Yelping God’s House
Posted by gradywalton
Now that the Republicans have taken control of Congress, we can relax in the assurance that God will not smite us with his wrath. (Unless God is a Democrat or Libertarian . . . do Libertarians smite?) Anyhow, I recently got tired of all the political ads and stories in the media and found myself looking for a distraction. I ended up perusing church reviews on Yelp (which can be like listening in on delicious gossip). After reading several reviews I realized something intriguing: Some of the reviewers praised the churches they visited and ended their reviews with statements along the lines of “This is not your typical church.” I had to laugh because the things they cited as new and groundbreaking are indeed, well, typical. Things like: “The church has a mix of modern and traditional worship music, lots of programs for children, excellent premarital counseling services, an all-are-welcome atmosphere (code for gay people are MORE welcome at our church than yours), relevant sermons, and the people are so nice and genuine.”
After many church experiences, my definition of “not your typical church” is narrower. For instance, a clothing-optional liturgical church would qualify, under my definition, as “not your typical church.” A church made up entirely of short people who all have a fear of heights would qualify as “not your typical church.” You get the idea. The modern church has lots of features that are fairly common across the board. It takes something way outside the box to classify as truly atypical.
Here’s the deeper issue. Nearly all the reviews I read focused on first-impression features of the churches they visited. They were very similar, in many ways, to reviews of a restaurant or a hotel. In other words, they were rather shallow observations. I must admit that the practice of reviewing churches on Yelp feels a tad impious to this old coot. But I also see value in reviewing churches. Reviews can help lackluster or unhealthy churches get their act together. Reviews can help those new to a community narrow their search for a church. Reviews can help people get hurts off their chest if they have been wronged by a church. Right or wrong, reviews of churches are likely here to stay and church leaders who ignore them do so at their peril.
In the city where I live, some churches currently have 4 or 5 reviews. Others have as many as 50 or more. When I review reviews (I crack me up), I generally follow the law of large numbers. That is, the higher the number of reviews the more accurate the star rating. This is because the higher number of reviews tends to balance out the opinions of angry, bitter, and impossible to please people. But aside from the number of reviews, many reviewers seem to suffer from a lack of deep observations about churches. Here’s the problem: Churches are not like reviewing a restaurant or a hotel. Writing a genuinely helpful review that touches on something deep about a church requires more than one or two visits to the church. First impressions are important, but they rarely tell the whole story when it comes to churches. I went to a church where the senior pastor blew me away with his outstanding oration and his ability to speak Biblical truth directly into my life. The congregation was huge. As time went on, I began to realize that the church was built largely on the personality of the senior pastor. People were naturally drawn to the man’s warm and bold personality. The long-term viability of the church was at risk, unless they could find an equally dynamic associate pastor. This realization took time to formulate in my noggin.’
Writing a review about your difficulty finding a parking space at a church or your frustration about the long line to pick up your child from the nursery is not deep. These are certainly problems, but they are also first-world problems. Focus, focus, focus, people! Deep reviews touch on things like: Does the congregation have a reverence and love for God? Do they have a family atmosphere where newcomers are welcome? Do they help each other and those in the community struggling through difficult times? Do they have staying power, or is turnover high in the congregation and staff? Does the pastor cherish the Bible and preach exclusively from it? Are children’s programs treated as a high priority or just a necessary evil? Is the majority of the congregation genuine, down to earth, and not pretentious? Do the people admit mistakes and ask for forgiveness when they hurt each other? Does the church honor the past while moving ahead toward the future? These are things that take more than a single visit to ascertain. I’m just saying.