In 1944, our church was founded with the name Pentecostal Tabernacle. In 1987, the name was changed to Elmira Christian Center in order to more closely associate our church to the broader stream of Christianity as well as to distance our church from the growing stigma associated with the “Pentecostal” label and the aberrant versions of the charismatic movement emerging at the time. On February 23, 2021, the church voted to change the name of our assembly to Emmanuel Community Church.
The Significance: Why Change the Church Name?
Changing the name of a church, especially one that has been established in a community since 1944, is not a trivial matter. Much deliberation, discussion, and prayer went into this decision. So why change the name? Ultimately, it came down to two primary reasons.
To Celebrate the Occasion
First, it marks the completion of a major revitalization effort we undertook from 2016-2021. This was an initiative to renew and reform our local church by applying biblical priorities to its life and ministry. During this time, we adopted a new Statement of Faith, changed our understanding and practice of church membership and discipline, and reformed our worship practices to be more Word-centered, gospel-driven, and Christ-exalting.
However, in addition to the vital changes made regarding doctrine and worship, the last major area needing to be addressed was that of government. With the approval of changes to our Constitution and By-Laws allowing for a plurality of elders, the revitalization initiative had formally come to an end. We completed the transition from being a church steeped in Pentecostal revivalism with a business-model polity to becoming a Reformed, baptistic, elder-led, congregational church.
This is not to suggest that our church has finally reached perfect health, for Christ’s church must always seek to be reformed according to the word of God and renewed by the Spirit of God. However, a new name serves to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in our church’s history.
To Clarify our Identity
Second, this name change also helps clarify our identity as a church. While there was nothing inherently disadvantageous about our former name, we felt the word “Center” was ambiguous (which tragically seems to be the case with many churches today, opting for trendy names that sound more like a spa, a night club, or a gated community than a gospel-preaching church). Even with the descriptor of “Christian,” it still remained unclear who we were or what a “Christian Center” even was. It was certainly not the case that we were the center of Christianity in the city of Elmira, though we may have been considered to be such at one time. But one thing is for sure: we are a church, and we agreed that this should be made clear in our name.
A church’s name should communicate something about that particular congregation—not only to those who belong to its membership but also to other believers and even outsiders. Historically, names have included certain helpful distinctives such as a location or denominational affiliation. However, with several churches existing in the same city (even on the same street today), a location isn’t as meaningful as it once was. The same is true for names like “First Presbyterian,” which was helpful when it was the first and only church of that kind in a particular place.
While the most useful labels in a church name are those that clarify a church’s beliefs and polity, there is a tragic lack of understanding today when it comes to denominational labels. These communicate the most important and helpful information about a church’s order and worship, but many have unfortunately become stumbling blocks to insiders and outsiders alike. (One of the best examples of this in our area is the word “Baptist.”) That being said, if a church chooses not to express its theological or ecclesiological distinctives in its name, then it must do so elsewhere. A church should be honest, clear, and up front about what it believes and teaches either in its literature, on its website, and in its various classes.
The Proposal: What Name?
Our church name was changed to celebrate the occasion of our completed revitalization and to clarify our identity as a church. But the question remained: What name? In one sense, a name is insignificant when it comes to a church’s gospel witness. We testify to the saving power of the good news of Jesus Christ through the message we proclaim with our mouths and portray with our lives. And in the light of eternity, the official name of the worshiping community to which we belong means nothing!
Nevertheless, a name serves the very practical purpose of referring to a specific congregation of believers and their convictions concerning doctrine, worship, and church government. So, what name? As the church leadership began to discuss the matter, we began to realize that changing the name of a church (again) that had been in existence for over 75 years—and that had been known as “ECC” for almost half that time— would be very difficult and confusing. We thought that if we could somehow keep the acronym “ECC” the same (which is how our church is referred to most often), it would help make the transition easier.
This finally led to the decision to propose the name: “Emmanuel Community Church,” which uses the Greek spelling of the Hebrew word “Immanuel.” By keeping the acronym ECC, we would not only avoid much confusion among our own congregation and others in the community, but also honor our church’s past and God’s faithfulness to us over the years, as well as indicate a new beginning.
