What’s in a label?
There is a trend in the church planting circles these days. “Shed the labels.” In order to reach a market that prefers generic Christianity over “name brand” versions, most denominations have jumped on the label dropping band wagon with little thought or reflection. And why not? The sentiment is certainly understandable. If you want to reach more people, get rid of the baggage. People don’t want to hear about infrastructure, denominational infighting, tradition, or denominational history. They desire purity, simplicity, authenticity, and an absence of conflict – or at least the appearance of less conflict.

It is a reality that all new church pastors have to face. We faced it at Reconciliation, a new United Methodist Church plant in Durham, NC, when we began our ministry in 1997. I wish I had a nickel for every person who suggested that we drop the name “United Methodist Church” and opt for “Reconciliation Church.” At the very least, we were counseled to make the denominational title an addendum, like fine print at the bottom of a legal document – print that can only be read with a magnifying glass. When the temptation to follow suit came our way, we decided to continue walking on the road and let the wagon leave without us. I don’t regret the decision, though I am sure that many things would have been easier if we had chosen to “shed the label.”

I am not surprised that people are tired of anything that smacks of an “institution” when it comes to matters of faith. I emphasize that qualifier because it is also clear that everything else in our lives depends on institutions, and we would die before we allowed anyone to challenge, dismantle, or degrade them. How many parents want to send their children to “generic” institutions of higher learning that may or may not have been accredited by a national agency? How many desperately sick patients go out of their way to find a physician that is not “board certified” and up to date on the most current research and licensing? How many victims of injustice prefer a lawyer that has not passed her boards?

Lets face it – we love institutions and we love to hate them. But it only takes a few moments of careful reflection to reveal that we need them to function and live. Despite this reality, institutions remain easy targets for everything that ails us when we are dissatisfied. Who doesn’t take regular pot-shots at the government? Easy to do, but at the end of the week, people still expect their trash and recycling to be picked up promptly and disposed of efficiently. Last time I checked, that is at least one example of the “government” – at your service. The same is true of the church, though I am convinced that this institution suffers more attack than any of the others.

What’s in a label? Quite a bit, when you think about it. We don’t name our children “you” … but “Mary, Jane, Bill, and Chad.” We also give our children last names so that people will know where they come from, what family they belong to, and what history they are a part of. Do some families have things in their histories to be ashamed of? Sure. Do some family trees have stories of division, dissension, infighting, and abuse? Absolutely. Does shucking your last name allow you to escape from these realities? Hardly. The truth is, names and “labels” bear stories of hope even as they bear stories of pain. If churches are determined to “shed the label,” fine and good, but lets be clear about one thing – we are engaging in plastic surgery, not practicing internal medicine.