You Can Call a Rose Anything You Want and it Will Still Smell Pretty Good: Thoughts on Naming Conventions
Active churches are in the name game. There is always a weekend to plan for. A series to tackle. A program or initiative to launch, etc. We are always dreaming up new ways to share the gospel and create communities and venues ripe for spiritual conversation. The church has her work cut out for her almost as often as a publishing company. New ideas, deadlines, and creative ventures relentlessly dictate the need for new names and titles.
Hurrah for the Red, White, and Blue may not have become required high school reading. Thankfully, Fitzgerald renamed it The Great Gatsby1 and gave it flair and a sense of mystery. The title entices questions of anyone considering the purchase of a new book. Who is this Gatsby? What makes him so great? Is this title facetious? The best the original title may have evoked is mild patriotic agreement.
The Art of Courtship sold 17,500 copies. The Art of Kissing sold four times that many. Of course it did. It’s whimsical. Flirty. Fun. The other sounds like Puritan School curriculum. They were both released on the same day and advertised in the same way.2
Pretty Woman was almost released under the title 3000—a reference to how much Julia Roberts’ character charged Richard Gere for a week of her company. Yuck. The cult classic Snakes on a Plane was almost called Pacific Airflight 121.3 Yawn. Would you pay to see a movie called Spaceman from Pluto? No? How about Back to the Future instead?
The Pendletones may not have survived the 60’s and the cacophony of sound in the wake of the British Invasion. Good thing they changed their name. The Beach Boys helped inspire a new sound and created an entire movement consistent with their name. Ever heard of the band On a Friday? I doubt anyone would have. But good thing Radiohead was the long straw.4
In 2014 a new version of Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms was published including 47 alternate endings to the story that Hemingway considered. Also included is a list of alternate titles he considered and crossed off the list including, Enough and Time, Love in War, The World’s Room, and They Who Get Shot to name a few. I think the last one is hilarious but he chose wisely. Its poetic and has the kind of “magic” Hemingway said a title needs to have. In the book Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, he admitted he often came up with as many as 100 titles before settling for any given book.5
Names and titles matter. Even the celebrated experts go through processes of elimination and grapple with what is going to sell the sizzle.
Someone once told me (in reference to public reading of scripture), “It’s a sin to bore people with the Word of God.” I agree. And take it a step or two further. If you are in charge of setting tone in any way around your church . . . it’s a sin to bore people. Period.
Still, many of the names churches christen with are boring. Or, at least stagnate and uninteresting. Uninspiring.
We need to think through our naming conventions.
A convention is a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards, norms, social norms, or criteria often taking the form of a custom.6 Therefore, a naming convention is a customary way you go about branding/naming things e.g. job titles, series’, message titles, programs, and ancillary and supportive materials.
You may not realize you and/or your church already have naming conventions. Even if they aren’t written down, you have them. They are the naming habits you fall in to, your tone and lexicon, your sense of humor, the resources you draw from, the ruts you find yourself in, or even the lack of care you have for them. Whatever your default is, that’s your convention. And your titles are a reflection of you and what you believe about ministry at some level. Good, bad, or otherwise.
In my years of ministry I’ve always cared about naming conventions. Maybe it’s the songwriter and poet in me. I’ve always had a good idea of what I like and don’t like but I haven’t always done a good job communicating what was in my head to others. Early on, this fault of mine has earned me labels like opinionated, picky, and controlling.
The more people you have involved in naming things around your church increases your need for a written set of conventions. If it’s just you naming things and not worrying about setting a standard for others to abide by, you may not find a written list important. Still, I would argue listing your conventions is a helpful exercise in self-discovery at a bare minimum.
The following list is comprised of my own naming conventions convictions. This is not prescriptive for everyone. Maybe these items will spark some new discoveries or convictions for you.
1. Be playful. Fun rhymes. Humor. Messing with proverbial statements. Turn of phrase. Taking generally accepted beliefs and turning them on their head. Startling statements. Playful irreverence. All of these naming tactics are not only permissible they are encouraged.
2. Don’t stress about tension. Tension can often surface questions that would not be asked otherwise. We don’t always have to connect the dots right away. Sometimes it’s good to create a tension that allows us to address the questions people might be asking. Like good art message titles, series titles, and many program names can bring with them a tension that makes people want to know more (However, mission statements, rallying cries, mottos, etc. should probably be very clear and easy to digest).
