You’re Going to Hell, Boy

It’s two am and I open my email to find the word “REPENT” in all capital letters in the body of the first message I open. Not only am I told to repent, I’m also told I’m going to hell.

This is the third time in a week I’ve been threatened with eternal damnation via email. Emails from the occasional backwards Christian kook are entertaining, as well as depressing: some members of the Christian faith are truly ridiculous.

My email attackers generally don’t offer real critiques and rarely explain why they’re writing. I slouch in my desk chair and pray, “Lord, save me from your followers.”

Why do I get these hateful emails? One reason may be that in February 2010, I co-founded a website called ChurchRater.com, which lets users write reviews of churches, much like they’d review restaurants on Yelp.com.

You might think, “This is a great idea! I’ve been waiting for someone to do this for years.” Or, like the libelous emailer, you think: “This is the final straw. This monster is turning church into Wal-Mart with free crackers.”

Either way, I’m pushing forward. This is my charge of the light brigade: I’m going to take flak, but I believe ChurchRater.com can be a positive tool for religious democracy.

Church Rating Has Been Going on for a While
The basic premise of ChurchRater is nothing new. People have been “rating churches” for centuries.

As a Roman Catholic–dare I say it?–what the heck do you think Martin Luther was trying to do?  Go back to the first century; the majority of the New Testament is made up of letters from one party to another that included critiques, instructions, rebukes, compliments and evaluations.

Look at ancient Israel: Amos and Isaiah are harsh critics of God’s children. And if you’re under the delusion that those prophets, especially Amos, wouldn’t rail against the current state of the church, it’s time to reflect on what you think Bible is really about.

‘The times they are a changin.’
Like many other twentysomething students, I don’t own a phone book. Who needs paper when I have Google on my smart phone? Young people are going to use sites like ChurchRater.com to find essential services for the rest of their lives.

ChurchRater.com does a better job helping people get useful information on church services, because, let’s face it: Church websites are more like advertisements than accurate explanations. I wouldn’t trust a salesman to give me a balanced review of his product in same way I wouldn’t trust a churchgoer to give me a fair description of her church’s services.

Handing Over the Power
ChurchRater.com gives underrepresented followers a voice. The Christian church has historically been patriarchal. The democracy brought by the Internet can shake the very foundations of these patriarchal structures. With ChurchRater.com, anyone can voice their opinions in a truly democratic forum that social structures within their churches may not allow.

Christians don’t preach the Gospel: they bludgeon with it. The Gospel doesn’t preach “Stop abortion and gay marriage,” as the Religious Right over the last few decades would have us believe.

If there’s one thing outsiders like about Christianity, it’s our service for the downtrodden. When I read the Gospel, I see “preach the Gospel, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless.” The message of loving service has been subsumed by a message of hate.

ChurchRater.com is a soapbox for Christians and outsiders to tell the world how they feel about church and what they think Church should be about. For centuries, Christians have been issuing vague threats of hellfire to outsiders and telling them what to think about church.

It’s time for Christians to stop shouting and start listening. Christians need to evangelize with their ears: ChurchRater.com gives insiders and outsiders the ability to engage in open and constructive dialogue about the essence of church and Christianity.

The Courage to Listen
What makes this environment so special? ChurchRater.com is a seam state: it’s not church, and it’s not “the world;” it’s a place where insiders and outsiders can be comfortable discussing their hopes, concerns, and ideas about the church.

I like to think of ChurchRater.com as a type of demilitarized zone for Christianity where dialogue, not invective and recrimination, is the mainstay of insider-outsider discourse. This is why ChurchRater.com is not a Christian ministry: I started the site with an Evangelical, an atheist, and a Jew in order to have this kind of broad conversation.

During my undergrad years, I came to an impasse: I could write books my whole life about how to do church, or I could create a democratic tool where everyone could work toward changing church.

The latter struck me as a much better course of action after I read Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. He says the three basic concepts of social media and crowdsourcing are making a promise, offering a tool and striking a bargain.

ChurchRater promises users the ability to rate and find churches, and we created a tool (the site) that allows users to do just that. But the reality of the Internet is such that we can’t control how our audience chooses to use this tool. I can’t use ChurchRater to drive people to my “radically liberal,” Catholic Worker approach to ecclesiology. I have to give the power away.

Because people have different criteria for what a “good church” is, I’ve promoted this tool with the hope that people are going to change their churches for the better. I don’t expect or even want homogeneity: I want to have a national conversation about how we do church.

Join me–it’s Parishioner Power!

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