When Van Nuys First Baptist Church acquired land two years ago for a new building in Chatsworth, the congregation also decided that it needed a new name.
After surveying people in movie lines, ballparks and shopping malls, members settled on Shepherd of the Hills Church. "We're interested in the people who don't go to church and may have an aversion to church," said Pastor Jess Moody.
Other congregations, such as Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego and Celebration Center in Colton have even downplayed their identity as churches.
It's all part of a spreading trend, especially among evangelistic churches, to choose pleasant-sounding names that avoid images that many pastors believe are turn-offs. The congregation may be Baptist or Pentecostal or something else, but you often can't tell that by the name.
Newly formed or relocating churches are also picking names that will not limit their drawing potential to one city. Seabreeze Community Church and Mountain View Friends Church, for instance, felicitously fuzz over their locations in Huntington Beach and Upland, respectively.
"The idea is that people shouldn't trip over your theology because of what your name suggests," said business administrator David Pollock of the Church at Rocky Peak in Chatsworth, a congregation once known as Faith Evangelical Church.
Because Protestant churches are remembered by some people as solemn places with long lists of "don'ts," some pastors pick cheerful names to suggest a different image. Examples are the Community Church of Joy in Phoenix and Happy Church in Denver.
Many churches with unconventional names are among the fastest-growing Protestant churches in the country. That success, church leaders say, invariably hinges on an engaging pastor and church programs geared to educational and counseling needs. But a marketable name is considered a good start.
Some experts, however, believe that leaving off the affiliation is a mistake and that many people are drawn to a church by the denominational tag. And some denomination officials bridle at new congregations that obscure their brand of Christianity.
"The careful calculation not to offend anyone borders on false advertising," said historian Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School.
However, Senior Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo found a decade ago that most people held no denominational allegiance. Like Moody's church in Chatsworth, Saddleback Valley is affiliated with the Southern Baptists. His fast-growing church now packs an average of 4,000 people into Sunday services held in rented high school buildings.
"Some people who have come here a year do not know that we are Southern Baptists," said Glen Kraun, executive pastor for Saddleback Valley Community Church. "We don't hide it, but we do not make a big thing of it."
"Unfortunately, Southern Baptists have been stereotyped," he said, referring to the political infighting between fundamentalist and moderate leaders.
"The name Baptist seems to turn a lot of people off," Moody said.
The trend toward non-traditional names is evident in California and Arizona, areas with relatively low church affiliation. Yet churches independent of one another and calling themselves New Life Christian Fellowship can be found everywhere from Mission Viejo to Grand Rapids, Mich., and Wilmington, Del.
"The name says it's not some place where you'll be bored out of your gourd," said the Rev. Scott Linscott, associate pastor at New Life Christian Fellowship in Biddeford, Me.
Thus, instead of Trinity, Our Savior and St. Mark showing up in the names of newer churches, words like "Life" are used to convey vibrancy--as in the New Life Church of the Nazarene in Poway, the Life Church of Saddleback Valley in San Juan Capistrano and Creative Life Community Church, a Religious Science congregation in Las Vegas.
But specialists in church growth said they are disturbed over some of the strategies being pursued to attract inactive Christians.
"I think people are making a mistake in shying away from the word 'church,' " said Prof. C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "Gallup polls say the church is one of the most admired institutions in this country."
Lyle Schaller of Napierville, Ill., an author and lecturer on church growth, conceded that a church busy all week might prefer to call itself "Christian center" rather than "church," which may suggest activity only on Sunday. He also agreed with the step of avoiding names that tie an ambitious church to one city.
"But, personally speaking, I would encourage mention of the denomination, even if it is underneath in smaller letters," said Schaller.