Are We Seeking Relevance or Simply Being Ashamed?

All over the Western world Christian churches and organisations are making all sorts of changes. Changes to the way church is done, or how it looks, or how it is named, is part of this. Explicitly Christian names and titles for example are often being dropped for more update and trendy ones.

The reason given for all this is often expressed in one word: “relevance”. Churches and Christian organisations claim they want to be more relevant, more appealing to the secular masses, and more up-to-date. Thus they are making various changes, as part of a new emphasis on marketing schemes and advertising tactics.

Lots of churches for example are coming up with rather trendy names, such as CityLife or some such thing. I am not picking on this particular group, but just using it as an example. My own church some years ago ditched its older, more accurate name, including its denominational tag.

It now has a contemporary name, with at least the word ‘cross’ still a part of it. But many churches are getting rid of any religious or even biblical sounding words in this effort to become appealing, relevant, fresh, and new. It has a lot to do with marketing strategies and becoming more seeker-sensitive and seeker-friendly.

Not only are name changes taking place, but many other radical shifts are occurring as well. Of course long gone are pews, hymnals and the like in many contemporary houses of worship. But so too are things like wooden crosses and other Christian symbols.

A number of churches proudly affirm such changes, citing the need to be progressive and relevant, and to better be able to draw young people. In another example of this, consider something I just learned about from an email in my inbox today.

It turns out that the old Christian stalwart parachurch group, Campus Crusade for Christ, has just had a name change as well. It is now called, simply, Cru. Here is how the story has been written up: “The new name will be adopted in early 2012. The U.S. ministry hopes the new name will overcome existing barriers and perceptions inherent in the original name.

“‘From the beginning, Bill (Bright) was open to changing our name. He never felt it was set in stone. In fact, he actually considered changing the name 20 or 25 years ago,’ says Vonette Bright, who co-founded Campus Crusade for Christ with her husband. ‘We want to remove any obstacle to people hearing about the most important person who ever lived—Jesus Christ’.”

This article, as well as the original press release put out by the group, goes on to talk about a lengthy period of time, and much prayer and thought, which went into the decision. But in none of the literature on this can I find any reason as to why this name was chosen, how it is meant to be an improvement on the old name, or even what it means.

What exactly is Cru? It is not even an acronym, it seems. And if the concern was to remove any troubling or offensive terminology, surely the word “crusade” would have been the obvious candidate. Yet all we have here is what seems like an abbreviation of this term.

Many Christian groups have abandoned what was once a fully acceptable term in order not to offend or appear to be antagonistic. One American Christian college I attended years ago was back then debating whether they should drop their football team name, The Crusaders. Even then it was getting to be a bit too politically incorrect.

This is not the place to go into all the pros and cons about the Crusades. For my thoughts on it, one can go to this article for starters:

Christian groups, especially those seeking to win Muslims, may have good reasons for changing such a name. But in this case, I am still left puzzled as to what exactly this new name means. It has no meaning at all, and no real explanation has been forthcoming.

And even more curious – if not troubling – is why the word “Christ” had to disappear from their name as well. It is one thing to drop a term like “crusade”. But “Christ”?  Was that altogether necessary? Again, the statements made about this gives us little insight into why this term also had to go.

They mentioned that “the new name will overcome existing barriers and perceptions inherent in the original name”. But Christ is always going to be a barrier and offensive to those who reject him. And if clarity in communication is the aim, and the new name is meant to be readily understood by non-Christians, I am at a loss as to how it will even come close to achieving this. At least with the old name we knew exactly where this group was coming from. The new name means and signifies absolutely nothing. It is simply incomprehensible.

Now I have nothing against the old CCC. I had some dealings with it in my younger Christian days and it was a terrific, biblically-based evangelical group. I assume it still is. I trust it is still boldly upholding the gospel of Jesus Christ. But I still can’t quite get my head around their name-change.

