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What’s in a name?

Avoiding words that compromize the message

What’s in a name? A lot. A single word can carry a whole lot of baggage. Even words with almost equivalent meanings carry different shades of meaning. Even such a word such as ‘postman’ in English, French, or German, projects a different image in the mind of hearers in each country. Other words carry much greater differences of image. If a health magazine article were to substitute directly-equivalent taboo slang words for body parts in place of the medical terms, many people would stop reading it. Yet the literal meaning would be identical.

We do not always realize that words with apparently similar meanings in fact carry a large weight of accumulated history and implication. The very word ‘Christian’ carries some very negative historical associations in the ears of both Jewish and Muslim hearers and increasingly also for many westerners. Yet the culturally-appropriate name of Jesus (Y’shua for Jews, Isa Masih for Muslims), or using ‘Jesus-followers’ in the West, bypasses some of this problem. We are not compromizing by using words which carry less negative baggage, and this is not what the Bible means by “the offense of the cross”.

Even the word 9/11 (relating of course to the terrorist atrocity of that date) has an added resonance in USA, not only because it is so personal to US citizens, but because 911 is the emergency phone number in USA, and therefore the word carries a strong implication of 'help, emergency'. But in other countries which phone 999 or 113 for emergencies, that additional nuance does not carry over. Sometimes the sounds of a word can carry an additional meaning. The Citroën DS car remains an icon of innovative and beautiful French design 55 years after it was first built. But to French ears, there is an additional subliminal meaning – the letters DS pronounced in French are identical to the word déesse – 'goddess'. (In our evangelistic writing, we must therefore be streetwise, and be aware of words or phrases which may have jocular or slang meanings different to those we intend.)

This is why Bible translation is so difficult, and involves difficult choices such as which words to use for ‘God’ and many other concepts. None may be ideal.

What does a ministry name communicate to non-Christians?

Many companies, groups and ministries have realized that their name is a prime communicator of the nature and purpose of the organization. Just as in the Old Testament (and still in many cultures), a person’s given name communicates something specific about them, so do organizational names. Renaming is now common. In UK, the Pedestrian Association recently renamed itself Open Spaces. In recent years, the Band of Hope has become Alcohol Concern, and the Marriage Guidance Council is now Relate.

Christian organizations have usually chosen their names to explain themselves to a Christian constituency. Yet, if one of their purposes is evangelism, that same name may be meaningless or even a stumbling block, to the target audience. There is no reason why any outreach, whether literature or website, need use the same name as its sponsoring organization. Consider whether a secular or neutral-sounding name would better communicate your purpose, or would save you from 'giving the game away' to those you wish to reach. You can be the John P Molestrangler Evangelistic Missionary Band to your Christian supporters if you wish. But you may be wiser to brand yourself Life Choices to your non-Christian contacts. Ask others what message your name is communicating! Even find some non-Christian friends who will act as a focus group for you. It is important to understand the concept of branding.

In UK, SOON Ministries is called SOON Educational Literature as far as the target audience is concerned. Many missions have chosen neutral-sounding names, a wise key to acceptance in suspicious countries. UK’s former Bible Medical Missionary Fellowship is now Action Partners.

Strap lines/tag lines

Whatever names you choose, for either the Christian public or your non-Christian target audience, you can also use a strap line (or 'tag line') – 3 to 6 words which amplify and sum up your purpose in a memorable way. IFES, for example, use “changing students for life worldwide”. Of course, an evangelistic site should not have a strap line which "gives the game away", is cringeworthy, condenscending, or otherwise inappropriate to non-Christians. Many church websites include a purpose statement or strap line on their homepage which can be very offputting to outsiders.

There are also different ways to wrap your name within a logo in a way that does not look religious and churchy.

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