What do you get when a Christian pastor, an atheist, a grad student and a lawyer set up a website to criticize churches?
I swear, this isn't a bad joke. It's a very real site, ChurchRater, and it allows anyone with an Internet connection to identify and review church services around the world. Is the site inspiring frank conversations about worship and religion, as its creators intended? Is it allowing sometimes closed or cliqueish communities to see how they appear to outsiders? Or does it, as some users wrote, "trivialize the deep dimensions of spiritual experiences" and "bolster the notion that church is a consumer-oriented proposition"?One thing's for sure: It's definitely a controversial idea for many who've stumbled upon the site. What do you think: Should religion be up for public review?
The site began as a rather natural extension of two of the co-founders' book, Jim and Casper Go to Church. The premise for the book "could be the pilot script for a sitcom: a pastor hires an atheist to help him critique several Christian churches throughout the United States." Jim Henderson, the pastor, and Matt Casper, the atheist, traveled to several churches around the U.S. to get a fresh perspective on how people worship.
The website now allows any user to essentially replicate that feedback process.
Here's how it works: Users create a profile (what, no Facebook Connect option?) and then have the options of searching for churches, reading reviews and posting reviews and ratings of their own. Churches can also request to be rated, in which case a reviewer is hired and sent to review that church.
Right now, only Christian denominations are included on the site (Catholic and Protestant); the co-founders have stated they do not intend to add mosques, synagogues or other places of worship to their system. And most of the reviews are for churches inside the U.S. Still, if you've ever had the unique experience of living in or around any of the American Protestant subcultures, you know there's some darn good fodder for reviews there.
Many of the churches in the site's database remain unreviewed. The review threads that exist, however, range from informative to entertaining. One well-known megachurch was criticized for its emphasis on showmanship. Another large church was given a terrible review for its unwelcoming congregation and self-important preacher. One pastor got smacked down for giving his own church a five-star rating.
As interesting and even useful as such reviews can be, however, some of the site's users take umbrage at its purpose and execution.
"We live in a world where 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water, over three billion people live in poverty, and children of God are sold into slavery; we have no time to waste rating 'Sunday shows,'" one wrote.
"By providing such an open forum," wrote another, "dirty laundry can be aired (in fact, IS aired) with no means of proving its truthfulness; as such, you become accessories, in all likelihood, to the bearing of false witness, even slander."
Still, as a young person who was subjected to an unrelenting Baptist upbringing as well as constant coast-to-coast travel, I can see the value in having such a site. For discriminating church-goers who are looking for a new church home, it's good to have firsthand and honest feedback on exactly what a given worship service will entail.
Besides, churchgoers are already "reviewing" churches informally and offline, anyhow. Why not bring these conversations into the light?
Let us know what you think in the comments.