Saturday, February 7, 2009

Yelp! I Need Somebody

By: Jenny Bruce

Do you remember when you were a kid and you worried so much about what people thought of you? Remember how your mom would always comfort you with the idea that people think much less about you than you fear they do? The internet has proven your mom wrong. (Yes, it's 2009 and I'm writing about the internet. Sue me.) If anything, the internet has taught us that not only are people thinking about you much more than you think they do, they're also writing angry and poorly spelled diatribes against you for the world to see.

Have you ever accidentally stumbled upon negative comments about you that you probably weren't meant to see? My first experience was four years ago when I played Rapunzel in a production of "Into The Woods." While searching online for newspaper reviews, I came across the blog of one of the members of the orchestra. He completely ripped the show and singled me out, saying that my screaming was enough to cause tumors in lab rats. (I thought about making him rat shaped sugar cookies with gumdrop tumors and leaving them on his seat in the orchestra pit, but I ultimately decided against it.)

Now this certainly wasn't character assasination (and my screaming was pretty wretched), but I was burdened by the realization that I can't keep people from writing whatever they want about me and sending it out to the world.

This brings me to Yelp. I was searching for something on Yelp the other day and stumbled across a somewhat negative review of a church in my community. My heart started beating a little faster like it had when I discovered the comment about my performance years ago. Did anyone in the church know about this review? Did it discourage them? Did it keep others from visiting the church? Had anyone reviewed my church? Had they written things like, "Well the service was all right, but we absolutely LOATHED the children's ministry"?

Needless to say, I'm currently not so keen on the idea of reviewing churches like I would a neighborhood diner or coffee shop. I worry it might encourage a consumer driven attitude towards church, foster a competitive spirit between churches, and (undeservedly) taint a church's reputation. However, I'm still recovering from the whirlwind that was this morning's community valentine making party and my thoughts are muddy. Dearest Reader, will you grant me some clarity?

Here's what I want to know:

1. Do you think reviewing churches is a good idea? Why or why not?
2. Have you ever used reviews to find a church? Were they helpful?

Yes, I'm asking you to do the heavy mental lifting. But do you really want firm opinions from someone who spent the majority of the last two days pondering how to make fish valentines out of paper hearts? I thought so.

16 comments:

Scott said...

I think reviewing churches, in the media form sense, is a product of American and western world culture. We are obsessed with creating our own media outlets (lights, cameras, performances, etc), and thus, we attract media outlets outside of our own.

No doubt we need wisdom as to what local church body Christ would lead us to become a part of. Sometimes these things fall into place easily, sometimes they don't. But we still need wisdom as to what local community of the church we should connect to.

But, usually, most local churches or particular Christians that get 'reviewed' are those that have put themselves in a place to receive such. Case and example is that there was a 25,000 person church in Memphis where I lived. When one of the 'pastors' was accused of sexually abusing his son (although it was from 25 years previous rather than present day), guess what happened? They were in the newspapers, tv, etc, etc. It was all about the 'senior pastor' not properly handling the situation of the accused pastor in a godly manner. Basically, things were somewhat pushed under the carpet by him. And so, the media took this and ran with it.

But I pondered if this had happened to the local church of 100 that I was a part of (God forbid such in any local church). Nothing would have been written in the paper, on the news, etc. Why? Because we got on with being a community, reaching out to friends and others, but not trying to build a large structure, which warrants attention. And, I even now wonder that, if the media had not got involved, would the public repentance have never taken place. I don't know. It probably would have, and God used this to bring certain people to repent.

For the western world, and especially America, there is a large obsession with becoming big, becoming known, getting in the limelight, as they say. And when we do, guess what happens (in good times and bad times)? Such attracts attention, even from the wonderful media.

So, while a Driscoll might stand very strong on the Word and the essential doctrines (and more), he is still setting himself in a limelight as a 'celebrity'. I have no personal vendetta against Driscoll. I just know that he, and other's like him, are not only going to get nice publications when cool things are happening, but when something 'bad' happens, they are going to get attention even more. And it leaves the whole body hurt.