The Meaning: Why This Church Name?
Each part of the proposed name, “Emmanuel Community Church,” was chosen for a specific reason. These three words communicate something important about who we are as a church and what we believe.
This is one of the most profound and beautiful words in all of Scripture. It comes from a Hebrew phrase which translated means “God with us” and is found three times in the Old Testament (Isa. 7:14; 8:8; 8:10), though the concept is found on virtually every page of Scripture (e.g. Isa. 43:2). In the New Testament, it appears only once, famously in Matthew 1:21-23, where the angel tells Joseph: “‘[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Despite its infrequent usage in Scripture, this name is quite well-known, even to unbelievers. Yet it is also a distinctly Christian word that communicates what we believe about God, his Son, and the gospel of our salvation.
First, it is Christ-centered and Trinitarian. The Lord Jesus Christ is Emmanuel. It conveys our belief that Jesus is the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us, . . . the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth: (John 1:14). It is a concise declaration of the great mystery of godliness, that God himself “was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). It also proclaims our beliefs about God the Holy Spirit—since Jesus is still Emmanuel today through his Spirit—and even alludes to the Great Commission, where the risen Christ proclaims to his church: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Second, “Emmanuel” is a one-word summary of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ, covering the entire scope of redemptive history! From the very beginning, God purposed to create a people for himself, for his glory. And even though we rebelled against our loving Creator, he promised to redeem a people for himself: He would be their God, they would be his people. Because of our sin, we rightfully deserved for God to only be with us in judgment; but in love, Jesus was given to the world that God might be with us for salvation! By sheer grace, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn us, but to be delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. And this Jesus will never leave nor forsake those who come to him in repentant faith. This is our blessed hope: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3).
From creation, fall, redemption, and to the consummation; from Genesis to Revelation and through both Old and New Testaments; Emmanuel, “God with us,” is the gospel we believe and proclaim.
In many ways, this word is just another description of what a church is: an assembly, a people with shared beliefs that enjoys the fellowship the Holy Spirit, a congregation that experiences the blessing of communion with the Triune God and one another. In Christ Jesus, we have a common unity! Nevertheless, this word also communicates a couple of important aspects of our local church.
First, it conveys our commitment to genuine fellowship and gospel community. It’s describes our emphasis on being a healthy church that is fervently devoted “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42-47). It is reflected in our understanding and focus on meaningful church membership, as well as in our weekly gatherings around God’s word in small groups, which we already call “community groups.”
Second, it will hopefully communicate to our neighbors that we are situated in this specific community—on the corner of Miller and Falck streets—for a reason. We are not only a church in the community, but a church for the community. We are to be a light to those who dwell in the darkness, and our doors should be opened wide to those around us who are longing for hope, forgiveness, and new life. Lord willing, our church will meet the needs of our community in real, practical, and meaningful ways, abounding in good works that they might see and give glory to our heavenly Father by his grace alone (Matt. 5:14-16).
Like “Emmanuel,” this word is an incredibly significant term in Scripture. It comes from a Greek word that means “assembly,” and is used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe God’s covenant people. It is God’s own designation for the worshiping assembly called by his name, the people whom he has redeemed and gathered to himself in Christ to be his treasured possession. Though there are several metaphors and images used through the Bible to describe the people of God, the one word that sums up who we are as Christians that gather together to worship our Lord and Savior is “church.”
It is the church that Jesus is building through Spirit-empowered witness of his followers as they bear witness to his gospel (Matt. 16:18). It is the church that is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). It is through the “through the church” that the manifold wisdom of God is now being made known in the heavenly places according to the eternal purpose of God realized in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:1011). It is the church whom Christ loves and for whom he died, that he might sanctify her and present her to himself in splendor in the beauty of holiness (Eph. 5:25-27). It is the church of the living God that is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). And here in the city of Elmira, we are a local expression of Christ’s church—the one, holy, catholic (i.e., universal), and apostolic church that transcends space, time, and denominations (Heb. 12:22-24).