Critiquing with Accountability

Populist websites that aggregate reviews are all the rage: amongst others, you can rate your professors, rate movies, rate restaurants, and rate who has the loosest morals in college (thankfully the latter is toast). People have opinions and look for places to make them known.

So it was only a matter of time until someone started up a populist ratings website on churchesEnter ChurchRater.com:
Now you can church shop without leaving home.  From the mundane to the profane, Internet critics are rating everything. They're even rating churches now on new site called Churchrater.com. Evangelical mag Christianity Today headlined its story on the site Church Raters or Church Haters? probably because anybody can weigh in with an opinion. Visitors. Malcontents. Longtime members.

Reviewers give the church one to five stars. Some churches get raves. Others get rants. One visitor voiced his unhappiness with a pastor whose sermon seemed all about his smug little life. He ended his review with "This isn't what Jesus was about."

There's a top-rated list and a bottom-rated list.
This isn't a new site: Out of Ur reviewed it last year.  The reviewer noted that at the time, there was no contact information of the reviewed churches, so all you had was the reviewer's notions.  At my viewing, I could find contact info, so that critique seems to be addressed.

But the bigger issue is the growing phenomenon of unaccountable critique.  When you criticize the pastor or church in a community, people know it is you and can respond.  Even anonymous critiques via a Staff-Parish Relations or HR church group have some level of feedback and response, with the committee as a proxy.  If you had a bad experience and tell your barber, it will eventually make it back to the church in some form or another.

The problem is that online, there is no such community or feedback chain.  And frankly, there's not a thing we can do about it.  People will be anonymous, despite any attempts to the contrary.  It is unrealistic to think that any website like this would have any sort of accountability.

To ChurchRater.com's credit, I saw fledging attempts to deal with this.  As a case study, on a 1-star rated church, two people expressed disapproval, an administrator invited them to enter into email dialogue with the pastor or online, and the pastor responded online (it is unknown if it was from a dialogue).  The administrators seemed to try to encourage dialogue online, but still there is no ability to truly nullify unaccountable gossip.

Remember that populist review websites have two problems:

  1. Arbitrary rating system.  There's no indication of what 5-star means for different people. A church that preaches social justice every Sunday may get 1-star from Glenn Beck, but 5-stars from Jim Wallis.  Will that equal out to 3 stars?  Maybe.
  2. Critique reflects context not content.  When I criticize something, I'm coming from my own perspective of brokenness.  Online critiques do not reflect that to those who are not discerning. People experience content in their own ways, and while they can write about it, if they don't write about what in their background or context gives them that response, then the review is rather worthless.  "If you love Jesus, come here" isn't compelling. "I was an alcoholic and I found Jesus here" is compelling!  But sadly, most reviews don't do that.
Perhaps given those, there is a tremendous responsibility of commenters and raters to (a) explain what the rating they give means to them and (b) give more context about themselves to the critique.  And both of those are very hard to get in anonymous forums.  

Thoughts about populist reviews of churches?  Would such a thing be good or bad in your context?  Why?

Thanks for your comments and welcome to our visitors!

1 comments:

JulianZ March 31, 2010 at 12:57 PM  

Hello Rev. Smith - I am one of the co-founders of ChurchRater.com. Thank you for a thoughtful analysis of some of the challenges we are facing. We are still working on moderation tools to make the review process less arbitrary and more informative. If you have any suggestions or would like to input, please feel free to contact our moderator Tyler Mahoney at tmahoney@churchrater.com

Best regards

Julian Zegelman

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