Mystery Worshippers for Hire

Sam Rainer

October 16, 2008

The Wall Street Journal published this article on Friday about the rise of professional mystery workers. Since the secret-shopper technique used by marketing firms has become popular, churches are now evaluating themselves based upon these professional mystery worshippers. The WSJ article expounds upon this practice:

The rise of these services has been buoyed by the growth of the secret-shopper industry. There are roughly one million secret shoppers in the U.S., according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Secret-shopper firms have expanded their reach in recent years from restaurants and stores to hospitals and public transport systems. Churches eager to adopt cutting-edge business practices have emerged as the latest market willing to pay for blunt advice. The cost can range from around $150 for a one-time visit to between $1,500 and $2,500 for multiple visits and a detailed report.

The article looked at this practice largely from a business perspective, which is to be expected with the WSJ. And after reading the article, the business slant made me uneasy as a pastor about the practice. But as a consultant, I’ve completed dozens of these “mystery worship reports.” The final product can be quite detailed, as stated in the article about Thomas Harrison, a former pastor from Tulsa, Okla., and a professional mystery worshipper:

Mr. Harrison — a meticulous inspector who often uses the phrase “I was horrified” to register his disapproval of dust bunnies and rude congregants — poses as a first-time churchgoer and covertly evaluates everything from the cleanliness of the bathrooms to the strength of the sermon. This summer, Mr. Harrison scoured a megachurch in Cedar Hill, Texas, and jotted down a laundry list of imperfections: 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. “I am a stickler for light bulbs and bathrooms,” he says.

The reports can be structured in any number of ways, but the most effective is perhaps in the form of a personal narrative. And I’ve found the most valuable narratives come not from professional mystery worshippers, but rather unchurched people from the community.

The meticulousness of a professional worship inspector can be beneficial, but the story of an unchurched person from the community is much more valuable. So if you’re a church leader considering hiring a professional worshipper, get to know a couple of unchurched people from the community, invite them to a worship service, pay them a nominal amount if needed, ask them to write down their thoughts, and then genuinely discuss it with them over lunch or coffee. Not only will you gain an invaluable perspective, you might build enough of a relationship to invite them back.

3 comments on “Mystery Worshippers for Hire”

  1. MarieP says:

    The must have gotten the idea from here:

    The people mainly visit Episcopal and other liberal churches, but there are some conservative ones on there too. They even visited the Met Tab in London! Unfortunately, for whatever the reason, the person did not like it. I am surprised Southeast Christian is not on there.

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