Of course, there is the occasional Billy Graham, or even Piper, (and I am saddened that I have to use the word 'occasional'). These people have attracted a lot of attention, but have stayed quite humble. But if the church really functioned like family and body, as the Scripture teaches us, rather than as business and mega-structure, then we can get on with seeing the mustard seed of the kingdom of God slowly yet surely, impacting the world. And I believe that, in general, we will avoid attention when we fall.

As one friend of mine said: 'In Biblical times, the greatest institution upheld was that of the family, and therefore God’s people were referred to and functioned as such. In 21st century America, the Church mainly functions like a business because that has become the greater institution of our culture.'

I don't say this as a spiritual pietist to criticize Christ's Bride. I simply want us to get on with being a Bride, not a business. And if some attention comes, I think we will be in better places to handle it. And if it is negative, we will let it roll of us like water on duck's feathers.

Allyson said...

I don't disagree with Scott, but I do think that the reviews on Yelp differ a little from what he's talking about here. First, there ARE lots of small churches being reviewed, and second, I think it's true enough that many of those churches are not asking to be reviewed--the obsession with largeness doesn't really apply to many of the chuch reviews on Yelp, however true Scott's remarks may be about western culture.

Going back to Jenny's questions, I think it's ok to review churches (Christians in Context reviews churches, after all, although more broadly--individual churches are rarely singled out here, but certainly types of churches are praised and other types are critiqued). People who want to find a new church--because they've moved or because something has happened in their own church and they want to switch, or maybe they are looking for a first church--want and deserve information as they search. Yelp is a wonderful resource for information on restaurants...

Obviously, though, it's a limited resource too, and that would be even more true for churches. I would hope anyone truly interested in finding a church would use other information-gathering means besides the internet, and would realize that the "reviews" of those churches are a very random sample of opinions, written by people who may or may not be reliable. If that is understood, and if one does not have friends or family to consult about churches in the area, Yelp (etc) could certainly be a decent place to start.

One hopes that each year, people become more adept at reading and thinking critically about what they find on the internet, but the good thing about a Yelp is that it is very clear: these are amateur reviews, written by ordinary people. If you are going to Yelp for information you are most likely already aware that there will be some crackpots reviews on there, and there will be reviews that say totally opposite things ("the fried chicken was wonderful!" "The fried chicken was awful!"). But you might find some churches, like restaurants, that are worth a try, and you might find some that you can accurately tell you would not like. That's ok.

Scott said...

Ah, I didn't know Yelp was an actual resource to inform people about specific local churches.

Allyson, you stated - 'But you might find some churches, like restaurants, that are worth a try...'

While I think I understand what you are communicating, I wonder if this kind of thinking comes from a more America mindset. Please understand that I am aware that it isn't always easy to find a local church community of which you can become a part. It can be a process, especially when you head off to another land quite different from what you are used to. But I am very aware of the Burger King style Christianity in America - Have it your way (like the Whopper). Thus, we look for places to try here and there (like a restaurant that gives us exactly what we want), and maybe we'll like it, maybe we won't. But its ok, no big deal.

I wonder what would happen if we began to choose a local church to be a part of not based upon what 'it' could offer us, but what we could offer to the body of Christ within that local church. Again, I know it isn't always easy and perfect. And I do believe it is important to find a place where we believe we can grow and receive. But I do wonder if a mindset change would be helpful in seeing the kingdom advance and seeing the body of Christ come into maturity.

Just some thoughts.

Allyson said...

Hi Scott,

I appreciate your attempt to think globally and philosophically about Jenny's question, but I respectfully disagree with most of your premise. Look, 25 years ago, when there was no internet, just like 50 years ago, 100 years ago, etc, people tried the best they could to gather information. And they still do: this isn't especially American, or Western, or postmodern, or whatever. Most people, I suspect, choose churches--or choose which churches to visit--based on information they have gathered from a wide variety of sources, and frankly I doubt that a site like Yelp plays that big a role in most of those decisions. It isn't like choosing a restaurant, of course--I might sit down at the computer and think, I'd like Thai food tonight, and punch in a search in my area for Thai restaurants and then read what people who've been to them say about them. I'm unlikely to do that for a church, and certainly I wouldn't do it very often. But in certain circumstances I can see that the internet "reviews" and postings, from people who belong to or have gone to a church, could be helpful.

