'Mystery worshippers' go online
The help-wanted ad going live this week on Craigslist might raise some eyebrows. If not tempers. "Need people who aren't Christians to review church service," it says.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The help-wanted ad going live this week on Craigslist might raise some eyebrows. If not tempers.
"Need people who aren't Christians to review church service," it says.
It goes on. "Who: Age 20-35. Do not currently believe Jesus Christ is God. Not mad at Christians.
"What: Attend a church service (anonymously) and complete a survey."
The pay for this odd job? $50. To go, once, to the Sunday service at North Sound Church in Edmonds and rate it on everything from whether the music is tedious to if the sermon seems sincere.
It's the inspiration of Jim Henderson, a Seattle evangelical Christian, former pastor and self-described "spiritual anthropologist" who says it's past time Christians found out "what our true customers really think."
He came up with the Craigslist ad. As well as a Web site for ranking houses of worship, called ChurchRater.com.
"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?"
About a Kirkland church: "The service feels like a late night talk show gone bad."
And at a Seattle church, a whiff of scandal: "Moved my family when pastor and his wife had marital problems, which divided the church. Church fell apart."
The vast majority of reviews are positive — glowing, even. Still, the magazine Christianity Today wondered in a headline about the site: "Church Rater or Church Hater?"
Henderson had to take the site offline for a time because of "slanderous stuff about some pastors." He relaunched a few months ago with more stringent monitoring.
You can't muzzle the crowd, he says. Not in the digital age. Plus there are other church-rating sites (the most popular is Ship of Fools, the British "magazine of Christian unrest," with its cheeky reports by anonymous "mystery worshippers.")
"When people go to church they go out to lunch afterward and they dish about the sermon, the music, whether the pastor was boring that day," Henderson said. "We're just a vehicle to let people do in public what they already do in private."
Barry Crane, lead pastor at North Sound Church, says he's using the service because Christianity has a brand problem.
"It's terrible to say, especially coming from me, but a lot of people these days don't trust Christians. This isn't to turn us into some supermarket of religious goods and services. It's to open ourselves up, to see if we can regain some lost trust."
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).
What's fascinating about all this is the way the Web and consumer culture are altering even the most traditional, cloistered institutions. Everything now gets polled, ranked, exposed, debated. I suppose Henderson is right — you either go with it or get passed by.
Henderson likes to quote Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. It was Welch's business philosophy to ruthlessly question the premise of every company product, from light bulbs to jet engines.
"Nothing is sacred," he liked to say.
Not even churches.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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