because “the Church” to which we invite people is not just our own small group. In our own small group we may express the greater reality of “the Church”, but we are not the “end all or be all” of which the Church consists. The Church is a 2000 year old tradition of worship, service, and theological reflection. It is local, regional and global. It is the Church militant here on earth and the Church triumphant in heaven. It is the two or three gathered and it is countless millions through the centuries.
It seems to me, that while the new names that I see may be an interesting marketing tool, the practice loses more than it gains. Moreover, there seems to be an implicit rejection of what it means to embody the tradition of the Church in favor of a particular “branded” gathering in a particular place. Church should be a place to encounter God, not a variation of Starbuck’s or a place to hear a motivational lecture. That ground has been covered by others. We, I believe, are called to something different.