October 15, 2008
Professional Mystery Worshipers
Can mystery shoppers help your church retain visitors?
The Friday (Oct 10) edition of the Wall Street Journal contained an article whose title and deck pretty much say it all: "The Mystery Worshipper: To try to keep their flocks, churches are turning to undercover inspectors, who note water stains, dull sermons and poor hospitality."
The numbers aren't staggering. Alexandra Alter, the article's author, references "at least half a dozen" consulting firms that have sent covert church-goers to between 20 and 50 churches each. So we're talking about somewhere between 120 and 300 documented instances. Not a trend; not yet. But this is just the sort of thing evangelical church staffs seem to love - it's an opportunity to quantify, qualify, and create an action plan for maximizing ministry impact.
And I understand a church's wanting to know a first-timer's impressions upon visiting its services. Just as you don't recognize how weird your own family is until you bring a girlfriend or college buddy home for a holiday, churches can easily become so introspective and insular that they forget how other congregations operate or how they are viewed by "outsiders." For that reason, I see value in outside consultation, if the consultant is helping an otherwise myopic group of folks recognize its own dysfunction. It would be great, for example, for a visitor to tell you that women seemed underrepresented in the service, that the children appeared marginalized in worship, or that the congregation communicated a tangible sense of dissatisfaction.
But what concerns me about the professional mystery worshipers in Alter's article are the types of observations they are making. In one church, consultant Thomas Harrison noted "a water stain on the ceiling, a ?stuffy odor' in the children's area, a stray plastic bucket under the bathroom sink and a sullen greeter who failed to say good morning before the worship service" among that church's chief infractions. One pastor praises Harrison's attention to detail in this way: "Thomas hits you with the faded stripes in the parking lot?If you've got cobwebs, if you've got ceiling panels that leak, he's going to find it."
It's probably not a bad idea to bring these things to the church's attention. But are they the real reasons visitors come once and never return? To be fair, these covert consultants also grade the worship experience - including the preaching and music. And the morning service certainly says a lot about the congregation's values. But when even secular consulting firms are sending mystery shoppers, I have to wonder by what criteria they will judge the sermon and singing: by aesthetics only or with careful attention to both style and content?
I recommend you read Alter's article and draw your own conclusions, but here are a few observations of my own. It's easy to decry this sort of thing as gross consumerism, so I'll try to be a bit more creative.
First, semantics: There is something unsettling about any combination of the three words "professional," "mystery," and "worshiper."
Second, a practical concern: It's odd that a church would be happy to hear the reflections of someone visiting under false pretenses. In one case, Thomas Harrison (the consultant the article spends the most time with) prepared a "cover story" to explain why he was taking photographs of a church facility and grounds. If someone lies about being interested in your church, how sorry should you feel about being a bit cool toward visitors? Along the same lines, if someone comes to your church with the express purpose of finding its flaws, are they really experiencing the church in the same way that a casual visitor would? If everyone was friendly, I doubt they would notice - or remember - that there were weeds growing in the parking lot.
Third, a cultural observation: My initial reaction to this article was fairly intense queasiness. But I'm a twenty-something. And I could name several ministers in their forties or fifties - godly people I respect immensely - who wouldn't see a single thing wrong with it. For them, anything that helps bring people into contact with the gospel is a legitimate asset, even if it's marketing, public relations savvy, and fake undercover church visitors.
Interestingly enough, I would agree with the principle - that there are certain cultural goods that can be used to draw people to the gospel. But I disagree about which ones are appropriate. For example, one minister might think church marketing is legit but that Christians should avoid R-rated movies in order to stand apart from the culture. I might argue that church marketing is cultural syncretism, but that certain media - whatever it's rated - can be used to communicate the gospel. We're both "plundering the Egyptians," but we disagree about what to leave in Egypt and what to take with us when we go. Put negatively, we're both guilty of selectively rejecting and appropriating the culture we live in. That may be a helpful way to begin thinking about the differences between the generations.
Enough from me; I'm curious to hear what you think. Any thoughts?