Where To Worship? Church Reviews Go Online

fromWBUR

A church steeple in Stowe, Vermont

Many people are reading online reviews of churches to find a place to worship that meets their needs. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

As a military wife, Melissa Hager has to find a new church every time her husband is reassigned. While she's skilled at unpacking boxes, the church quest isn't as easy.

For people settling into a new community, reading online church reviews can make the transition a little less stressful, especially with Easter approaching.

"When you move to a town, you have a whole list — new pediatrician, new dentist, new play group, new friends, new hairstylist and new church is on that list," says Hager. "And if I can get some insight on that online, it makes my life easier."

'An Instant, Built-In Family'

A few months ago, Hager and her family moved to a suburb of Tucson, Ariz.

"We're churchgoers. That gives us an instant built-in family when we are, in actuality, strangers in this new town," Hager says.

Instead of relying on trial and error, Hager visited a Web site called Churchrater.com. Co-founder Tyler Mahoney wanted to create a site that made choosing a church less overwhelming. But he needed to set a few ground rules.

"The Internet is a mean, mean-spirited place, and the most grace-filled Christians can be hatemongers on the Internet," Mahoney says. "Here's the main criteria: Be polite."

Mahoney wanted Churchrater to have more dialogue and less diatribe.

"We don't want people to criticize churches, because that's just not that helpful," Mahoney says. "Don't tell me what I'm doing wrong; tell me what I can do better."

All Over The Map

Churchrater has several hundred reviews; Yelp.com has hundreds more. One house of worship with scores of Yelp ratings is Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

Alexandra B. writes: "This is an amazing church that I would highly recommend to anyone. It's all about Jesus, all the time."

Another reviewer named Jeff S. writes: "Mars Hill Church is a hate-factory which preys on the naive, misguided, deluded, abused, lonely, and confused youth of Seattle."

Mark Driscoll, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, says the reviews can be helpful or just ridiculous.

"What I believe is what I believe, and there may be occasionally better ways to articulate it," Driscoll says. "I am certainly not going to change my beliefs based on some comment on Yelp. I hope my convictions go a little deeper than that!"

An 'Ecclesiastical Bandstand'

While some people who run churches aren't thrilled by online reviews, the trend also worries those who teach ministry.

Dwight Friesen, who teaches theology at Mars Hill Graduate School, which is not affiliated with the church, says these reviews are akin to an "ecclesiastical bandstand," with people ranking places of worship as if it were an Olympic competition. He also says online reviews present bigger theological problems.

"It reduces church to a commodity to be consumed," says Friesen. "The church, at the end of the day, is not a commodity — it's more like a family."

We're not reviewing our families on Yelp, at least not yet. But as Hager, the military housewife, sees it, houses of worship are communities that can become surrogate families. So doing due diligence, including reading online reviews, is part of the selection process.

"As a military family, you don't have that luxury of inheriting a church," says Hager. "Church is about relationships, and it's not easy to walk in blindly to any place and not know what they're going to be about."

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