A few weeks ago I bought some new camping gear. About a week after that, I got an email from the company inviting me to write a review of that gear. Normally, I’m not a reviewer. That being said, the gear worked so well and so exceeded my expectations that while we were camping, I had commented that I likely would review it. Which got me thinking – prior to making purchases, I do my research. I investigate not just what the company says about it, but also what the sellers say… what the professional testers say… and even what the average person who has purchased it has to say.
Admittedly, the company is only going to offer a rosy picture. The companies selling these products are – generally – honest yet optimistic. The professional testers, where applicable, have nothing to gain or lose by their assessment, and therefore offer a more broad scope of empirical results. Then there’s the average folks – the anecdotal reviewers. I find I tend to read these reviews with a grain of salt; one review will claim it the best product ever while the next claims it worthless junk; some reviewers are very serious while others share such comedic comments as to cause the reader to burst out laughing. I think these reviews have a lot to do with expectations and individual applications, but can also offer helpful hints to make the use of the product better, or even suggestions for competing products that might better fit a particular circumstance.
I read the reviews, because they help me make a more informed decision for my purchases. They help me to better understand the pros and the cons of what it is that I’m considering. I also read the reviews because they are so plentiful – look up just about anything, and someone has written a review of it. In the past week, without looking for anything in particular, I’ve seen reviews written for recipes, books, camping gear, clothing, cameras, tea, and – naturally – churches.
It was shocking to me to read the review of the church in question. Perhaps I should say it was more of a rant than a review: the person had clearly had a bad experience and wanted nothing more than to criticize. Some of the things mentioned include: the greeter wasn’t friendly enough; the pews were too uncomfortable; the readings were too hard to understand; the preacher had an accent; the reviewer didn’t like the hymns; the church was too hot; the coffee wasn’t fair trade.
The list went on – all of it negative. But the list reminded me that the reviewer was not actually reviewing the church (the community of people gathered in worship); they were reviewing the other stuff. They seem to be seeking out every negative thing without actually engaging in the reason for the gathering. What was missing from the review were the important things: the community itself, based on people building relationship; the message of the preacher, unfolding the word of God (accented or no); the invitation to active ministry beyond the four walls of the space, helping to build the kingdom in the world; the intentional time to worship God and God alone, having put focus on prayer and praise. These important things can’t be reviewed easily, or quickly; it takes time to get to know the people and the community. It didn’t take into account that the church is an imperfect collection of people, coming together to do their best. It didn’t allow for the human element of being a family. Perhaps the thermostat had just broken; maybe the regular coffee preparer was ill and the last-minute fill-in had just brought whatever they could find, maybe the greeter was having a rough day. Not liking hymns is the reviewers’ preference, not the church’s fault. As for the scripture being difficult: it always is, even those of us worshiping daily sometimes stumble through it.
But we do keep coming together – because it’s not about personal preferences or having our immediate needs met. It’s about being the body of Christ, being inspired, and sharing the Good News with the world. It’s about gathering in prayer despite our fumbles, knowing that together we’ll delight in our good days and support one another through our bad days.
And when that happens – we can share our thoughts on our church experience. We can do our own ‘reviews’ if we want to. We can let folks know about the overall experience of gathering for church in honest and faithful ways, not just a skeptical one-time rant. We can change the focus of the commentary on our churches away from one of a commodity to be consumed, into a realistic source of information for folks we’re inviting to join us. And our reviews, of course, are not going to just be written and compiled somewhere online (though that can be a very helpful resource too, especially for travellers or folks new to town). It can also be shared through conversation with neighbours, friends and families; through discussion at bible study or book group, through any interaction we have with the world.
In a world full of people who are reading reviews before they make any decisions, perhaps it’s an opportunity for the church to be reviewed by those of us who are deeply committed to sharing the good news of what it means to be an active church family.
Thinking for a summer’s day: if you were asked to review your parish church, what would you say?