The Joy of Labels

By Paul Koch


“You label me, I’ll label you.” – Metallica, The Unforgiven

I found myself, on several occasions recently, being questioned by other pastors about the appropriate label to ascribe to myself. Now they don’t just come right out and ask; no, they ask key questions about worship style, preaching emphasis, or lectionary use, all with the hope of being able to identify me with the right label.

Now labels are important.  They allow us to move quickly through people to discern who is important and who is not worth our time.

And since we are very busy people, we need a good labeling system to help us be productive. In our country we have many important labels: democrat, republican, tree-hugger, hipster, millennial, boomer, etc. And the church is no different. Traditional, contemporary, confessional, missional, evangelical are all useful labels to speed up our conversation and help us find those that are useful to us.

When I was younger, I loved the use of such labels because they made life easier and allowed me to find out about an identity. But as I’ve grown, I find that I despise the easy use of labels. In fact, I find great joy in frustrating the attempts to be labeled. “What kind of worship style do you use?” The faithful and riveting kind. “What sort of preacher are you?” A pretty awesome one. And so the conversations go. One day I’ll show up at the pastor’s conference with a coat and tie and the next an offensive t-shirt. All in all, it is an amusing game to me.

However, I think we can take it up a notch.


My wife loves labels, real labels. She has not one but two of those electronic label makers. You know, the type you use to label storage containers in the garage or the kids craft supplies. For the organizationally minded individual (such as my wife) these label makers are indispensable tools. You enter a simple word to describe, hit print, and out comes a perfect label on tape that can be fixed to whatever object you are naming.

How fun would it be to take one of these tools and put it to use at the next conference I attend. Imagine sitting across from someone, and while you’re asking questions you are typing out a label to define this individual. Then in the middle of the conversation you begin to peel off the backing and place it on his forehead. “Confessional,” “Liberal,” “Bureaucrat,” etc.


Now, to do it well, we would have to begin with the labels which he has already self-ascribed. This way, he will not be offended about being labeled. But slowly, as you continue to talk, you place more and more uncomfortable labels on him. So that in the end, he will end up with a list of labels designed to facilitate any future conversation and speed up the process of weeding out those we don’t want to talk to.

So I might have a list that looks like this: Awesome Preacher – Conservative – Incredible Beard – Confessional – Fun – Likes to Talk – Not Very Attentive – Forgets Peoples Names – Arrogant – General A-hole. This way, as I meet other folks throughout the day they could determine with much greater ease if they want to invest the time in talking to me. Usually, all we really want to do is figure out which box we can stick people, anyway.  So why not just enhance the process and have a few laughs along the way?


Or, we could skip all this crap. Go to the bar, order a few drinks and actually talk about things that matter.

But either way, I think I’ll still bring the label maker next year.