3. Don’t be too literal. Literal can be boring. If you are writing textbooks, safety guidelines, and owner’s manuals you should be literal. Avoid titles that sound like business and leadership book titles or a promise of checklists. If you want to surface a need to listen or you want to stir inquiry, you need to welcome metaphor and allegory.
4. Be innovative. The church can be lazy. She sometimes looks at what other churches are doing and copies with no shame—usually because it’s easy. This is why 1000 youth groups have names like Revolution, Elevate (Elev8), Axis, Fusion, Ignite, Catalyst, or any name that incorporates the use of an “X.” People outside the church make fun of this. Your church should have its own brand and identity. It should be unique and indigenous. When we see companies rip-off naming conventions and designs from other companies, we usually mock them for trying to jump on the bandwagon and ride the coattails of someone else’s success (P.S. this is also a huge design issue e.g. stock photos showing up in multiple contexts). So, why would we wish this on ourselves?*
5. With “interior” names and titles, there are “no” rules (or, not many). If you aren’t playing to the masses, you can be as quirky as you want. Use inside jokes. Give titles that require explanation. Create an entire backstory for the sake of explanation. If someone in the congregation is confused by why we call it that, it’s okay. You can expound if necessary.
6. Don’t overplay pop culture references. This is especially true if the references are outdated. Churches are notorious for thinking it will be cool and trendy if they reference a TV show or popular book in their titles. This may have been edgy at one time but it isn’t any longer. So, proceed with caution. Your overzealous pop culture reference could be interpreted as corny and trying to appear hip and relevant. This can backfire on you and smell like snake oil (P.S. Churches, please stop making parody videos. When a popular commercial or show comes out, don’t feel the need to rewrite it in your own image. Be inventive. Tell good stories).
7. Count the cost of explanation. Not every series title, message title, job title, and program name should be memorable, recitable, or pronounceable. Sometimes, a bit of obscurity can actually help the cause and draw people into a deeper conversation or desire to know. Sometimes more ambiguous naming conventions give us an opportunity to provide ancillary materials that create broader conversation and a deeper understanding. Just count the cost. If you don’t want to constantly explain the reasons for your brilliant creativity, go easy on yourself and make it more palatable at first taste.
8. No one really super-de-duper cares about message titles. No one ever leaves a weekend thinking, “That title changed my life.” The importance of the title is directly proportional to the long-term impact we want it to make and/or how important the phrasing is to our message. If the title is part of a grander scheme then it matters big-time. But, if it just matters for the weekend, it matters WAY more to you than anyone else. Which should still matter.
9. Be hopeful but not at the risk of being dishonest. We are purveyors of hope but that doesn’t mean we ignore pain, sugarcoat issues, or wear fake smiles. Sometimes we have to hit the pain straight on in order to get to the hopeful bits. If our message and series titles always sound like Chicken Soup for the Soul, we run the risk of people not trusting us. Avoid self-help titles. A title like, “Hope for Your Marriage” may sound positive and hopeful (though it is boring and uninventive) but a title like, “Love Stinks” will certainly command attention and allow you to seed the series with all kinds of hope while addressing the hard stuff. Everyone knows life is hard. Let’s not pretend it isn’t.
10. Sometimes it’s subjective. If you are the leader or have been given permission to have at it with naming conventions, sometimes it will just make sense to you to go with something you think will work and your team can rally behind.
11. Beware of innuendo. We’d like to believe that only teenage boys have dirty minds but it’s not true. Some series titles and message titles play right in to our junior high brains and cause distraction. No examples are needed here.
12. Say it out loud. How does the title or name roll off your tongue? Is it easy to communicate to a large group? From the stage? In conversation? Experiment with how you would refer to whatever you’ve named with a variety of sentences. “We have a series coming called, __________.” “What did you think about __________?” “I searched online and couldn’t find the video for __________.” “Can I invite my friend to __________?” etc.
13. Be cautious of similarity to something you’ve already done. This is true of things you’ve done in the past as well as things that might be happening in other areas of your church at this time.
14. Think through connotations and/or direct ties to things with the same name. In 2002, it may not have been a good idea to name your youth group, Axis. George W. Bush used the phrase; “Axis of evil” in a state of the union address and it worked its way fast into the underbelly of culture and media. It was the stuff of comedy, parodies, and mockeries. We need to think about how our words and phrases are being used in the culture around us. Sometimes we set ourselves up for failure if we ignore this rule. However, we may want to use a title specifically because of what is happening in culture. Finally, even if it isn’t a direct tie to cultural references, a title may stir up bad feelings because of something happening around us in the world e.g. following the ISIS beheadings we would not want a title like, “Don’t lose your head (unless that’s exactly what we want to do).”