Mind you, there can well be a place for changing names. Sometimes it becomes quite necessary. For example, the old Festival of Light group in Australia now calls itself FamilyVoice. Good move. Almost no one today would know about the historical significance of the old Festival of Light both here and in England.

And there can be a place for seeking to be relevant, contemporary, and appealing to modern audiences. But one should only go so far in this direction. Sadly, as I have written elsewhere, sometimes far too much emphasis is put on marketing techniques and management styles, rather than on the need for things like greater holiness and more cross-carrying discipleship.

Many churches today seem to get along quite nicely without the Holy Spirit even needing to be present. As Tozer once put it, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”

And one has to ask about how many of these changes are in fact due to a certain shame about the gospel message itself. Jesus was quite outspoken about this. He made it clear that if we are ashamed of him and his message, he will be ashamed of us before the Father (eg., Mark 8:38; Matt 10:32-33; Luke 12:8-9).

I am not saying the old CCC is now ashamed of Christ. And hopefully most other groups which are making these sorts of changes are not either. But there is a fine line between wanting to be relevant and contemporary on the one hand, and being timid about the Christian gospel and capitulating to the forces of PC on the other.

Every Christian group, church and organisation considering such changes needs to ask just what is the motivation for all this. To seek to better reach people is one thing. But to want to play down our Christian distinctives is quite another. Hopefully the Holy Spirit, and not mere marketing executives and advertising agencies, will be determining all this.

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29 Replies to “Are We Seeking Relevance or Simply Being Ashamed?”

  1. Good write up Bill.

    My personal hope is that as we begin to tire of this madness, more activists will rise up, swim against the flow and reap the blessing that comes when we boldly proclaim Christ and articulate clear Christian values and beliefs (in our mission statements, our organisation’s names, etc.).

    Point in question – I started a charity to raise money for Indian children and eyebrows were raised by a Christian leader (friend of mine) after he reviewed the website, mentioning the “strong Christian line” being pushed. To date we have raised more than $400K (in 2.5yrs) and probably 30-40% of the funds have been from non-churched folk! Recently an atheist couple donated their yearly givings – $1000. We have known nothing but the blessing of God over this project.

    Serve it up hot and spicy, and never, ever compromise!

    Peter Jackel

  2. The mistake so many churches and Christians make is forgetting that the central most important thing about Jesus was the necessity for the Cross and that the necessity for His dying upon it for our sins IS offensive to those who don’t know Him. It is the central most important element of our faith, and it is also the most offensive thing to this world. To try try to please this world and become more relevant to it is foolish. The Bible makes it clear that the things of God’s Spirit and the things of this world are polar opposites.
    Morris Otte

  3. I attended a conference for training professionals in April, here in Melbourne. The last speaker in the very last session, was the CEO of a NGO that had been started by a Christian – Habitat for Humanity. This lady spoke the history, how Jimmy carter worked for them and their work here in Australia and overseas. The chairperson said at the end how inspirational this speaker was. What I found disappointing – not a word about it being a Christian organisation. Being relevant perhaps??
    Wayne Pelling

  4. Bill, mayb dey r tryn 2 reach de urban illiterates, bro!
    Cru [crew?] or JC are easier on some people’s brain than words that have polysyllables.
    But why even retain the one abbreviated word ‘Cru’ that could be directly linked to the crusades (only an offence to some in Islam)? Why not Campuses4Christ?
    Obscure, cryptic references don’t help the new believer.
    Commonwealth Bible College became Southern Cross Bible College in 1993, probably as Australia was distancing itself from the British Commonwealth connection. SCBC has now become Alphacrucis College.
    Unless you are an astronomer, you will miss the reference to a ‘bright star’ in the Southern Cross and have to play charades to find the link to Jesus. You have to search off the main webpage to find references to Jesus or Bible or Christian, which is unfortunate. I hope they do not become too secular, and end up just becoming an ‘educational training provider.’
    Are Bible Colleges or seminaries, theological colleges or Divinity Schools disappearing and being replaced by trendy PC nom-de-plumes?