I would hope that I, and other Christians looking for churches, would be thinking of what we could offer the church as well as what the church could offer us. That's neither here nor there in terms of my need to gather some information first, though. It's no different than declaring a preference or membership in a particular denomination (which is itself a type of information gathering when you are looking for a new church)--it might be admirable for me to think of what I could offer a denomination that I already know has radically different beliefs than my own, but most people don't choose churches that way and I think that's ok.

theologyandculture said...

I haven't read all the comments, just the original post. But here are my thoughts--

The church is a family. It is composed of members of one body, and brothers and sisters in Christ.

People bring their cultural consumerist attitudes to church, when this is perhaps a more culturally-shaded view than a biblical one. People "shop" for a church. You hear such things as, "I like the worship at this church, but the preaching at that church."

A chief problem with this mentality is that it is self-centered and self-serving. A more biblical approach would begin with, "Where can I SERVE? What body needs me? Where can I function as a part of the whole?"

Granted, we are "embodied" creatures and as such, we have certain things that appeal to us more than others (music styles, age groups, etc.) But this should not prohibit the far greater calling to serve the body.

The church is a family. Just like our earthly family, you don't get to pick and choose who your parents and siblings are--- that's just where you were born.

Similarly, if you live in a certain neighborhood, and there is a church there that you don't like, don't avoid it--- contribute to it. Help volunteer and shape it the way that it perhaps should be.

Johnnie said...

Theologyandculture: You say "The church is a family. It is composed of members of one body, and brothers and sisters in Christ." Would that that were so! But even a cursory glance at the postings on this blog--not to mention the larger discussion that has been going on among Christians for, oh, pretty much the last two thousand years--will show that that just aint the way it is. Just recently we've read about the Calvinists vs the Arminians. Etc. There are many contemporary debates--you don't have to go back to Martin Luther. My local Episcopal church says its our Christian duty to support gay marriage. My local LDS church says supporting gay marriage will prevent me from entering the heavenly paradise. My local Catholic church says...and my local 7th Day Adventist...and my local Uniterian...and my local Methodist...

But apparently if I walk past my neighborhood church to attend something differnt, I'm self-centered.

Uh huh.

Benjie said...

Good point, Johnnie.

I imagine Andrew Faris finding himself transported to a strange town...should he say to himself "let me do some research and find a church with Calvinist leanings?" Or should he say "it would be self-centered of me to look into what churches in this area preach....the church is family and I don't get to pick my family, so I'll get out my GPS and find my closest neighborhood church, and I'll become a member!"

Yep, that's the way it works.

theologyandculture said...

Hi Johnnie,

I was talking about pragmatic issues (worship styles, preaching styles), not theological ones. But thank you for your gracious response ;-D.

Johnnie:
"You say 'The church is a family. It is composed of members of one body, and brothers and sisters in Christ.' Would that that were so!"

That is what Christ calls us to be, so I would be wary before casting aside such ideals. Human beings are still subject to this fallen age, and we often act like it--- but this is still what Christ calls his bride to.

"Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head---into Christ---from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love." (Eph 4)

The New Testament commands us to ward off false teachers. So in regards to doctrinal issues, if a church has waded off into apostasy, it's certainly appropriate to rebuke the teachers, and leave communion with them. But this wasn't the scope of my post. And I don't think it was the scope of the original post and question, either.

We're simply talking about "rating" churches, like rating restaurants, movie theaters, etc. But I would argue that this is as silly as "rating" your aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., of your own family. It doesn't fit the category.

We have assimilated our cultural environment so much that we even think "capitalism" is a virtuous thing, all the while the citizens of God's kingdom become more and more consumer-minded, with our seeker-sensitive churches and Christian T-shirts and bumper stickers.

theologyandculture said...

Benjie
"should he say to himself "let me do some research and find a church with Calvinist leanings?" Or should he say "it would be self-centered of me to look into what churches in this area preach....the church is family and I don't get to pick my family, so I'll get out my GPS and find my closest neighborhood church, and I'll become a member!""