15. Don’t overdo any particular motif. Don’t always rhyme. Don’t always be funny. Don’t always include numbers. Don’t always spell words cleverly. Don’t let alliteration get stale. Recently, I thought about titling a message Hope is Out There as a double-entendre (hope is attainable and hope isn’t found in seclusion). It felt dull to me the more I thought about it. Then I stumbled upon the Greek word for hope as I was reading a commentary. The word is elpis. The new title became Elpis Has Left the Building. Worked for me. This title includes play on words, a Greek word, and a pop-culture reference. But you won’t see me use a Greek word in a title for another few years now. If I ever do. Likewise, the play on words won’t come around again for a bit.
16. Be you. Honesty includes credibility, integrity, and authenticity. Say it the way you would say it. Let it take on your personality—not someone else’s. Colloquialisms are okay. Local slang is okay. Don’t try to sound smart. Bottom line; don’t try to dress up your title in clothes from someone else’s closet.
17. Cute can get old. We all want our branding to have flair and we’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about the value of just that but it’s good to cleanse the palate every once in a while. Even in light of #1 and #3 above, it may be good to simplify every now and then. In the same way that some churches swing the pendulum from felt-need and topical sermons to bible book studies, a change of pace can be great. This is true across the board—not just series and message titles. Don’t force-feed creativity into something that may not need it or may even be detrimental. For example, if you are naming a new gathering for a small group of ladies that will meet on Tuesdays at a coffee shop, feel free to refer to that group as Tuesday Coffee. Try it out. “A group of us meet on Tuesdays for coffee.” “Would you like to join our Tuesday coffee bible study?” “6 of us currently meet for Tuesday coffee and study Song of Solomon.” See. It works just fine. There are enough Mugs and Muffins out there to choke us all.
18. Consider subtitles. If you are doing a series through the book of Galatians, you might want to call your series . . . Galatians. Maybe you want your people to be well aware that you are covering an entire book of scripture. A subtitle gives room for a new creativity e.g. Galatians: Faith, Freedom, and Fruit or Galatians: Busting Chains and Taking Names (I don’t know that I’d use either but you get the picture). When addressing a crowd, feel free to call it the Galatians series without using your subtitle. Subtitles can also generally be longer than any title you may use otherwise since you never really need to constantly refer to it e.g. Galatians: The Long Smackdown Arm of the Law.
19. Avoid church-trendy. We came at innovation from the angle of laziness, being anti-indigenous, and substandard facsimile in #4. Here we are addressing another angle of innovation—avoiding unthoughtful repetition. Find new descriptors when something is overused and loses impact. Churches fall in to buzzword traps all the time. We end up talking and branding like the short-circuited Stepford bride. It’s common for worship songs to incorporate a clever phrase ad infinitum after one artist stumbles upon something that hasn’t been said or a familiar phrase gets re-popularized with a hit song (e.g. Jesus’ fame and a resurgence of the words amazing grace and amazing love reverberated through popular worship music in the last decade). Just because John Mark McMillan coins a poetic phrase does not mean it should end up in the bridge of 100 subsequent tunes (I digress). In similar fashion, descriptors like church DNA and ethos join hands with organic and next-level enough to make every church staff meeting nauseating. Think twice about naming your new church plant Journey or Cornerstone. Think twice about naming your new once-a-month worship gathering Ekklesia. Instead of publishing a Church DNA handbook, publish Stuff that Matters or Things Worth Fighting For.
20. Know your audience. The number one rule of public address. Will they understand your older-than-dirt reference? Were they even born when that TV show you referenced was popular? Are you using white-collar business titles in a blue-collar town? Does your overly conservative crowd need some feedforward and handholding before you smack them in the face with your cleverly offensive title? By giving your youth group that obscure biblical name do you give up any chance of reaching kids in the community who have no idea what you are referencing and it makes you sound like a cult?
*NOTE: While I’m playful and tease a bit, I in no way mean to offend any church who currently uses any names alluded to or listed here. We’re on the same team. If I listed something as taboo that is a habit for you, my goal is to help you out and get us all to think–not depress or anger you. If anyone feels stuck with naming conventions or does not understand something I said, please enter a comment and we can chat.
1. The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing—5th Edition. Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier. 2010. Writer’s Digest Books. p 69. HT http://www.churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-how-tos/138947-hooks-lines-thinkers.html
2. Ross and Collier. p 68.