For two millennia, if you knew a church's name then you knew something about the people inside its doors.
Church names stood for timeless saints and traditions -- from the Church of the Nativity to the Church of the Resurrection. A potluck supper at St. Patrick's would be different than one at Santi Giovanni e Paolo or Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In some flocks, a name might tell a church's location or hint at its origins. The Southern Baptist Convention's directory includes almost every name under the sun -- from Enigma Baptist to Black Jack Baptist, from Hanging Dog Baptist to First Baptist of Disney (Okla.).
But out with the old and in with the focus groups. Who needs an old church?
"First the vogue was for local churches to drop their denominational affiliation from their name," noted scholar Gene Edward Veith, in the evangelical magazine World. "Then came the fad of dropping the word church. The Community Assembly of God Church became first 'Community Church' and then 'The Community Family Worship Center.'
"Now, words that so much as connote religious activities are considered too negative for the unchurched, so we have congregations that go by names such as 'The Center for Family Love.' "
But the sign outside is just the beginning. Inside these doors, many church leaders are morphing into chatty spiritual guides. Hymns are out and so are sermons, litanies and scripture readings. Thousands of churches are rigging up video screens and adding drama and humor.
"Some churches are doing everything they can to eliminate anything that might make them seem like churches," said Veith.
This trend has been growing in recent decades, affecting flocks on left and right. Some people defend the church of the ages. Others yearn for the church of the future.
Now broadcaster Harold Camping has turned up the heat by saying it's time for Christians to realize that all modern churches -- liberal, conservative and everything in between -- have gone apostate. Key Bible prophecies say so. The radio preacher once drew media attention by preaching that the world would end in 1994.
Camping is using his global network to tell believers that the era of the "corporate external church" is over. It's time to form "fellowships" -- with no pastors -- that exist to support mass-media evangelism.
"No longer are you to be under the spiritual rulership of the church," he said, in a manifesto posted at www.FamilyRadio.com. "This message should be clear. We must remove ourself from the church. ... The church has ceased to be an institution or divine organism to serve God as His appointed representative on earth."
This concept might appeal to millions of consumers. Sunday morning? Sleep in. No more boring rituals and sermons. No frustrating committee meetings. No guilt-inducing programs to help the poor.
The big problem is that Camping doesn't sound all that radical these days.
"American churches," said Veith, "have been complicit in this new and heretical anti-church movement. Many have become so indifferent to theology that their version of Christianity consists of little more than, to use the words of country singer Tom T. Hall, 'me and Jesus.' If Christianity is about the private, inner, undefined relationship between an individual and Jesus, there is little need for God's word, the sacraments, doctrine, pastors or the church."
Veith is a very traditional Lutheran, but his critique also rang true with the most influential voice in mainline Lutheranism.
"The leading actors in the Fade Away Church Movement certainly must have read marketing guides," noted historian Martin Marty, in The Christian Century. "Those guides must have told them that the Fade Away Church is what many want."
Yet there is a sad reason that many people yearn for a perfect church, a non-offensive church or a mass-media church, he added. Many do not want to sit in real pews with real people, "those tangible, offensive, smelly things called human beings, those 'really real' children of God who refuse to act like 'virtually real' people."
But if someone does create a non-church church, Marty concluded, "there will be just one thing wrong with it: It will have nothing to do with the Christian faith. And, therefore, it is likely to sell well."