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Lutheran Congregation Trying to Find Out What’s In a Name

Following a national trend, a Sylmar congregation is thinking of taking a new name after 30 years. The name “Lutheran Church of the Master,” its leaders say, is either a turnoff or a mystery to the unchurched populace they want to attract.

“Many times people have asked me, ‘Oh, Lutheran--is that Christian?”’ said the Rev. Sam Platts, the pastor.

Or, instead of linking Lutheran to the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Platts said, people ask “if Lutheran has some connection with Martin Luther King Jr.”

“The Master"--as a title for Jesus--may work for The Master’s College in Newhall, which recruits conservative evangelical students, the pastor said. But the Lutheran Church of the Master has been misidentified as the Church of the Masters, the Mistress or the Martyrs because of an unfamiliarity with Christian terms, he said.

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Moreover, added music director Gary Emrick, “To the few people who have heard of Lutherans, the name often evokes images of stodgy or boring services.”

The 170-member congregation recently came up with 64 possible new names--such as Church of the Foothills, Hope Christian Church or Village Family Church, plus a few humorous ones, such as “Please Come to Our Church,” or “Ole and Sven’s Big Building,” alluding to the Scandinavian background of many American Lutherans.

The list, minus the quips, will soon be pared down to five or 10 names, then tested for reactions at random from people outside a supermarket, Platts said. A decision may not be made until late summer, he said.

Platts, 54, whose 21 years as pastor is the longest tenure for any Protestant minister in Sylmar, said that he, the music director and a leading layman in the congregation got the idea for changing the congregation’s name in January from a speaker at a pastor’s institute at the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

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Schuller pioneered the concept of choosing names attractive to people with little loyalty to or familiarity with church denominations, said C. Peter Wagner, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

“Schuller came out to start a Reformed Church in America, but there were very few Dutch people in Orange County,” Wagner said. “Marketing tests indicated that unchurched people linked ‘Reformed’ to ‘reform schools.’ So he named it Garden Grove Community Church, and later the Crystal Cathedral.”

In the San Fernando Valley, the formal name for the 9,000-member Church on the Way is the little-used First Foursquare Church of Van Nuys. And Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch had been the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys in an earlier incarnation.

“Presumably, all Lutherans in Sylmar have already chosen their church,” said Wagner, arguing for dropping the denominational tag.

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Another well-known church consultant says that in choosing a new name, churches should keep it under six syllables and make it something that won’t be confused with other church names.

“It should be a short name with a distinctive identity--one that no one else shares,” said Lyle Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Within the Sylmar congregation’s denomination--the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--the 6,000-member Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., is known for its un-Lutheran-sounding name and its celebrative style.

However, as Platts pointed out, the Arizona congregation already had the name Community Church of Joy when it was down to about 100 members. The church grew after the arrival of the Rev. Walther Kallestad and for more reasons than simply the church name, Platts said.

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Other changes are also afoot at Sylmar’s Lutheran Church of the Master, regardless of whether the congregation changes its name.

“We are replacing our heavy pews with movable, upholstered chairs; replacing the colored glass with clear glass to see the hills from inside, and trying to have as few permanently attached religious symbols as possible,” said Platts, noting that “church-like” lights in the sanctuary will be replaced by track lighting.

The church has refurbished a back patio area, which is used to cook hamburgers and hot dogs and serve malted milkshakes after the Sunday service. “We try to keep people here so not everyone just disappears as soon as services are over,” Platts said.

Unlike a typical oldline Protestant congregation, the Sylmar church is not primarily made up of older members. “I’ve only done nine funerals in 21 years here,” Platts said.

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“We probably have about 200 active churchgoers and about 100 of them are under 18, not all of them members,” said Platt.

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While many a pastor would envy the congregation’s young average age, “all these kids don’t represent any dollars,” said Platts, who also works at Northridge Middle School, teaching students with learning disabilities.

Two new church names suggested by members, perhaps jokingly, may reflect the congregation’s tight budget: “The Church of the Evergiving” and “The Joyful Tithers.”

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Yet, Platts counts himself as a survivor in Sylmar, a community that has no large Protestant church. A departing, disappointed Seventh-day Adventist minister once told Platts that Sylmar was “the graveyard of ministers.”

The congregation, no less than Platts, appears optimistic. Among church names nominated, six include the word “faith” and 11 include “hope.”


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