Having the Internet at our fingertips enables people to scrutinize options in a way that was impossible twenty years ago. Whether selecting restaurants, barbers, or bedding, we've become hyper-aware of a vast sea of alternatives from which to choose. Whereas before, you might have pulled over at the nearest sandwich shop and left satisfied, many now feel compelled to search out the best option their city has to offer, every time. Nearly every decision, from the momentous to the mundane, requires us to consult a virtual Delphic oracle.
Enter, online reviews.
Search engines and review aggregates, like Google or Yelp, not only identify options. They cull the experiences and opinions of thousands of people to provide on-the-ground information. Scanning reviews helps us feel confident that we're making the best possible decision. Naturally, that habit extends to which churches people visit. Queuerying “church near me” not only pulls up names and locations, but star-ratings and testimonials.
What I want to ask is, should online reviews apply in the same way to Christian churches as they do to Church's Chicken? For a variety of reasons, I want to suggest online reviews are inadequate indicators of which churches people should visit.
Unknown Character of Reviewers
Relative anonymity might not factor in to decisions about taco joints. When deciding where to worship, though, it is crucial that you know about the person leaving the review. Religious judgments can be highly skewed, both positively and negatively, by the morality and beliefs of the reviewer. And the simple fact is that it may be difficult or impossible to establish such details as:
- How long have reviewers been Christian?
- What sort of Christian?
- Did they visit only a few times?
- Were they actively engaged in congregational life?
- Did they leave to avoid discipline?
Some reviewers may be poor judges of what constitutes a worthwhile church. Others might have an idealistic axe to grind against Christianity itself. In such cases, who is to prevent antagonists from leaving negative reviews on all the churches in a city? How do you know “Sam Gustafson, Age 35” is not an angry teenager whose parents for make him attend youth group? Often, you can't.
No church is above bad reviews. In fact, not long ago, the church I pastor received this brief gem:
Racist, wealthy, family owned, "christian" business club.
My first instinct was to reach out to the reviewer to address his concerns. Unfortunately, his account had no other activity or contact information. Since I am unaware of any person by his name having attended our fellowship, it would appear he came so briefly that his opinion can hardly be fair, or someone slandered our entire congregation as “racist” from behind a pseudonym.
Thankfully, the charge is untenable. Pastor Phil and I preach pointedly on how Christian unity transcends differences of race, wealth, gender, and nationality. Our pews are filled with believers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who esteem one another equally. Just this Sunday, I saw a black first-time visitor warmly greeted, invited to a home meal, and hugged by a white member, all within minutes of arriving. Given that we voted to prepare a brother of black and Mexican descent for pastoral ministry, the overall convictions of our leaders and members are clear.
Of course, I can not promise that no one among us will ever have racist tendencies. Christ calls sinners to be his disciples, and even the Apostles had to address prejudice among early Jewish and Greek Christians. I can tell you, however, unabashed racists will be readily confronted, instructed, and, if necessary, disciplined from our community. People who read Google reviews won't see that, though. With dozens of churches to choose from, why not skip the one accused of racism, right?
Similarly, the reviewer's assertion that we are "family-owned" is nonsense. Our leaders are congregationally elected. Nor do we allow two men from the same family to serve as elders at the same time. Every major decision, including the budget, goes before the entire congregation for approval.
Last, the charge that we are a “wealthy... business club” is laughable. Wealth is not itself sinful, nor are we all well-off! Indeed, for my poorer brothers' and sisters' sake, I might wish it were more true. Our largely working and middle-class congregation nevertheless manages to donate much of their excess to others. About half the budget goes to charity, as our public financials attest.
I suppose worshipers in suits or business-casual clothing could be mistaken as showing off wealth. But this would be an unfair judgment. The preference of some for conservative attire has more to do with an expression of modesty and reverence (and knowing about 30% off coupons at Kohl's) than about signalling status. Yet others worship among us in tee-shirts and sandals and are no less valued. You wouldn't know this by reviews, though.
Reevaluating Online Reviews
When evaluating churches online, the words of 1 Cor 13 still apply: “love hopes all things.” I suggest going to the church's website to read their confessional statement. If it bears a faithful witness, why not grant the benefit of the doubt, buckle up, and see for yourself what they are like? In God's sight, due diligence is not wasted time.
Remember, it will take more than one service to know if you've found the right church. Those casually racists folks you meet the first week might not be the best representatives of the body! On the other hand, they just might indicate you've found a church where actual sinners are welcomed and challenged to grow.
When Your Church Receives Bad Reviews
Like it or not, for the foreseeable future, Google reviews will continue to be the first stop for many seeking a place to worship next Sunday. For that reason, you should consider how to respond when—not if—your church receives a bad review.
First, don't attempt any kind of censorship (queue, "Streisand Effect" and accusations of being a cult). This is the world we live in. For better or worse, everyone has an immediate platform to broadcast truth and error.
Instead, I encourage all church members to leave an honest, balanced review of their own church, preferably on both Google and Yelp. As the adage goes, “the solution to pollution is dilution.” If it's just one or two poor reviews in a pile of hundreds of positive ones, that speaks volumes. Meanwhile, truly rotten churches won't be able to hide or ignore numerous bad reviews.
Thankfully, negative reviews aren't all bad. They present church leaders and congregations with opportunities for honest self-reflection. Is there some truth in what was said about my church? Possibly. In any case, I have a better idea of what to pray for, guard against, and preach on in the future. Clearly, God works in mysterious ways!