Sorry, I responded to Johnnie before I saw your post.

Again, the context of my post was pragmatic in nature, not theological. See my previous post for more on this.

Believe me--- I am a student of theology, so I know how important an issue this is, especially for people that are more theologically inclined than others. But you both are completely missing the point of my post, and latching on to something that I wasn't even discussing.

Go back and re-read my post. Criticizing my points on pragmaticism for not correctly applying to theology is like criticizing a minivan for being a terrible off-road vehicle.

Similarly, go back and re-read the original post and question.

People need to stop having a "me me me" attitude of church, and start having a servant attitude toward church.

Just put yourself in a different cultural context and re-ask the same question. How would the church of the 1st century answer the original post's question? Wouldn't it be a non-issue and a silly proposition? Our whole idea of "rating" churches is cultural.

Andrew Faris said...

Johnnie and Benjie,

Maybe I'm an idiot, but can one of you clarify your point for me? Just say it directly. I won't take offense, I just don't get what you're saying.

Andrew

Johnnie said...

Andrew: We're saying that it's legitimate to do some research--even using internet sites like Yelp, although I agree with Allyson that such sites have to be used carefully--when you are looking for a search. Jenny's post asked what we thought about Yelp as a resource, and I think it's all right. Theologyandculture and Scott are suggesting otherwise, and T&C's post suggested, in my reading anyway, that since we're all "one family/one church" we should not seek information, but should simply join our most local church and do good work there. Now T&C draws a distinction between being pragmatic and being theological, which is fine. I don't think Allyson, Benji or I have any problem with that...but the point is that one would want to research the theology of the various churches. The assumption all of us have made, in trying to answer Jenny's question, is that you would use a Yelp when you want to find out stuff about churches you otherwise don't know anything about--maybe you've moved to a new town or whatever. And that isn't selfish, and it's absurd to imply that it is "self-centered" to try to find a church that matches my own beliefs and interests. I think when Benjy used your name, that's what he meant: you seem to have strong beliefs and opinions (and of course you should!) and from your posts I can't really see you choosing NOT to find a church that matched those beliefs and opinions, but instead calling that self-centered and just heading into whatever random church happened to be in your neighborhood.

Saying we can't choose our church any more than we can choose our family sound nice, but are hardly pragmatic. Good for those that follow that path, but let's not blame those that do choose a church. And if they seek information on the internet--again, the internet offers a lot more than just a "rating system"--let's not blame them for that either.

theologyandculture said...

Johnnie: "it's absurd to imply that it is "self-centered" to try to find a church that matches my own beliefs and interests."

Again, for the third time-- I was talking about pragmatic issues, not theological ones. Therefore, again-- your statement does not apply to what I am talking about. I am beginning to get the feeling that you are deliberately misrepresenting my case just to be argumentative. (That, or you really just don't understand.)

Let me be very, very clear. It is a consumer-mentality of capitalist American culture that drives Christians to "shop" for a church, with issues such as worship styles and preaching styles. It is NOT a consumer-mentality that drives theologically-inclined Christians to distinguish false teachers from biblical ones; it is a New Testament commandment. Therefore, theologically-inclined Christians should be encouraged to seek out the most biblically-sound teachers at local churches.

My distinction between the pragmatic issues and theological ones is not a small one as a footnote (as you made it in your comment). It is the fundamental point of this argument.

And now to relate this back to the original post/question--

If theological/doctrinal issues are the only ones that we should rightly question a church on, we don't need sites like "Yelp" to do that. When you visit a church's official website, you can read their statement of beliefs right then and there. If they are shady about their beliefs, then you have reason to begin suspicion already.

Jenny said: "I worry it might encourage a consumer driven attitude towards church, foster a competitive spirit between churches, and (undeservedly) taint a church's reputation."

And I think she is dead on.

After writing my posts, I went back to read Scott's. It's hilarious how similar our points were. Here is the central, single point I (we?) seem to be concerned with:

Scott: "I wonder what would happen if we began to choose a local church to be a part of not based upon what 'it' could offer us, but what we could offer to the body of Christ within that local church."

