Names are difficult these days. In the not so distant past, it was fairly easy to learn the name of a person, place, or thing, and then immediately know something about that person, place, or thing just because of the name. That’s not necessarily the case anymore.
Unfortunately, this also seems to be the case in the church. As I mentioned in a sermon several weeks ago, the results of a recent study by the Pew Research Center indicate that the number of people who call themselves “Christian” has dropped by about 8 percent and that the number of people who consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion – the “nones” – has grown by nearly the same amount. Essentially, most of those people who no longer consider themselves to be Christian now consider themselves to be nothing, religiously speaking. Across the religious landscape, they have no name. However, with more investigation, it seems that for many of those who no longer wear the name “Christian,” the name had meant little or nothing for quite some time.
Historically speaking, the fact that we call ourselves Christian at all is puzzling. Acts 11:26 says, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Other historical documents from the era of the early church use the name Christian, but it seems pretty consistent that the use of the word was intended to be a negative; perhaps polite people might have been shocked to hear someone called the C-word.
At that time, taking on the name of Christ had significant implications. It meant confessing that you believed the claims of Jesus and the claims about Jesus: that Jesus was the Son of God; that Jesus died on a cross and rose again; that forgiveness of sins and salvation came through faith in Jesus; and so on, each claim offensive to the Jews and ridiculous to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). To be honest, that seems to be the consensus in the world today.
Even though there are more people abandoning the name “Christian,” it seems that the result is actually a strengthening of the church. As more so-called nominal Christians declare themselves to be unaffiliated, the more clear the meaning of the name becomes, the more clear the expectations become.
Consider the other names the church used to describe itself in the New Testament. Initially, the early church called themselves “believers,” people who heard the claims about Jesus and his teachings and they believed them; it’s a name that points to the factual reality of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. The most common name was “disciples,” which refers to the fact that not only were they were learners, but they were people who heard the teachings of Jesus and committed themselves to living by those teachings. It also follows the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20; not only are we to be learners but teachers also. Throughout the New Testament, the early Christians referred to each others as “brothers,” pointing to the familial nature of our relationship to each other through Jesus the Son to God the Father. The New Testament writers also referred to the church as “saints,” which should help us understand that we have been made holy through the blood of Jesus.
So, what do you call it? What does it mean to you to be a Christian? Each of these names has deep meaning and significance. They describe who we are and who we are called to be through Jesus. As we continue to strive to be Christians, literally “little Christs” or “Christ-like,” let’s hold on to the meaning and the names but in such a way that the world knows what it means to be a Christian.