    Michael Evans

  5. Thanks Michael

    Yes I am still trying to get my head around all this. Perhaps Cru is short for something. Crucifixion? Maybe. Then again it could just as likely stand for crumpet (tasty Christianity?). Or crustacean (crabby Christians?). Why these guys are going overboard in obscurity and opaqueness is beyond me.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. I have long been a critic of the trendy church names. Some of my favourites are “Enjoy”, “Generations”, and “Epicentre”. What I usually observe is that an information rich name is replaced with a trendy name that is information poor. As far as I’m concerned this is just a symptom of the influence of postmodernist thinking and the dumbing down of society. It can’t be a good thing.

    As for the name change of Campus Crusade for Christ, what I find ironic is that in the name of “remov[ing] any obstacle to people hearing about the most important person who ever lived—Jesus Christ” they actually removed the name of “Christ” from their name!

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  7. Thanks Ewan

    Yes the churches have been heavily influenced by PoMo, and are coming off second best. Instead of leading the way, they are slavishly following, and losing big time as a result.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Being a Bible-believing Christian IS embarrassing. We believe that God created the universe when the overwhelming “scientific opinion” is that it came in to being by accident. We believe that this same Creator God came to Earth as a man to save us from our “sins” which most commentators now would tell us are only an unhealthy guilt obsession. We believe that this God-Man was executed but came back to life three days later when everybody witnesses sometime in their life the coffin being lowered into the ground, its occupant never to return to breathe fresh air. We believe that we will all be restored to bodily life, even those that have been incinerated, perished at sea or eaten by wild beasts. Yes, there is much to be embarrassed about but we believe it, proclaim it and teach it only because the Holy Spirit, by God’s Grace allows, inspires and enables us to do so. The church name issue is just another step in the spiral into compromise that starts with us doubting God’s word, especially the really embarrassing bits. It all started when Satan said to Eve, “You will not surely die…”
    Col Maynard

  9. “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1:4)

    “A.Larry Ross Communications” is such an organization rebranding Christianity for the inclusive “politically correct” masses.They have some “real wisdom” in recognizing the culture of the world today and that the conversation not be stopped because the name of Christ gets in the way…of Christian dialogue! A.Larry Ross Communications also has Rick Warren and Billy Graham as some of its clients….

    Monica Craver

  10. Well said Col Maynard,
    If we are concerned about being embarrassed in the eyes of the world because of our belief in Christ, then we do not deserve to be identified as Christians. In Acts 5:41 “As the apostles left the Council, they were happy, because God had considered them worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of Jesus.”
    Considering how many of the early Christians suffered crucifixion, stoning and other punishments for their faith and how many Christians around the world are still being persecuted for their faith, we should be embarrassed that we claim to be followers of Christ but are not prepared to accept any slight inconvenience or embarrassment to ourselves. We should be doing what is pleasing to God, then what the “world” thinks of us is not important.

    Yours faithfully,
    Michael Palma, Hampton Park, Victoria

  11. Hmmm, but if you look again, does Presbyterian mean anything to the unchurched? What about Methodist? Uniting? Episcopalian? Reformed? All pretty obscure to the masses.
    A few decades ago it was the “trendy” or “contemporary” churches that had names with “Jesus” or “Christ”, and they were also pioneering contemporary songs where the words were almost 100% scripture.
    Maybe we are just seeing the maturation and decay of the last move of God, now that they’ve become respectably trendy and “successful”.
    Maybe there’s room for a new one.
    Tim Lovett

  12. Thanks Tim

    While we live in a pretty dumbed-down culture, I would still suspect that a building with the word Baptist or Presbyterian, etc, would mean to most people even today that they were at least churches of some sort.

    But take any of the new names, such as CityLife (again, not meaning to pick on this one, but just using it as a representative example). Not only would most people not expect it to be a church, but it could equally be a health club, a gay disco, or a New Age coffee shop. It could mean anything. At least the older names gave us some real semblance of correspondence between the title and the entity in question. The new names tend to mean absolutely nothing at all, especially a bizarre term like Cru.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Well said, my brother.

