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Where To Worship? Church Reviews Go Online
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Where To Worship? Church Reviews Go Online

Religion

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's Holy Week, the week before Easter, and many Americans are no doubt scrambling to find a church. Maybe they've moved or just want to try something a little different. Either way, finding a church just got easier online.

From member station WBUR, Jessica Alpert reports.

JESSICA ALPERT: As a military wife, Melissa Hager(ph) has to find a new church every time her husband is reassigned. While she's skilled at unpacking boxes, some things just aren't as easy. Online church reviews make settling in just a little less stressful.

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

ALPERT: A few months ago, Melissa and her family moved to suburban Tucson and wanted to find a new church as soon as possible.

Ms. HAGER: We're churchgoers. That gives us kind of an instant built-in family when we're, in actuality, strangers in these new towns.

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

Mr. TYLER MAHONEY (Co-Founder, ChurchRater.com): The Internet is a mean, mean-spirited place, and the most grace-filled Christians can be hatemongers on the Internet. Here's the main criteria: Be polite.

ALPERT: Mahoney wanted ChurchRater to be more dialogue and less diatribe.

Mr. MAHONEY: We don't want people to criticize churches because that's not really that helpful. You know, don't tell me what I'm doing wrong, tell me what I can do better.

ALPERT: ChurchRater has hundreds of reviews but Yelp.com has hundreds more. One house of worship with scores of ratings is Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Listen to these:

Unidentified Woman #1: Mars Hill is an amazing church that I would highly recommend to anyone. It's all about Jesus all the time.

Unidentified Man #1: Mars Hill Church is a hate factory which preys on the naive, misguided, deluded, abused, lonely and confused youth of Seattle.

Unidentified Man #2: People who are angry at this church or call it a cult do not understand the definition of a cult. And, two, they are angry because Pastor Mark teaches exactly what the Bible says.

Unidentified Woman #2: To sum it up, the entire service was on maintaining the power structure within the church: men over women, deacons over congregation, pastors over deacons.

Mr. MARK DRISCOLL (Founding Pastor, Mars Hill Church): Sometimes, it is helpful and sometimes, it's just ridiculous.

ALPERT: Mark Driscoll is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church.

Mr. DRISCOLL: What I believe is what I believe, and there may be occasionally better ways to articulate it, but I'm certainly not going to change my beliefs about God based upon a comment at Yelp. I hope my convictions go a little deeper than that.

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

Dr. Dwight Friesen is at Mars Hill Graduate School - no relationship to the church.

Dr. DWIGHT FRIESEN (Mars Hill Graduate School): It kind of feels to me a little bit like ecclesial bandstand, if you will. Like, yeah, it's got a good sermon, easy to worship to, I'll give it an 8.7.

ALPERT: Friesen says online reviews present bigger theological problems.

Dr. FRIESEN: It reduces church to a commodity to be consumed. The church, at the end of the day, is not a commodity. It's a lot more like a family.

ALPERT: We're not reviewing our families on Yelp - at least not yet. But as Melissa Hager sees it, houses of worship are families of choice, and she needs something to help her choose.

Ms. HAGER: As a military family, you don't have the luxury of inheriting a church. You have to find one. Church is about relationships, and it's not so easy to just walk in blindly to any place and not know what they're really going to be about.

ALPERT: The question is this: Does a review tell you what the church is about or what a reviewer is about?

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Alpert.

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