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Pastor Glenn McDonald: The Name of the Game

The world of TV sports provides a window into a fascinating sociological phenomenon.


The parents of younger American generations are going out of their way to give their kids distinctive names.  We’re talking about Millennials (children born 1980-1994), Gen Z (1995-2012), and the newly dubbed Polars (2013-2029), who won’t be taking the field for a few more years.  


If you turn on an average football game, examples abound. 


There’s Kool-Aid McKinstry, the All-American defensive back from Alabama; General Booty, a quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners; Storm Duck of North Carolina; Pig Cage of LSU; and Bumper Pool, who suits up for Arkansas.  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (whose full name is Ha’Sean “Ha Ha” Treshon Clinton-Dix) recently played in the defensive backfield of the Green Bay Packers.


Female names have taken some interesting turns as well.  There’s Olympic sprinter English Gardner, UCLA softball star Bubba Nickles, and gold medalist Alpine skier Picabo Street.


What do all these names have in common?


They’re different.  Memorable.  Even radically unique. 


As sociologist Jean Twenge points out in her recent book Generations, that mirrors a major turn in American cultural history.  She writes, “When parents want their children to fit in, as they do in a collectivistic culture [the kind that existed in our country prior to World War II], they are more likely to give them common names that many other people also have.  When parents instead want their children to stand out, as they do in an individualistic culture, they are less likely to bestow common names because individualism values uniqueness.” 


If we go back to the 1880s, more than half of American boys were given one of just ten names.  If you turned around you were likely to bump into someone named James, John, Robert, or William.


Likewise, a quarter of American girls received one of the ten most popular female names.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if there’s a Mary, Eliabeth, Margaret, or Ruth somewhere in your genealogy. 


For contemporary families, names are no longer an expression of conformity.  They’re increasingly a strategy to stand out in a global population of nine billion.  Twenge notes that parents used to worry about bestowing a name that was too strange.  Now they worry about settling for a name that is too ordinary. 


During the 1990s, amateur bodybuilder John Brown (an ordinary name if there ever was one) decided to go public with his love of Egyptian mythology by naming his kids Equanimeous Tristan Imhotep St. Brown (currently a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears), Osiris (the god of fertility), and Amon-Ra Julian Heru J. St. Brown (the star receiver who yesterday delivered what turned out to be the winning touchdown in the Detroit Lions playoff game). 


If names in our current culture reflect the need to stand out, names in the ancient world were thought to reveal something of the character, identity, and even the destiny of those who bore them.


A change in name might signify a whole new direction in life.  Abram (“father”) became Abraham (“father of nations”).  Simon (a variant of Simeon, the second son of the patriarch Jacob) became Peter (“the Rock”) the one upon whose faith and faithfulness Jesus would build his church.


What about your own name?


You can go with the one you received at birth.  Most people do, even if they sometimes wonder about Mom and Dad’s intentions. 


Or you can change it.  Reginald Dwight became Elton John.  Joaquin Bottom morphed into Joaquin Phoenix – no doubt a wise marketing move.  Jennifer Anastassakis opted for Jennifer Anniston – easier for her friends to remember.  Maurice Micklewhite chose Michael Caine – primarily because he had grown up loving the movie The Caine Mutiny.  And Marion Morrison became John Wayne.  “The Duke” should definitely not be named Marion. 


On the other hand, you might identify yourself with some kind of hidden personal descriptor – a dark name you would never actually speak aloud.  Perhaps you secretly know yourself as Hopeless, I’ll-Prove-All-You-Jerks-Wrong, or Worthless.


Or you can go with one of the names that someone else – perhaps a parent or an ex or a boss or a bully – hung on you somewhere along the way: Failure, Slacker, Second Place, Not-As-Pretty-As-Your-Sister.


There’s one other option.  You can claim as your own the names that God has bestowed on every Christian in Ephesians 1:3-14.  There are seven of them – one for every day of the week.  If you’ve enrolled as a follower of Jesus, here is a seven-fold expression of your true identity:






Sealed (by the Holy Spirit)

Predestined (for adoption into God’s family)

Chosen (before the creation of the world)


You can name yourself.  Or go with what others call you.


Or you can conclude that God alone knows who you really are, and has the right to declare your identity, character, and destiny.


Whatever name you choose to answer to will almost certainly determine the shape of your life.


As for me, in the hopes of becoming a more refreshing pastor, I just might have to go with Rev. Kool-Aid McDonald. 



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