A Yelp for Churches February 8, 2010

A Yelp for Churches

Jim Henderson is the man who “bought my soul” on eBay a few years ago. The reason he bid on my auction in the first place is because he loved the idea of “unchurched” people going to church and sharing their experiences.

Jim would take those filled-out surveys and share them with the pastors of these churches, explaining what visitors liked and didn’t like about their visit.

I wasn’t the first person to do this for him, and with Jim’s new site, I won’t be anywhere near the last.

Jim has created a full-blown version of his brainchild, ChurchRater.

“We say it’s our mission to reach out, including to nonbelievers,” Henderson, 62, says. “So why would we not want them to tell us what they think of our efforts to influence, change or even convert them?”

One reason might be that it can be brutal.

His Web site is free and open to believers and doubters alike, to say whatever they want. You can post reviews and one- to five-star ratings of churches, much as Yelp or Urban Spoon rank restaurants.

A church in Everett got one star because someone found the pastor too self-absorbed.

“All his stories are centered around his perfect life,” it says, citing a “perfect blonde wife” and Hallmark kids. “And if we sign up for Jesus, we’ll be perfect, too. Uhhhh … is this really what Jesus told you to do?”

So far only 40 churches in Washington have been rated on the Web site, not enough for it to reach a critical mass. Henderson says 30 more have expressed interest in his paid ratings services, which can range from $250 (for two visits by raters plus a written report) on up to $2,950 (for a weekend-long focus group between “outsiders” and church members, moderated by him).

I wouldn’t be surprised if more churches subject themselves to “mystery worshipers” before long — they’re businesses and they want to do what they can to bring in new customers.

These churches could just hang on to the money if regular churchgoers had the guts to tell their pastors what they didn’t like about church — what they found offensive or untrue or disingenuous.

But they almost never do, so I guess it’s our job to tell the truth.


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  • Interesting idea. But I wonder how long it will be before some churches start complaining that they’re being unfairly targeted, and that they shouldn’t have to fear random members of their congregation might be rating them. How they hate when anybody but them does the judging.

  • Jer

    These churches could just hang on to the money if regular churchgoers had the guts to tell their pastors what they didn’t like about church — what they found offensive or untrue or disingenuous.

    This doesn’t really make much sense. With very few exceptions, most Christians have the ability to “church shop”. Most regular churchgoers at a particular church aren’t going to churches that they don’t like – if they didn’t like it they’d stop going and go somewhere else. Finding out why people who aren’t going to your church don’t like it is good market research that your regular attendees aren’t going to be able to do for you no matter how deeply you probe them – whatever annoys the people who don’t go to your church clearly doesn’t annoy them enough for it to matter to them. Heck something that turns off 90% of the visitors that walk through the door of your church may be the very thing that keeps the regulars coming back week after week.

  • “they’re businesses and they want to do what they can to bring in new customers.”

    Um, if they’re businesses, why don’t they pay taxes? 😉
    Seriously, though – yay, fun they want to make Church better, but at what point does Church become just a mental “spa”?
    What? It already is? Oh.
    Don’t spas pay taxes?

  • Darn, Lagunatic, you beat me to the punchline.

  • That beats the old “churches rate themselves to be great” problem that they used to have.

  • @LaviniaSerpent
    Sorry 😀 It was too good to let slide, though.

  • Richard Wade

    How can I become a paid church rater? If the money was worth it, I’d attend services and write up a thoughtful review.

  • john locke

    ‘That beats the old “churches rate themselves to be great” problem that they used to have.”

    Looking through the reviews, that is exactly what is happening. Most of the reviews are 4-5 star ratings from Christians who rated the church they attend. I don’t see many non-christian reviews.

  • Erp

    And then there are the longer established Ship of Fools Mystery Worshippers evaluating churches since 1998.

  • John the old ratings still seem to be up. There is a big gap between 2008 and 2010 where the ratings were suspended because Christians where pushing their own church rather than giving honest ratings. I know, sounds dishonest and dishonourable doesn’t it. And from Christians. I’m as shocked and stunned as you are.

    I hope that this is a change for the better. As much as I think churches are a horrible waste of time I am well aware that they aren’t for me. If Christians want to have the best clubhouse then they should rate them fairly and honestly. That way other people who are interested get to see something that is less biased than the usual advertising material. It’s no different from rating a pub, a restaurant or a golf club.

    …Except they pay taxes. 😉

  • I wrote about a fellow in Denver last year, called himself the Phantom Pew Sitter. He was doing the same thing, consulting and rating churches. http://www.denverpost.com/lifestyles/ci_11275740

    I think it’s a fine idea. There’s no reason why those institutions should be immune to criticism.

  • I just wanted to let people know that ChurchRater is not the first to do this. Ziztur and Flimsyman from ziztur.com have already started this over a year ago, have gone to about 40 churches and have even found some they would endorse if an atheist may want to find social opportunity in such a place! She also takes Christian books and dismantles their arguments which is a whole new set of fun.

  • Thanks for the post.

    I plan to link to it on my little blog if there is no objection.

    I can’t resist sharing the notion that unbelievers view the church as a business. So many of our churches have fallen into that category for so long, we deserve the criticism.

  • Jer wrote

    These churches could just hang on to the money if regular churchgoers had the guts to tell their pastors what they didn’t like about church — what they found offensive or untrue or disingenuous.

    This doesn’t really make much sense. With very few exceptions, most Christians have the ability to “church shop”. Most regular churchgoers at a particular church aren’t going to churches that they don’t like – if they didn’t like it they’d stop going and go somewhere else. Finding out why people who aren’t going to your church don’t like it is good market research that your regular attendees aren’t going to be able to do for you no matter how deeply you probe them – whatever annoys the people who don’t go to your church clearly doesn’t annoy them enough for it to matter to them. Heck something that turns off 90% of the visitors that walk through the door of your church may be the very thing that keeps the regulars coming back week after week.

    Actually that hasn’t been my experience, Jer. Most regular attenders at church have some things they like and others they don’t like about their church. They could be asked for constructive criticism. And it often takes a lot to push an attender to the point they’ll leave, so it’s quite possible churches might have somewhat disgruntled attenders. And if anyone wants a church to improve it’s those who attend and feel some loyalty, so they would be great people to ask for feedback.

  • hoverfrog wrote:

    That beats the old “churches rate themselves to be great” problem that they used to have.

    Well, that’s still happening, but people are also posting ratings and comments that are more, shall we say, balanced? 🙂

  • Richard, if you’re 20-35 write to the ChurchRater site using the ‘request a rating’ option on the contact page and say you’d be interested in doing a paid rating if a church in your area asks for some. But if you’re older you probably won’t qualify because the Craigslist ads say 20-35 year olds who aren’t Christians.

  • I think this is a fun idea, and I wouldn’t mind doing it for the cultural experience, but I have to wonder if Jim Henderson really understands why people like us don’t attend church. It’s not because we don’t like the building. It’s not because we don’t like the people. It’s not because we don’t like the music or the sermon. It’s because we don’t believe in the theology! And in many cases we also have severe moral problems with what the church teaches.

    When I read I Sold My Soul on eBay, I couldn’t help but think that the information Hemant provided just wasn’t going to be very helpful to those churches. It’s like the Christians involved are missing the whole point. They think we don’t like their churches because they aren’t attractive or inviting enough. They don’t seem to get that we don’t believe what they teach, and that’s the core problem.