I fully understand that a local church should be judged on vital and important things like the nature and character of its ministry more than on its name. But I wonder about the trend toward local churches employing generic names. Names like The Storybook, The Happy Place, or Fig Leaf Fellowship.
The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, shows this trend toward generic church names. The new president of the SBC heads a megachurch that does not call itself by a name that includes the word Baptist. Several “wacky” seeker friendly/attractional megachurches were begun as SBC churches but don’t use the name and manifest nothing of traditional Baptist teaching. I’ve noted that most SBC congregations in my community now present themselves by a generic name. The trend is by no means limited to the SBC or to Baptists. There are several start-up churches in my rapidly-growing locality, and most have a generic name; I have no idea what they might believe.
My background is in, gasp, independent Baptist churches. Few groups are more maligned, often rightly so. I’ve experienced independent Baptist churches that were, at best, not very good. Nevertheless, I’ve in recent months attended three independent Baptist churches in my community, one small and relatively new, one older and somewhat larger, and one perhaps the largest and most effective Baptist congregation in the state. All were different in style. All were warm and welcoming, and would have been so even if I hadn’t been an appropriately dressed middle-aged White guy. The messages from the pulpits were worth listening to, and two especially show a commitment to systematically teaching and preaching the Bible. The churches were each very different in style, but the services in all three were more than worth attending and I could recommend all three. I knew what I was getting when I attended the service; the commitment each church showed was consistent with the best of Baptist tradition.
I’m sure many generic Fig Leaf Fellowships are doing a good job. But I have to wonder, what are they hiding? What are they ashamed of? What is wrong with an identifier like First Evangelical Free Church or Second Baptist Church or Faith Bible Church or Third Community Church? Likely the rationale is that the audience the church seeks to somehow attract doesn’t like Baptists, or Presbyterians, or church, or the Bible.
The 1980’s television sitcom “Cheers” was set in a fictional Boston bar named “Cheers.” The characters came in to the pub to have a drink and chat, to unload their problems, to be amused, to enjoy friends, to perhaps hear some sage words of advice. The lyrics of the show’s theme song expressed this:
It sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
The troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name
The people are all the same
You want to go where everybody knows your name.
It occurs to me that many local churches want to use something akin to the thought behind these lyrics to characterize their church. And that is where the issue becomes more than just eye-rolling trivia.
A local congregation should be accepting, warm, and welcoming to visitors and new people. The church should actively seek to reach out to people outside of the church, and when new people come to a service or event they are to be welcomed. Congregants should become friends. They should be concerned for one another, share in each other’s lives. But a church should never pattern itself after the corner bar or a lodge or benevolent society. Church services should be enjoyable for congregants to attend, becoming more so as they grow in their faith, but should not become patterned after the entertainment of the day. Rather, church services should, gasp, reflect the purposes noted in the New Testament; services should reflect regulatory principles from the New Testament. Services should include careful systematic consideration of Scripture, prayer, reading of Scripture, and appropriate use of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The vast majority of attendees are believers, part of the congregation, and come to be instructed from Scripture and to be a part of corporate worship. Thus, unchurched people visiting a church may not feel completely comfortable. The church should teach, preach, and sing doctrine and truth from Scripture. The church in all of its activities and certainly in its services should clearly present and adhere to the Gospel. And here, I think, is the problem of the generic church.
“Cheers Church” increasingly is becoming more “Cheers” and less “Church.”
I Corinthians 2:14 reminds us, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” The church can never moderate to be completely inoffensive to the unchurched and still declare the Gospel. When it dumbs down to be inoffensive and affirming, never teaching doctrine and truth from Scripture that might offend, it ceases to be the church. Instead of church “equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry” so that church members can grow in their faith and reach people with the Gospel, the church focuses on numeric growth through things like fun, entertainment, benevolence, community, or motivational talks with a few verses thrown in.
There is a great and growing hostility toward Christianity. Many people want nothing to do with organized religion, and we don’t want to give the unchurched any more reason to reject attendance or identification with church. Perhaps an individual has had a bad experience or otherwise has gained a bad impression toward a definitively-named church. (One wonders what might happen when that person has a bad experience at Cheers Church or Fig Leaf Fellowship.) In truth, I’m less concerned about the name than I am about the nature, character, and faithfulness of a church.
Again, I’m sure many generic Fig Leaf Fellowships are doing a good job. But more than questioning what they are hiding, I have to wonder if in fact they are not hiding anything because there is nothing there to hide. Do they believe lost people are really lost and in danger of eternal loss, or do they believe that their task is to help people have a better life in this world by sparking something good that is inherently in the heart and mind of people? Have they walked away from the Gospel and the rather harsh truth that lost people are lost and need to come to Christ in repentant faith or face eternal judgement? Have they removed the essential nature of the New Testament church? Have they become focused on positive thinking, motivational speeches, relationship advice, keys to success, generationally-focused entertainment, benevolent and charitable acts, etc.?
The name of a church may not matter. The real issue, though, is that many evangelical churches regardless of their name or brand are becoming not just generic, but placebos. A generic pharmaceutial should have the same effective ingredients as a name-brand medication, and if so it will be effective. A placebo medication, on the other hand, is a pill, medication, or procedure that is administered for perceived or psychological benefit but has no real therapeutic benefit. It lacks effective ingredients. It may please or calm, but it doesn’t cure. A church that in its services does not hold obviously and tenaciously to Scripture (all of it), truth, and the Gospel, is a placebo. A church that substitutes a sense of community and “doing life together,” relational advice, keys to success, human reasoning, or empty talks referencing a verse or two, but is devoid of doctrine, is a placebo. A church that shuttles real content off to discussion groups that too often become chat groups, and never engages in authoritative teaching from the Bible, is a placebo.
People don’t need a placebo church. They need a real church that convinces them of their true need and points them to the One Who is truly the Cure.