    I remember hearing a preacher say this a long time ago, but I don’t remember who it was: “When you leave the truth behind, all that’s left is a lie.”

    This is precisely what we are witnessing throughout the world, even at this very moment. Here in the States, Purpose Driven / Seeker Sensitive, the “emergent church”, mystical, heretical “spiritual formation” techniques, as pawned off by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, have hijacked the gospel and turned it into a self-centered, man-centered broad road to hell and the “church” has no clue because they have no discernment because they have no clue what the Bible says because they don’t read it.

    The gospel is a scandal and, when it is preached correctly, it will offend. That is the truth of the situation. Christ himself told us that the world will hate us because they hated Him first. But, who wants to hear that? How do you grow a church like that? And therein the problem lies. Man “growing the church” by not preaching the gospel instead of letting Christ “build His church” by the preaching of His Word.

    Again, well said.

    Dave Stockhover
    Columbus, Indiana USA

  14. Fishermen and not so prominent people formed the eldership of the first church. Today it’s a common thing to appoint prominent people from the corporate world into the church eldership. So the church adopts a corporate culture and runs like a corporation headed by a pastor/CEO and comes out with a vision, mission, corporate image, corporate plans, marketing plans and strategies etc. Oh, wow, so in touch with the times.
    Barry Koh

  15. For all of this how often have we heard during the service the reverent declaration “Christ is present in this church” when I have felt totally void by any such feelings simply because the atmosphere is absent. Some churches are little short of a nightclub that is being relevant alright as a centre for entertainment worship or to experience a refreshment of the holy spirit.

    I guess we are not far from the bible being re-written to appear “relevant”.

    Patrick Brahams

  16. “Maybe we are just seeing the maturation and decay of the last move of God,.. maybe there’s room for a new one.”
    Although I agree with all of the comments above I think Tim Lovett may have a valid point here. At the Hillsong Conference recently I was impressed that the Holy Spirit seems to keep stirring young people to keep telling the gospel story to the next generation. I was touched by a video presentation there called ‘The Scarlet Thread’.
    Meanwhile Bill, we’re always needing to be reminded not to be ashamed of Jesus and the gospel truth. Thanks.
    Terry Darmody

  17. Tim,

    I am baffled & extremely surprised by your statement:

    . . . “it was the “trendy” & “contemporary” churches that had names with “Jesus” or “Christ” and they were also pioneering contemporary songs that were almost 100% scripture”.

    Exactly where & when did this happen?

    I find this statement to be exactly the opposite of what I have seen in (trendy/contemporary) churches & in (contemporary) songs in America!

    Some examples of these churches/songs would have been helpful – to back-up your statement.

    Thank you,

    Victoria Bornas, Florida USA

  18. My feelings Patrick after attending the church I usually go to, I walked out afterwards feeling quite angry, this morning, the day after the shocking events in Oslo were on the news. The Senior Pastor – actually called Senior leader – at the beginning referred to Cadell Evans in the Tour de France – how many people stayed up to see that; how many saw the AFL mark of the year last night, and who attended a Church dinner. Nothing, not even a prayer for the people of Norway and especially the families of the victims of this carnage. As Christians we should also pray for the perpetrator as this is what Christ would have us do, but no it was about other things.

    Wayne Pelling

  19. I should have added that we should pray for the perpetrator that he will realise the enormity of his crimes, that far from it being a “patriotic act” that it was in fact an act of the devil himself, and that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, thus the very antithesis of what this man stands for.
    Wayne Pelling

  20. Bill, another excellent one.

    I recall reading Watchman Nee a long time ago (too long ago – must re-read).

    His book “The Normal Christian Worker” made a distinction between “the church” and “the work”:
    a) the church is the gathered body of worshipping believers
    b) the work is the task of finding the lost and seeing them saved and brought into the church.

