Does it surprise you that of the 219 churches that comprise the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 85 percent (187) do not include “Mennonite Brethren” in their name?
In the past four years, five USMB churches in three districts have changed their names—churches in Dinuba, California; Edmond, Oklahoma; Henderson, Nebraska; Kingsburg, California; and Wichita, Kansas. That raises some questions: Why does a congregation change its name? Even if a church maintains “Mennonite Brethren” in its official name, why might it go by something else in the community?
From conversations with the pastors of the USMB churches that most recently changed their names, a number of themes emerged, including a desire to remove potential barriers and to intentionally communicate mission and vision and a continued commitment to the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Conference and theology.
Why change a name?
A common goal for USMB pastors who have guided their churches through a name change is a desire to intentionally communicate to those outside the church.
In each location, pastors speak of the perceptions people associate with denominations in general and the term “Mennonite Brethren,” specifically.
Like many pastors, Luke Haidle, of Living Hope Church in Henderson, Neb., believes the church’s former name created a barrier for spiritual conversations and welcoming guests.
Haidle says challenges arose in overcoming the stereotype associating “Mennonite” with “Amish,” a perception perpetuated because the congregation was not equipped to talk about what it means to be “Mennonite” or “Mennonite Brethren.”
“The question would be, ‘What’s a Mennonite?’ and then the answer would be ‘Russia and German and verenika’ and all these other kinds of things,” Haidle says. “What happened in that moment is they killed the gospel, because what they said is that this church is for an ethnic people group and it’s not open to you.”
Admittedly, most people who attend one of the three churches in Henderson are familiar with the term “Mennonite Brethren,” Haidle says, clarifying that the church intends to reach people who do not have a church home—a target audience making up about 25 percent of the Henderson population.
A similar misunderstanding happened in Edmond, Okla., where Jeremy Jordan, lead pastor of Cross Timbers Church, says people made false assumptions about MB beliefs and practices.
In California’s Central Valley, Jordan Ringhofer, lead pastor of Hope Kingsburg, agrees, saying Mennonite Brethren have a reputation as a closed-off, ethnic insider community. The former Kingsburg MB Church— officially, The Mennonite Brethren Church of Kingsburg, California—adopted its new name, Hope Kingsburg: A Mennonite Brethren Church, in December 2018. The church usually goes by Hope or Hope Kingsburg, Ringhofer says.
“We want to make sure that we can, in a couple words, communicate the essence of what we have to offer,” Ringhofer says. “We want to remove the barriers.”
Ten miles from Kingsburg, Hope Kingsburg’s parent church—the former Dinuba MB Church (officially, The Mennonite Brethren Church of Dinuba)—also initiated a name change and is doing business as “New Life Community” as of November 2019.
Demographics was a factor behind the name change for the Dinuba congregation, says lead pastor Mark Isaac.
“The average age of our city’s population is 27 years old—an extremely young age even in a young state compared to our nation,” Isaac says. “Denominational identity is neither relevant to, nor a priority for, people that age. Because they respect authenticity we don’t hide our historical roots. We just don’t lead with them.”
Brent Warkentin, lead pastor of First MB Church in Wichita, Kan.,—which is in the discernment process and has yet to choose a new name—says while research supports both the inclusion and non-inclusion of a denomination in a church name, recent trends show a growing suspicion of denominations by young people.
“Trends … generally support the reality that nonchurched, younger adults tend to associate denominationally-named churches with inflexibility, bureaucracy and a closedness,” Warkentin says.
A name change signals more than changing a church sign, and pastors describe research, discernment and intentionality in choosing a name. Renaming symbolizes churches’ missions or in some cases, new visions for their cities.
In Edmond, the name-change process began with vision planning, Jordan says, and also involved conversations with Southern District and USMB leaders to affirm MB identity.
“We didn’t want to change names to be trendy or cool, but only if it would help us transform lives in our community through the ministry of the gospel,” Jordan says.
Cross Timbers made its new name official in September 2016. “Cross Timbers” is not only a local term from early explorations of Oklahoma, but prominently includes “Cross” to indicate its centrality to faith, Jordan says.
In walking one of the three oldest MB churches through a name change, Henderson’s Haidle says some people initially viewed the idea with skepticism. The church’s rebranding process began in January 2018, and Haidle emphasizes the importance of engaging in discussion in addressing differing points of view. After 22 months, the congregation chose “Living Hope” to convey promise and to provide a segue to talking about Jesus.
In Kingsburg, too, changing the name raised concerns. Some feared losing their identity as a Mennonite Brethren church. Others thought even with a name change, the church would still be known as the Mennonite Brethren church in town. And in their community, if a church doesn’t spell out “Mennonite Brethren,” people assume it’s a Missionary Baptist church, Ringhofer says.
The church’s branding initiative is the first step of a three-year “Plan for Hope,” symbolizing both the church’s history and vision for the future, Ringhofer says.
Meanwhile, the city of Dinuba has two primary groups of churches—denominational and independent Pentecostal/charismatic. New Life Community (NLC) seeks to fill the space in between, as a church where anyone can feel welcome regardless of church background, Isaac says. The name change coincides with a church vision process begun in November 2018.
Isaac says some voiced concerns that Mennonite Brethren specifically looking for an MB church might not be able to find the church if the church changed its sign, but says the church thought that to be a small number of people.
NLC decided against ubiquitous names that refer to the San Joaquin valley or the Sierra Nevada mountains and also avoided words like “church” or “fellowship.”
“We want to be a community of new life for our community,” Isaac says.
As First MB Church (FMBC) entertains thoughts of a name change, Warkentin says a few considerations came to mind, including navigating the journey with unity and maintaining transparent communication. Although the change is still in process, the name will signify a new mission, just as some name changes in the Bible signified new God-given missions, Warkentin says, citing Abraham, Sarah, Israel and Paul as examples.
“We are entering a new day, and we want to signify this new chapter to our community and to ourselves,” he says.
Committed to the family
In each location, pastors articulate a commitment to the Mennonite Brethren family and theology.
Haidle has taken this opportunity to preach through the MB Confession of Faith in order to equip his congregation to talk about what it means to be Mennonite Brethren.
In Kingsburg, Ringhofer says the congregation has seen a better ability to articulate its mission and purpose since its name change—choosing to live out and demonstrate its MB identity.
Jordan says Cross Timbers has had new people visit and join the church who previously thought they needed to be historically Mennonite Brethren to attend.
Referencing Menno Simons, who found new life in Jesus and led his community to grow as witnesses of that new life, Isaac says that same work of introducing others to new life in Christ continues, with or without a label in a name.
Whether in Kansas or elsewhere, Warkentin expresses a sentiment all share.
Ultimately, churches don’t ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’ simply because of their name,” he says. “Their success rests on the one who is building his church. While a church name may be an initial ‘open’ or ‘closed’ door, it is the authenticity and Christlikeness of the people inside the building that leads to growth and changed lives.”