(RNS) For Living Faith Lutheran Church, the name change was as much about the future as the past.
On Sunday (June 26) the Rockville, Md., congregation formally bid goodbye to its old name, Crusader Lutheran Church.
“We’re not saying (Crusader) was a bad name,” said the Rev. Sandra Cox Shaw, the church’s pastor. But now, “our name will no longer be a stumbling block for people who want to visit us and get to know us.”
Comments about the church’s “militaristic” and “non-Christian” name reached a “critical mass” last year, said Michael Lidell, a former parish lay leader.
Concerned about the church’s reputation, Lidell suggested a name change at an administrative meeting in May 2010.
But the process of changing the church’s name—or “renaming,” as church leaders call it—turned out to be complicated.
Few local churches had changed names. So leaders learned as they went along, hosting town hall-style meetings, learning how to file for a new charter and how to change the website.
After a year-long process, the 140-member congregation held its “Renaming Celebration” on Sunday. “We affirm that we go on into the future a newly named entity but with the same mission,” Shaw said.
While Living Faith’s story might be uncommon, it is not unique. The seemingly mundane topic of a church name has become a flashpoint for U.S. congregations, with many renaming themselves in recent years for pragmatic, theological or even cultural reasons.
Some Baptist churches, for example, have removed the “Baptist” from their names, including Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., which now attracts 1,000 worshippers each Sunday to the Fellowship at Two Rivers.
It’s not just a megachurch phenomenon; even some smaller Baptist churches remain Baptist, even if it’s not in the name.
“It is an epidemic” said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist Studies at Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C., citing the success of non-denominational churches and the lack of Southern Baptist loyalty as driving the trend.
Leonard also noted that the Baptist brand has been tarnished by controversial claimants like the anti-gay (and independent) Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
“A number of churches on the left and the right are concerned that people are turned off by the Baptist name,” Leonard said. “They believe that in the public square Baptists have looked shrill, unwelcoming, sectarian.”
Church name changes can also mark a shift in the outlook or message of a congregation. When the First Reformed Church in Allendale, Ala., voted to change its name to Lighthouse Community Church in 2004, large sections of the congregation resisted.
“It didn’t go over well,” said the Rev. Steve Demers, who became the church’s pastor shortly after the change. He added the church lost about a third of its congregation over the renaming.
More recently, the Lighthouse congregation decided on yet another change—to break away from the Reformed Church in America, a move that Demers said was tied to the earlier name change.
“We wanted the name to say something. Many people won’t attend (Reformed churches) based on preconceptions of what Reformed means,” Demers said. “The whole stigma of denominations has proven divisive.”
The renaming process at Living Faith Lutheran Church also sparked differing opinions in the pews.
“People felt very passionately on both sides of the issue,” Shaw said. “Some felt tied to the name of the church in which their children were baptized and married … (and some) understood ‘crusade’ as a crusade against poverty and oppression.”
Still, the lure of a new name often wins out: Lidell said Living Faith’s new name “much better reflects what’s happening within our church.”
Not all church name changes happen with congregational votes, however.
For Catholics, a name change is often tied to a merger at the direction of the bishop, or the consolidation of several different—and often struggling—parishes into one worship community.
Catholics typically rename geographic “parishes”, but allow church buildings to keep their names if they continue to operate as houses of worship.
“We would love to have people identify as a parish community,” said Rayanne Bennett, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., which has seen a number of church closures in recent years.
But despite efforts, she admits worshipers often “identify strongly with the actual physical church” even after a merger.
When two neighboring Catholic churches—St. James and St. Joseph—in Massachusetts were told to merge in 2009, it was a parishioner who sparked the idea for the name of the new parish, Our Lady of Grace.
“Someone in a meeting said, ‘We need grace in this process,’” recounted Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston. “The priest responded, ‘Perhaps that’s the name, then.’”