September 21, 2009
Church Rater or Church Hater?
Does a new church rating website help or hurt those seeking a congregation?
I love rotten tomatoes. Not the produce—the website. RottenTomatoes.com is a movie ranking website that aggregates reviews from hundreds of journalists and movie reviewers, and then charts how “fresh” a film is based on the percentage of positive reviews. If a film only racks up 18 percent on the “Tomatometer,” I know it’s probably not worth my time or $20.
The collective wisdom of the masses may be a guide when selecting a movie, but what about when selecting a church? In a day when everything seems driven by polls, rankings, and consumer ratings, we shouldn’t be surprised that a new website has been created to rank churches based on customer—eh, congregational—feedback.
ChurchRater.com allows church seekers and members to rate and discuss their experiences at churches all across the country. It was created by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper—co-authors of Jim & Casper Go to Church. The popular book features conversations between Henderson, a pastor, and Casper, the atheist he paid to visit churches. Based on the success of the book, they’re now branching out by providing a service to both seekers and churches. But is ChurchRater.com just another slip down the slope of consumer Christianity?
From the press release:
ChurchRater "is a combination of things: it's 'Yelp' for churches where visitors can rate and discuss their experiences at church, but it's also a social network for church goers and seekers, too, a place where people can dialog about their faith and their lives," says Jim Henderson.
"It's been kind of a wild ride for me and Jim," says Casper. "We never expected the book to take off, but here it is a couple of years later and Jim and I have toured the country, spoken at dozens of churches and along the way discovered that we’ve become 'America's leading Church Raters!' And one thing we have learned is that talking about faith and church experiences is something people seem hungry to do, so we decided to kind of open the doors wide to our kind of dialog."
ChurchRater.com allows people to post ratings, comments and reviews on churches they visit. They will also be able to connect with other church seekers, and "best of all, they can find a church that’s close to their heart, not just their house," says Casper.
My brief exploration of the site uncovered a few concerns. For example, ChurchRater.com offers no criteria for determining what makes a church “good.” It is based solely on the opinions of those posting a ranking. Like RottenTomatoes.com, they seem to believe that the collective wisdom of the masses will reveal which churches are truly “5-star.” But should popularity really be the determining factor when looking for a church home?
Here’s another shortcoming. Each church’s ranking page offers no details about the church apart from its address, website URL, senior pastor, and denomination. To learn anything about the churches worship, doctrine, or philosophy of ministry one must read through the reviews. That’s not very helpful, IMHO.
But here’s the biggest problem I saw with ChurchRater.com—people are highly opinionated, and often nasty, about churches. For example, the thread of comments about Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen isn’t pretty. It’s a digital food fight with those denouncing Osteen as a prosperity preacher on one side and his defenders on the other.
The same can be said for other high-profile churches and pastors on ChurchRater.com. But you don’t have to be Osteen, Driscoll, or Hybels to get attention. Even small churches are airing their dirty laundry on the site. For example, this comes from the ranking of a church in Florida: “Years of attending and listening to a man that did not practice what he preached left me bitter.” The anonymous writer goes on to accuse the pastor of financial mismanagement, unfair firings, and other unethical behaviors. Whether true or not, is a public website the right place for Christians to be voicing these accusations? And who is responsible for guarding the site's comments to ensure they don't include slander? (Lawyers are probably circling the website like sharks.)
In the end, I’m not sure how helpful ChurchRater.com will be for those seeking a church. It may simply provide another forum for people to debate theology, vent their anger, and praise or pummel well known church leaders.
If there’s an upside, it may be that Jim and Casper have plans to allow followers of other faiths, and not merely Christians, to embarrass themselves and undermine their credibility online too. "We're even expanding to reach beyond Christianity,” says Casper, “with the upcoming launch of ShulRater, a site for the Jewish community."