What's in a name? (Judith Mbaabu)

Monday, 30 November, 2015

Judith Mbaabu explores whether names are important and what they say about us.

As a fresh expression of church, Hay Mills CC comes together to share fun, fellowship and worship in the name of Jesus. That all sounds great but what exactly am I talking about? To a non-church person, and especially to our members with learning disabilities, I guess it makes no sense at all!

In an attempt to become more 'accessible' to the people they serve, many Christian fellowships are choosing to adopt a different name - such as 'Community Church' - and replacing more traditional church terminology with language that everyone can understand.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is, 'Does the name really matter?'

Once I would have said that only my first name mattered and my surname was of no significance. My Christian name was chosen especially for me. It wasn't inherited from my dad's family, and it wouldn't change if I married. It belonged to me - even though many thousands of others had the same first name.

Now, I would say that my surname does matter, because it identifies me in a way that is important to me. I am a white woman with a Kenyan surname. As a result, people make assumptions… Some have not been able to 'identify' me in a crowded room because they presumed that I would be a black woman with a name such as Mbaabu. The fact is that I chose to change my name after I married because it says so much about me. Keeping my English surname would have been easier here in the UK, but that is to deny something of who I have become.

So do clever names and the catchy labels we choose really make any difference as we seek to grow the Kingdom. Or are we confusing people and leaving them looking for, and expecting, the wrong thing? Are we denying something of who we really are in an attempt to be more acceptable to our local communities?

Let's look more closely at the name Hay Mills CC. Hay Mills is a closed church that the Congregational Federation has re-opened, and we needed to retain some of its previous identity but – at the same time - let the community know that something different was now happening.

So what to call our new church? Community Church, Congregational Community Church, Community Hub, Church Hub, Hay Mills fresh expression, Hay Mills Messy? Finally we agreed on Hay Mills CC, and people can decide for themselves what they think it stands for! Assuming of course, that it actually matters to them what we are called. It matters to us as we want to be clear and not mislead people into thinking we are something that we are not. But does it matter to those around us? At a recent gathering we asked everyone what they thought we should call ourselves. One lady immediately said, 'The church where we make friends'. It's not slick, doesn't roll off the tongue and wouldn't fit well on a letter head, but it says exactly what she felt at that moment.

Many of our friends at Hay Mills CC do not have a great grasp of language but they know when they are welcomed and loved. They also know when they feel at home and a part of something special. An individual who does not remember names well pointed to our Church Development Worker when they met on the street and shouted, 'Church! Church!'

We are Church. We are Congregational. We are Community. We are a fresh expression. Our name is the first thing many people hear about us and their assumptions matter. So let's be careful about names, but let's be honest. Just changing a name does not help us to reach out to more people if we fail to look closely at what we are offering when we actually meet with them.

Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life' and that was enough. No clever labels, no pretending to be something he wasn't, no 'clever' name that didn't reflect the reality. He said clearly who he was, in words that people understood, and that was enough. Can that be said about us?

About the author: 

Judith Mbaabu is Mission Development Officer for the Congregational Federation.


This is really helpful. I entirely get the point about your name, as a white West Indian. And many people negotiate multiple identities, and our identity in Christ needs to encompass the breadth and the richness of that. It is very easy for the church to diminish our humanity by boxing us in to an identity of ministry (priest, deacon, reader, pastor, flower arranger) and to neglect the creational elements of our 'namings'. Thanks for sparking my thoughts.

Facing a similar naming problem in a commercial merger, where we could not retain the title of either party, we ended up using initials as the main method to convey an identity that was primarily geographical. That left others to decide on how they would handle any remaining ambiguities. Our new name mostly was a marker around which we could cluster the things that mattered. It was quickly adopted and 30 years on is still in use even though the underlying framwork is very different.

HMCC is clearly not Catholic... that would be HMRC......... ;-)

Something for Ide CC to think about in 2016 if we are thinking to try a different kind of 'Church' not necessarily on a Sunday.

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