ChurchRater.com offers ministers, congregations views of strengths, weaknesses


Jesus saw the crowds gather. He went up onto the mountainside, sat down and began to preach to them.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus said. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for justice.

The crowds listened to Jesus and smiled. Except for RomanGuy4, who went home and blogged: "Naive. Corny. Would have been better with a choir."

Everyone's a critic -- and about pretty much everything -- so is it really any great revelation that, in these Internet-fueled days of the 21st century, church services aren't immune from the barbs of online reviewers?

The occasional church review can be found at Yelp.com, Citysearch.com and other sites in the Internet's free-for-all opinionated jungle. But one site, ChurchRater.com, was created specifically as a place to review and rate churches with an eye toward raising the spiritual bar, co-founder Jim Henderson says.

Henderson spent 25 years as a pastor in evangelical Protestant churches throughout the northwestern United States. In 1998, he quit preaching and formed an organization aimed, he says, to "help Christians see themselves through the eyes of outsiders."

According to Henderson, ministers and people in the pews may not realize that they can come off as cold, harsh or merely ineffective to outsiders, or that specific parts of a worship service can rub at least some newcomers the wrong way.

As an outgrowth of his work, Henderson and his partners in 2007 created ChurchRater.com and, Henderson says, "immediately created a firestorm" from pastors who feared being judged on just one service and that the critiques would be mainly negative.

ChurchRater's guidelines stress that it is "not a place for debate; it is a place for dialogue. It is a place to discuss, not argue ... to compliment, not condemn ... to learn, not to shut out or shout down," all with the goal of showing ministers how they might become more effective.

The Rev. Mark Wickstrom, senior pastor of Community Lutheran Church, 3720 E. Tropicana Ave., says critiques, in any form, offer him "a snapshot of a first impression that I lost years ago.

"I don't have first impressions because I've had 500,000 first impressions," he explains. "The gift (reviewers) give is the chance to see through a first-timer's eyes, and if they're being candid or honest or being at least marginally constructive, that's helpful to me."

Wickstrom's church was the focus of a ChurchRater review in which a woman writes that she attends the church "because I'm most comfortable there," but adds that "they do have problems with trust. It seems that if you don't become a member, they pass you when you offer your help. Even after five years, we still feel like an outsider."

Wickstrom says one virtue of a large church is that worshippers can "be anonymous" if they wish and, conversely, "if you choose to make yourself known, we will put you to good use. But will we go after you or hound you? No."

But, he adds, "I think it's always sad to hear that somebody's willing to do more, but we haven't asked. Here's somebody who has some interest and who is comfortable with us, but we haven't had enough signals from her, or, if she has given us little signals, we didn't respond. That's what I don't know."

The Rev. Benny Perez, pastor of The Church at South Las Vegas, 3051 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway, Henderson, likens outsider-written reviews such as those seen on ChurchRater to the secret shoppers retailers employ to evaluate service.

"It's an interesting concept," he says. "I'm not opposed to it. I think it would actually help churches like mine and others to get an unbiased view."

The Church at South Las Vegas is the focus of a review on ChurchRater in which the reviewer says that, although the song leader is "an excellent musician," the music is "waaaay too loud" and offered "nothing to draw me in."

While calling Perez "an engaging speaker," the reviewer also writes that "he beat(s) the audience over the head with the authority of the Bible," and says the service included "the laying on of hands and people falling backward thing," which was "intimidating to a new believer."

The service, the reviewer concludes, "wasn't my style, I guess."

Perez might agree. The reviewer "must have had a bad experience, and that's valid," Perez says, but the aspects of the service the reviewer found intimidating -- the primacy and inerrancy of the Bible and physical healing -- are, in fact, hallmarks of the church, which Perez describes as "charismatic Protestant."

Which illustrates one difficulty of church reviews: Evaluating friendliness is one thing, but varying styles of worship -- varying specifics of theology, even -- equal varying reviewer preferences.

"When you're talking about church, you're dealing with ... a spiritual experience. It's different than a restaurant or a movie," Perez says. "So when you're talking about a spiritual encounter, it's very hard to quantify it like you can with food -- the food was cold, the food was too spicy."

The Rev. Jason Hirsch, meanwhile, has been known to approach strangers at Starbucks and offer them a $10 gift card in exchange for critiquing a service at his church.

"There are some who say, 'No, I'm not interested,' but probably eight out of 10 would say, 'Sure, I'll come in,' " says Hirsch, lead pastor of Epic Church Las Vegas, 8755 W. Warm Springs Road. "And I try to tell them: 'Don't you tell anybody you're here. Just come in as a person from the outside and I'll follow up with you.' "

Hirsch then will ask the guest reviewer whether he or she felt welcome, along with: "Did you feel the message applied to your life? Did you feel uncomfortable when the singing began? You tell me about your experience from the outsider's experience."

The idea is "not because we want more people in the chairs and filling the church," adds Hirsch, "but because we believe God has given us a mandate to disciple men and women to love, live and give as Jesus did."

Hirsch is an avid user of social media for spiritual ends. He tweets, he uses Facebook and he blogs -- he even wrote a blog item about being interviewed for this story -- so it's not surprising that he has no qualms about someone critiquing him online.

"Feedback for a pastor is very necessary," says Hirsch, who so far has garnered three positive reviews on ChurchRater. Otherwise, he says, "we could become an introverted social club that is about itself and is not really trying to impact culture."

Without perspective from outsiders, Hirsch adds, "we could become so inner-focused that we can miss the reality of what the rest of the world perceives."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

 

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