    So in his view the work was to expand the church by adding to it daily those whom God was saving.

    And in his view the work is to be done by the members of the church, not by the leaders only (body ministry, priesthood of all believers etc).

    Too many church leaders, advisers and members have lost sight of these distinctions.

    Consequently, the public worship time, when the family of God meets together to feed upon God’s Word and to express the Worth-ship of God, is turned into work time via “seeker-sensitive” settings, name changes etc.

    The end result is that worship time is dominated by non-believers and those outside, with milk-sop sermonising so the people of God are not fed, the church is weakened, and the sheep stray away and are scattered across the hills … again!

    John Angelico

  21. I’m with you on this one Tim.

    You were shot down but i got your point. Yes these new names don’t mean a thing, and we can all quote scripture till the cows come home.
    The church is dieing, name change wont do it, but what will?

    Daniel Kempton

  22. Preaching an unadulterated gospel….that’s your answer.

    Quit tip-toeing through the tulips with name changes, mushy feel-good-about-your-sinful-self sermons, self help pop psychology sessions and get to the meat that saves….Christ crucified for sinners.

    It is God’s job to save souls, not man. Man needs to be faithful to preach the Word, the whole Word and nothing but the Word and leave the saving and church building to God. No amount of tricks that sinful man tries can save one person. It is the work of God’s Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel.

    Dave Stockhover

  23. Quite so @Barry Koh. A while ago there was a move toward a corporate structure in churches – this has now pervaded western Christianity. Something just didn’t sit right about it all. I left the leadership within church (and the church) once I realised how unbiblical it was, and my spirit testified to this. I now see that this is the beginning of the end for a church. The reason – because ‘church growth’ becomes the focus, not Christ; getting that new CD distributed, and meeting seat number and budget targets becomes the focus instead of real life in Christ where real discipleship, real change and real miracles happen. And ultimately, Western Christianity is either too plasticy like the US experience or too uptight & religious like the UK experience. It has lost it’s salt and is sugary but with a yucky aftertaste like artificial sweetener.
    Garth Penglase

  24. It was great in my teens to go to a youth group named “Christ’s Ambassadors.” Today, in one church of the same denomination, there are various groups for different ages called Kids Jam, Revolution, Twenty One and Ignite.

    Same complaint … …

    Graeme Cumming

  25. Thanks Graeme

    I friend told me today that the new name of his church is “Destiny”. I said that could be the name of a perfume. He laughed and said, “That’s what everyone says”. In which case, where is the communication or relevance if everyone thinks the church is a bottle of perfume?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  26. Hi Bill

    Interesting article.

    In light of your comments and criticism of the various names of churches and ministries, can you explain the name ‘CultureWatch?’ There is no mention of ‘Christ,’ ‘God’ or the ‘Kingdom’ or ‘faith’ in that name.

    Not wanting to be critical, but is there some inconsistency here?

    I just thought I’d ask and I assume that you have spoken to the other church/ministry leaders you have specifically named as to the reasons behind their name changes?


  27. Thanks John

    But respectfully, there are a number of problems with your comment:
    One. My rules require a full name here.
    Two. You do not inform us that you are in fact from CityLife.
    Three. I said several times I was not at all picking on CityLife but just using this as an example.
    Four. I clearly stated that there can be a place for such name changes.
    Five. My main point of contention was with the rather meaningless title Cru.
    Six. I am not a church, or even a parachurch group – just a guy with a blog site.
    Seven. My site clearly states its Christian orientation. So there is no blatant inconsistency here I am afraid.
    Eight. You seem to be taking offence when none was intended.
    Nine. Yes I have spoken to some (but not all) of these folks where a name change has occurred.
    Ten. If you are implying that I violated Matt. 18 by not speaking to them privately first, then a) these are public changes which can be addressed publicly and b) you have just violated it yourself by going public first.

    But if you were offended by this article, as I say, it was not my intention, and I offer my apologies.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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