When I told a few friends that I was working on a piece about online church reviews, they looked at me blankly. Yeah? At least for some people, reviewing a sermon or a congregation online seems perfectly reasonable. But as I started talking to people around the country, I found a significant percentage who could not be more horrified by the trend.
It might depend on whether you are an Gen X'er or a Y'er but I think it also depends on who you are.
I spent a significant amount of time chatting with those being reviewed. A particular group of clergy, located in Boston, Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco, were all over the place. Some were quite disturbed by the development while others readily acknowledged that this is par for the course; we are a digitized, connected society and quite frankly, we like to Yelp-i-fy. No one is exempt, not even your neighborhood priest.
According to Chantelle Karl, East Coast Communications Manager for Yelp, "All it [a business] needs is a physical storefront. We pride ourselves on being an outlet for any and all local experiences whether that ranges from churches to dry cleaners to where you had a great lunch around the corner."
Founders of Churchrater.com — Matt Casper, an avowed atheist; Jim Henderson, an established pastor; and Tyler Mahoney, a Duke divinity student — try to keep their review site as friendly as possible. They regularly write push-back to user reviews that are vague and amorphous. Once recent example: "Dear Reviewer: What exactly is a 'bible-based' church?" Along with online church reviews, Churchrater offers a service to congregations and clergy around the country: evaluation upon request.
Once contracted by the church, Churchrater sends out "secret shoppers" to anonymously and randomly evaluate the church. All shoppe s are hand-picked (usually from Craigslist) and most consider themselves "non-religious" or "non-affiliated." Shoppers are given a survey to fil out and some churches even share the results with congregants.
North Point Community Church, a satellite location of Atlanta's Buckhead Church recently hired Churchrater for this very purpose and later posted the evaluation on their church blog. In the comment section, congregants write back and forth, strategizing on how to improve the areas that got "lower scores."
No matter where you land on the issue, some things cannot be disputed: the internet is constantly evolving and if you're not on the treadmill, you may just want to jump on. Chur hrater co-Founder Tyler Mahoney makes this clear in a recent article in The Confessio, the Duke University Divinity School Student Journal for Theology and Ministry: "The times they are a changin'. Like many other 22-year-old students, I don't even own a phone book."