What’s in a name by Stewart Perry

Names have been on my mind lately and it’s not just because of my inability to remember people’s names. I seem, for some reason, to be able to remember people’s coffee orders, but remember a name… that’s just not one of my strengths. I try really hard but fail on a regular basis.

Recently I attended a dinner hosted by Queensland Police with multi-faith leaders from across the Gold Coast. As some would know, I have been very involved in the unity movement on the Gold Coast across Christian Churches and have been privileged to serve in many ways over the years and I currently chair the group that coordinates many of the unity activities on the Gold Coast. That night one of the people I serve along side introduced me to a police officer friend of his that he’s known for a number of years. His words of introduction were: “This is Stew Perry, he’s the chair of the Gold Coast Church Leaders Roundtable Steering Team”. As I was introduced I looked at the police officer’s face and it seemed to glaze over with a sense of “what on earth does all that mean”.

As a group we’ve started to realise that the name we call ourselves means very little to the people who we are often trying to engage. What is a “Roundtable” and what does a “Steering Team” do? I think the “Gold Coast Church Leaders” bit is pretty self explanatory but we start to lose the meaning and intentionality in the confusion of what the rest means.

Names are important and we particularly find as we read scripture (particularly in the Old Testament) that what a place or person or a group of people is called really matters. Many of the biblical names are not only titles but they convey identity.

There was a time when identifying ourselves as a denomination member was more important than identifying ourselves as a Christian but I’m wondering, especially with my commitment to work for Christian Unity, whether our separation into tribes and groups is meaning less and less to those outside the church as well as those inside the church.

Names are something that I think we need to start to pay more attention to as a church community. I’ve been really happy to see that, particularly this year, each week we seem to be having new people coming to one or both of our services on a Sunday. It’s something that we were quite used to prior to Covid but it’s taken some time to rebuild. But in that time things have changed.

We have the introduction of Online worship which impacts in a number of ways. People, should they chose to, can actually identify themselves by name on our online platform and interact with others online. Even if you’ve never met you can, and people do, greet each other by name. The other significant change with online worship is that our foyer has moved. What I mean by this is not that our foyer has moved or changed in a physical sense – it still leaks in heavy rains. It’s now not the first interaction that most people have with our church community. In the past, a person would move to the Gold Coast or decide to go to or come back to church and so would “do the rounds” of the local churches and find the one that suited best. And so entering a physical foyer was often the first experience of a church community, and often one that could significantly influence whether a person came back to that church community. With online worship accessible on our website and the websites of other churches, it’s now usual for people to watch or at least skim through a worship service before they physically walk through our doors. I’ve had many experiences in the last few years where I’ve introduced myself to a new person and their response was “I’ve seen you online”. 

This of course has not helped my ability to remember names because often they don’t need me to tell them my name and so they don’t offer theirs. For someone who struggles with names at the best of times, it’s a emerging dilemma!

Last week I was talking to a newish person who’s joined our community since Easter. I had to re-ask his name because of course I’d forgotten. He was generous and shared it again but it opened up a conversation about the importance of names. He actually had a really surprising attitude to trying to fit in to a new community. He felt that you should try for 5 or 6 times to make a connection and if in that time you haven’t made a connection maybe you should move on. I suspect that’s an unusual attitude in our world. I think it’s more likely that people try once and if they don’t make an immediate connection they won’t come back.

But what difference would it make if we could great them by name? 

I know name-tags are a controversial topic. We’ve had a few pushes during my more than 10 years here and they’ve never been able to stick. But I do wonder, now more than ever, whether we should not try again? 

To be recognised and greeted by name does make a difference. It says more than just I am being polite – it’s an invitation to belong.

I’d love to hear what you think. But I’d also like us to think of the person who will walk into our church building next Sunday for the first time. Will we really be ready to welcome them and include them? Will we willing to make ourselves a little uncomfortable for the benefit of others?