When Your Haters Are Your Best Evangelists

Church Shopping on Yelp

“It is great to meet you, Steve! So before you leave, can I ask how it is you found out about Sojourn?”

I ask this question to anyone new who shows up on a Sunday morning to our church, so as Steve and his fiancé were leaving last Sunday I shot the question his way.

I’m always curious how people find our little faith community that gathers in a nondescript elementary school, virtually hidden in a city of a million plus. The top three answers I hear are,

“I Googled progressive Christian church”

“My friend told me about it”

And third, which was the answer that Steve gave me that morning,

“I found you on Yelp”

Ah Yelp.

Most consumers adore Yelp and it’s helpful guide to crowdsourcing the popularity of whatever sort of business, service, or product you’re questing for in a given city.

And many business owners have a love/hate relationship with the service. Sure, it might help drive traffic your way, but a few random one-star reviews can really drag the whole thing down.

Nonetheless, when we started Sojourn three years ago I was conscious of how highly the San Diego culture relies upon Yelp for just about everything. So I made a concerted effort to ensure that, from the get-go, we had a positive presence on Yelp. I knew the app is a favored place for folks to find, not just “the best brunch in town with unlimited mimosas” or "the best chiropractor who plays only reggae in their waiting room,” but also where they should go to church.

And I haven’t been wrong. We’ve seen a stream of visitors at Sojourn because they found us on Yelp and liked what they read.

Steve was no different.

Except he totally was.

The One Star Review

“I found you on Yelp,” Steve began, and I smiled that once again that a little white and red star on someone’s phone led them to come worship with us.

But he wasn’t finished, and his next words made my heart skip. And not in a good way.

“Someone gave you a One Star Review…”

I’m sorry, huh? What? Did you say a One Star Review?

I started to panic internally. All my triggers of “fear of failure” and “having to be the best” and “is this the week that people stop showing up to our church and we have to shutter the doors!?!?!” started to fire.

You know, normal stuff. (I’m fine. Really.)

And yet, in that split-second of freak out, I was also conscious of how Steve was, you know, standing right in front of me. So clearly the One Star Review didn’t keep him away.

Okay, okay… Colby calm down, everything is fine, keep listening to Steve.

“Someone gave you a One Star Review, and since it was the only one you had I figured I better check it out.”

Phew, the “only one you had.” Okay, that’s not too bad.

He went on, “and when the reviewer started to explain his One Star, complaining about how the pastor lamented the election of our new president during his sermon, well I just knew right then and there that this was the church for us.”

I legitimately LOL’d.

Thank You, Robert S.

When I got home from church I pulled up our church on Yelp, dying to read this One Star Review that brought Steve and his fiancé to Sojourn. You can check it out here, but the gist is this.

Robert S. and his partner visited our church on the first Sunday in Advent. It was the week I spoke about Hope, and it was also just two weeks after the Electoral College failed us all and awarded a misogynist ego-maniac the highest office in our country.

At Sojourn, we are pretty clear where we stand: with the marginalized, on the side of the oppressed, and for the powerless. 

The President Elect was also pretty clear where he stood: with the powerful, on the side of the winners, and for those who could increase his power and wealth.

His presidency was (and continues to be) a threat to those of us advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, kindness toward immigrants and refugees, racial reconciliation, and so on.

So yeah, on the Sunday when I was supposed to talk about Hope, and still reeling from the recent election, I was honest about the challenge of feeling hopeful.

All that to say, evidently Robert S. was none too happy that I was none too happy about our new President. So he exercised his 21st century right and took to Yelp after the service to blast us/me accordingly.

“What ever happened to separation of church and state?”

“Whether you like him or don’t, we need to get behind and support.”

“Why would anybody complain about a president-elect when we do not know what the next four years will be?”

“My partner and I left disgusted… we will never attend this church again.”

I finished reading his review and I couldn’t stop smiling.

First, because it sounds like Robert S. made a wise choice. Sojourn Grace Collective clearly is not for him.

Second, because I’m often perplexed at how some people use this idea of “separation of church and state” to imply that churches should not speak against systemic injustice or call out leaders and powers when they oppress and marginalize others. Have you never read the stories about Jesus?

And third, perhaps the greatest reason for my Sunday afternoon smile, is because it was so fantastically ironic that what Robert S. was disgusted by was precisely the reason Steve and his fiancé were drawn to us.

In his mind, I’m sure Robert S. thought he was doing a great service to warn others to stay away from us. And perhaps, in his own way, he was even “getting back at us” for ruffling his feathers.

But perhaps what he didn’t foresee was the way in which his words—meant to be a warning—would actually tip off future searchers that Sojourn might very well be the faith community they are looking for.

Like Steve and his fiancé.

You Do You

As a church leader (especially a church planter) it can be tempting to straddle the fence and hope to attract people from all sides. There is an allure to such center fielding. It can even feel more “spiritual” to not take a stance, and risk alienating potential donors… er, I mean, potential disciples.

But honestly, that way of doing church… hell, that way of doing life… has no appeal to me, nor to most people who call our church home.

I’m much more interested in being clear about who I am, and about what sort of faith community we are, and trusting that those who resonate with such things will join us. And if not, it’s cool. I’m confident there’s another church for you out there, Robert S.

Not everyone is going to love who you are, what you do, and what you stand for.

Not everyone will leave you a Five Star Review.

But if you stay true to your convictions, and do your best to walk in integrity and clarity, then at least you’ll increase your odds of attracting people who share your values and your dreams, and decrease your odds of that painful moment when people have been attending your church for six months only to finally realize, “oh, THAT’s what sort of church this is,” and they leave feeling angry and hurt that you weren’t more up front in the beginning.

I’d much rather speak openly and honestly so that the Robert S.’s of the world know right away that perhaps this isn’t the church for you. Even if it runs the risk of a poor Yelp review.

Because the truth is, even if you do receive a One Star Review, your haters can still be your best evangelists.