Since the 70s we’ve been called Jesus Fellowship. On April 7th 1987 we took on Jesus Army as our second, parallel identity, a public brand under which we’d reach out to the UK for Jesus. This post is all about names.
Why do names matter? Names shape culture and values, they help form first impressions. Choosing a good name for a church is no quick fix to changing a culture, but what organisations choose to call themselves carries weight both in gathering members around a vision and communicating to outsiders.
So, what’s the prophetic idea behind the name ‘Jesus Army’?
This world is ruled by evil, and we are at war. In Ephesians 6 Paul describes us as soldiers in God’s army standing against the devil’s schemes with our armour of truth, righteousness, faith and so on.
Satan offered Jesus all the glory of the kingdoms of this world because through sin they belong to him and will do until Jesus finally returns to crush death completely. Jesus has won the fight, but he’s called each of us to fight for those he came to save. Satan is our sworn enemy and we’d be fools if we thought he’d ever give us a week off.
“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Every church is an outpost of heaven planted smack bang into an anti-heaven world. This world needs Jesus. People living in darkness are unknowingly crying out for hope, for Jesus. Jesus rose from death, sent us his Spirit and sent us out into the world to be the light of the world. Life himself is alive inside us, making us with Jesus into the forerunners of the new creation.
If anyone has reason for hope, it’s us. If anyone has reason to celebrate, it’s us. If there’s anyone blazing the confident, colourful colours of freedom and joy, it should be us. We need to start talking like we really believe the words of Jesus that we are the light of the world.
For these reasons I love how as a church we’ve chosen to adopt a positive, bold identity. We must never lose that. However, in trying to reach people who don’t know the love of Jesus, I wonder if publicly appropriating a metaphor associated with aggression, the imagery of armies, war and fighting, is still helpful for our witness today?
The Salvation Army came into being in 1865, in what was a much more hierarchical society than ours, where service and duty were considered almost sacred British values. In a less internationally connected world enlisting in one’s army was considered a noble task, a way of serving and progressing society and a way out of disorder for millions in poverty. Naming a church after an army was a good way of expressing the good news of Jesus.
Now we live in very different times. We find ourselves in a world that’s increasingly globally connected. People are sick of militarism, especially of the religious kind. Since the turn of the 21st century events like 9/11, continued wars in the middle east and the rise of global jihad have shifted public perception. Closer to home the pseudo-religious hawkish language used by some rightwing christian politicians confuses and alienates curious unbelievers who love Jesus, the prince of peace.
Of course none of that is what we’re trying to express when we call ourselves an army, but that’s largely how people understand it. Our first Jesus Army strapline was “The Army with a heart to fight for you!”, then later simply “We fight for you”, and in the 90’s “Jesus people, loving people”. Perhaps the fact we needed these straplines to accentuate a negative view of militarism proves my point.
In the end, it feels unfortunate that in a movement that Jesus wants marked by service to others we would use language that people understand as a desire to overpower and subject others.
Sixty years ago in the Western world the Christian worldview was the default. It was taken for granted that the church would always be at the centre of society. Now society is becoming increasingly post-christian, slowly tearing apart the weird marriage between Church and state that started in Rome.
This creeping secularisation presents both a challenge and an opportunity: the challenge is that more than ever before we really do have to proactively demonstrate the love of God to a sceptical world, and the opportunity is that it enables us to live with much more of the salty “differentness” that marked the witness of the early church.
Christianity is heading into autumn (see Culture pt 2: Seasons and Saltiness). The early church lived in a winter of extreme marginalisation, and their martyr-spirit made them incredibly fruitful on the margins.
The more we head into autumn the closer we get to winter, so we need to increasingly adjust our posture and attitude to match that of the early church. They were salty but not bolshie. They engaged the world as bold, joyous martyrs, not soldiers. I couldn’t imagine any early church in Jerusalem calling themselves an army!
Are we Jesus Fellowship, or are we Jesus Army? Yes! Originally Jesus Army was intended to be the outreach wing of the Jesus Fellowship, but because it’s the name by which we’re publicly known it’s ended up as another name for the same church. Our official letterhead prints our name as Jesus Fellowship/Jesus Army and has three logos.
This can all get very complicated and confusing, especially to outsiders. You’d be surprised how many knots we’ve tied ourselves in in the church’s creative department trying to work out whether we should brand some leaflet or website we’re making as Jesus Fellowship or Jesus Army. When a name is changed it always takes a while for it to filter through, so if we simply replace Jesus Army with another name while keeping Jesus Fellowship, I can see people thinking of us with three names.
Fellowship is an old word. It doesn’t mean much to the average man on the street, except “The Fellowship of the Ring” or the idea of an exclusive, cosy club.
Things grow and change over time, and every so often it’s good to take stock of where things have got to and realign ourselves with God’s vision for us today. We need simplicity. I’d love for us to pick one new name.
I believe every church and every movement of God has something unique to offer the global body of Christ. The baptists brought us believer’s baptism, the Methodists and Salvation Army brought us evangelistic zeal and Pentecostals led the way into the baptism of the Holy Spirit, to give just a few examples. I believe our core unique charisma is family, it’s brotherhood, it’s koinonia.
Our mission statement says we exist to “gather a people whose lives are being transformed by Jesus.” That’s an inward looking message about gathering, brotherhood and community, while the prophetic essence of ‘Jesus Army’ is an outward call to pursue God’s mission, to be a light to the world.
Our call contains both inward and outward elements. We’re called to both gather and send. This is the “come” and “go” of Matthew 4:19:
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out…”
We need a name that communicates this complementary and dynamic inward/outward message.
The most important thing about any church is how much it puts Jesus at its centre. Demons don’t scream when they hear the words ‘Church of St Someone”, “Community of Hope” or whatever, they get itchy at the name of Jesus. There’s power in his name.
Jesus and his cross must be at the centre of everything we do, and at the centre of our identity as his people. We live in his name.
This isn’t an announcement about our new name, this is just an idea of mine.
To have one name that expresses the inward and outward call of brotherhood and mission, how about we have one name and two slogans?