Church Search (Part 4): What’s in a Name?

Note: This entry is part of my Church Search series. Of course, you can read it as a stand-alone document, but I encourage you to check out the others for the fullest context.

Many years ago, I attended a rural Baptist Church in South Alabama for a family gathering. On the sign outside, below the name of the church, was written in large letters: “Independent, Fundamental, Dispensational and Pre-Millennial” then the phrase, “We believe in the inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word of God as contained in the King James Bible, 1611 edition.” (True story!)

Not every church is that clear about who they are and what they believe BEFORE you go inside. However, contrary to the axiom “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” often you can know about a church...just by their name.

For example, if the church is Jubilee of Praise Tabernacle, you have a good idea of the style of worship you’ll find inside. With a name like Church of the Holy Ghost Anointing Assembly, you probably have insight into their theology.

We knew from the outset of our Church Search that some churches would not welcome us. And it doesn't have to be as blatant as Westboro Baptist. (At least with that group, I don't have to wonder about their views on welcoming a gay couple!) But I am not interested in a subtler, kinder version, but with the same essential views—gay people are sinful and going to hell. (i.e., Westboro Lite)

While I don’t want to pre-judge, make broad accusation or sweeping assumptions, there are denominations who’ve been vocally antagonistic to the LGBT community, so any church sharing that name would be avoided. (Yeah, I’m taking about you, Southern Baptists!). I’m not Catholic, but I know that in most cases, I would not be welcomed, and I certainly couldn't be in leadership. Assembly of God and Nazarene churches would not make it on our list, either. Same with Church of Christ, unless the word “United” is prefixed. Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons are not churches I would visit either. (For reasons beyond their position on homosexuality.) I'm definitely not interested in Scientology; the rigid programming of my Fundamentalist background taught me valuable lessons about thinking for myself. And I don't see me abandoning all my modern technology to join the Amish. (How would I blog by the light of kerosene lamp?)

The United Church of Christ and Unitarians are a safe choice; they've been gay-affirming for many years. Then there’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), formed by a gay Pastor to reach out and meet the needs of the LGBT community. And for that reason, one of my friends says, “If it don’t say MCC, it ain’t for me!”

Of course, some denominational churches are not as easy to peg—Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists all have ongoing discussions, and some churches in those denominations are more progressive on this issue than others. The Disciples of Christ as a denomination came out as “affirming,” but each individual congregation is autonomous, so it can vary from church to church. (I had a Disciples’ pastor ask me not to visit their church.)

The name doesn’t have to be as obvious as Straight and Narrow Family Fellowship, but for me, some monikers would telegraph their inherent views about have a gay couple into their congregation.

  • If the word “Bible” (Friendship Bible Church), “Word” (Word of Power Teaching Center), “Independent” or “Missionary” (Rigid Truth Independent Missionary Baptist Church) is used in the name, I stay away.
  • If a saint or a woman is in the name (Most High Mother Mary Assembly or Saint Agnes Church of the Holy Sacrament), I don’t see us visiting there.
  • Excessive verbiage is a red flag for me. (Victory in His Redeeming Love Chapel; Power of Faith Overcoming Believer's Temple; Built on the Solid Rock of Jesus' Name Worship Center)
  • I’m also suspicious of church names that include “qualifiers,” such as “Most,” “Very” and “Only.” Just down the street from our house is a church called True Grace.  I think that makes the name sound more like a competition, or the spiritual equivalent of “new and improved” in marketing. (“Don’t settle for artificially flavored grace. We offer TRUE grace.”).

Unfortunately, this is something my straight friends don’t always understand!
“Why does your sexuality matter?” they ask. “Church is not about your sexual orientation.”

And while I theory, it’s not reality. As heterosexual Christians, they can walk into any congregation, and be received with open arms.
Of course they don’t understand.
How could they?
Churches don’t insist a straight couple end (or hide) their relationship. They’ve never been asked to leave the church because of their sexual orientation, their relationship or their marriage. They’ve never had a loved one required to “change” their sexual orientation in order to remain part of the fellowship. They’ve never sat in a pew as the Pastor condemned them to eternal damnation because of who they are attracted to, and who they love.

Yes, it’s true: church is not about sexual orientation, UNLESS that orientation is anything but heterosexual!

There are still those who are holding conferences, preaching sermons and writing books about "homosexuality in the church." To me, that misses the point by reducing it to a clinical discussion. This is not about some vague concept ("homosexuals"), it's about peoplegay and lesbian Christians who value their faith, and want a place to express it, to be connected with others who want the same thing.

It was Shakespeare who asked the question, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...” The Bard is correct in his botany. And I'll extend his analogy to our Church Search. A Fundamentalist still “smells” like a Fundamentalist, whether the name is Baptist or Catholic. (And I'm allergic to the fragrance of exclusion!)

So when it comes to finding a church, the Name on the “Welcome” sign is often a deciding factor in whether or not we will visit a church.

How is a Church Search like dating?
I’ll cover some of my observations about that in the next post.


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