Myself: A more biblical approach would begin with, "Where can I SERVE? What body needs me? Where can I function as a part of the whole?"

This is the mentality that both of our posts seem to be combating. And again, we are embodied, inculturated creatures that God has created, and he has deemed good. It only makes sense that we will have music preferences, age preferences, etc. But I would argue that if a church is full of old people, instead of avoiding it, maybe you can SERVE to usher in a younger generation.

Like Scott said, church is not a Burger King "have it your way" place. It is the ultimate community of sanctification and being a servant, which is the exact opposite of the ways of our world.

Johnnie said...

I think the only thing we disagree on is whether or not one might--might!--find "the most biblically-sound teachers at local churches" via internet sites like Yelp. I don't think I misunderstood your first post, although I now understand it better. You have no problem with people "shopping" for a church if that means searching for biblically sound teachers, and when you say we cannot choose our churches any more than we can choose our family, you are assuming that the "choosing" is going on AFTER a lot of "shopping" has already been done. That is, when I took you to mean that if the local church was Catholic or Uniterian or Mormon, well, that's where you should go because it's like your family, you can't opt out...well, no, you meant the most local church that fits my theological criteria. Fair enough, but I think it's splitting hairs to use language that tries to distinguish a search for biblically sound teaching from "shopping" for a church. That one search is valuable and necessary but the other is self-centered.

I agree completely that our culture is much too consumer oriented and that too many churches are caught up in that. I just think it is more pragmatic, when answering Jenny's question, to think of ways people might be served by gathering information from Yelp.

theologyandculture said...

Johnnie: "I think it's splitting hairs to use language that tries to distinguish a search for biblically sound teaching from "shopping" for a church. That one search is valuable and necessary but the other is self-centered."

I agree that it's silly to distinguish "searching for a biblically sound church" from "shopping for a church." But that's not a distinction that I ever made. When I used the phrase "shopping" for a church, I was using it exclusively in the context of the pragmatic issues. So you certainly can use the phrase "shopping" for a biblically sound church.

However, your second sentence is more problematic.

"That one search is valuable and necessary but the other is self-centered."

I would say that this is, in fact, the case-- that one search is indeed valuable (finding a church where you and your family can grow in sound, biblical teaching), and the other search is self-centered (what worship suits me best? what preaching suits me best? me, me, me).

If the worship at a church doesn't suit you, then volunteer to join the worship team, and add more hymns/contemporary songs. If the worship could use a shot-in-the-arm of energy, you can do that right from your seat. Serve. Serve. Serve.

Maybe I have a different mentality because I come from a church-staff perspective, instead of a layperson perspective. When I am "shopping" for a church, I want to serve. I don't want to just sit in the proverbial pews. And considering the priesthood of all believers, I would argue that this should be the mentality of every Christian.

I'm not suggesting that you personally have this perspective, but I am suggesting that what you are proposing involves those ramifications.

Where are Jenny, Andrew, Scott, Allyson, and Benjie at, anyway? ;-)

Allyson said...

I'm right here! Actually I'm amazed to see 14 comments on this topic--

All I'll say is that it seems we all agree that

1) Sometimes shopping for a church is an ok thing to do and sometimes it isn't

2) When it's ok, the shopper might find some useful information at an internet site like Yelp

3) When it isn't ok, it might be symptomatic of larger problems in American/western consumer culture.

Certainly my own examples--as I imagined who might use Yelp--were of the "ok" type. And I think Johnnie and Benjy were saying the same thing. As I said, "people who want to find a new church...want and deserve information as they search." I understand why theologyandculture jumps to the assumption that they want to find that new church for self-centered "me me me" reasons, but I didn't mean it that way.

Scott said...

T&C -

This was good - 'It is a consumer-mentality of capitalist American culture that drives Christians to "shop" for a church, with issues such as worship styles and preaching styles. It is NOT a consumer-mentality that drives theologically-inclined Christians to distinguish false teachers from biblical ones; it is a New Testament commandment. Therefore, theologically-inclined Christians should be encouraged to seek out the most biblically-sound teachers at local churches.'