by Rick Richardson, with Kerilee Van Schooten
Names are really powerful things. This is true for us, perhaps most poignantly so, when it comes time to name our children, and we find ourselves looking through countless books, searching for the right name with the right meaning.
It is important to find the right name because names have a way of defining our identity. This is equally true about God. The pages of scripture are filled with names of God, each one calling out a different aspect of His identity and character: Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), King of Kings (1 Tim. 6:15), Man of Sorrows (Isa. 53:3), Comforter (John 14:26) etc.
Each of His names is a powerful tool which we can use to minister to others and share the gospel in creative ways.
We found a great example of this while we were doing research at Burning Man last fall. During our time there, we met up with several different groups of Christians who would welcome people into their tents and invite the Spirit of Truth to speak to them (John 16:13) or ask the Creator to bless them (Isa. 40:28). Often, people receiving the prayers and blessings would end up with tears in their eyes as they encountered the perfect love of God for the first time.
When we asked the leaders of these groups why they were using different names for God, they explained that unchurched people often have preconceived ideas of who Jesus is based off of negative experiences they’ve had with the Church.
These different images of God often don’t accurately reflect God’s character, and instead become barriers that block individuals from fully experiencing God’s love and goodness. By beginning with the many names of God found in scripture, they were able to more clearly communicate God’s character to people who would have otherwise been much more closed off to hearing about God.
They explained that they would share about Jesus more specifically as they sensed God’s leading to do so; in this context; however, they never started by sharing Jesus.
As I listened to them, it seemed as though they were echoing Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” There’s a measure of truth in these words. Although the names we use for God are really important, the presence of Jesus is just as powerful and just a sweet. If He is called by any of His other names in scripture, it doesn’t change who He is.
During our conversation, we asked these Christians how they would respond to people who might say that the most loving thing you can do is to straightforwardly tell others about Jesus.
One of the leaders responded this way: “If you look at scripture, there’s so many ways He is called…. [Knowing] the name that hits their heart spot is the most loving thing you can say.” She went on to explain the story of when Hagar flees into the desert to escape an abusive situation. In the desert, she encounters the angel of the Lord, and in response, “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me’” (El Roi, Gen. 16:13).
The Christian leader at Burning Man continued by sharing that “maybe somebody we meet today will be needing One who sees their pain. That’s the most precious name they need to hear because [Jesus] is still encompassed in that: Yeshua—He saves, because He sees.”
If we take the time to listen to people’s spiritual journeys, we will begin to understand what they are seeking or needing from God in this particular moment in their lives.
By using the different names of God found in scripture, we can minister to people in a way that powerfully demonstrates that God sees their unique needs and meets them where they are.
As I reflected on our experiences at Burning Man, I realized that this was not a new idea. In the meeting of the Areopagus in Acts 17, Paul spoke to the people of Athens saying, “As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
In this way, he affirmed the spiritual journeys of unchurched individuals and began the conversation by using their language for God.
When communicating the gospel, we will always need to speak about Jesus because “there is no other name by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). We will eventually need to address the wrong perceptions and stereotypes people have associated with the name of Jesus; however, our gospel conversations don’t necessarily need to start there. Learning to use the many names of God as creative starting points in our spiritual conversations can be powerful tools to break down barriers and communicate the love of God.
Rick Richardson (@reimaginer) is evangelism fellow at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, professor of intercultural studies at Wheaton College, and director of the MA in Evangelism and Leadership and the MA in Missional Church Movements degrees. Rick consults widely with churches on evangelism and healing and reconciliation for the emerging generation and on contemporary missional churches and missional movements.
Kerilee Van Schooten is research coordinator at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.