Back when I worked in retail management, secret shoppers were the bane of our existence. The corporation would hire people to come in and rate our service, orderliness, appearance, etc. You never knew when they were coming and their results seemed to vary wildly. You'd be praised on a day when you knew you and your team weren't giving their best and rated viciously on another day when you were slammed and keeping everything going despite numerous obstacles. It's hard for companies to have effective oversight of their regional outposts but I'm not sure how much the secret shopper programs helped.
In any case, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the secret shopper program has been adopted by churches. The Wall Street Journal's Alexandra Alter had an absolutely fascinating look at Thomas Harrison, a former pastor and now 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.
Mr. Harrison belongs to a new breed of church consultants aiming to equip pastors with modern marketing practices. Pastors say mystery worshippers like Mr. Harrison offer insight into how newcomers judge churches -- a critical measure at a time when mainline denominations continue to shed members and nearly half of American adults switch religious affiliations. In an increasingly diverse and fluid religious landscape, churches competing for souls are turning to corporate marketing strategies such as focus groups, customer-satisfaction surveys and product giveaways.
I've never gone so far as to become one of the Ship of Fools mystery worshippers but there have been a few times I've visited houses of worship where I've been horrified. And sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes to see what a first-time visitor might be turned off by.
But already the story is asking for some balance -- something that doesn't really ever show up. Having been on a national church board that wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants, I'm a bit suspicious. The corporate culture had completely overtaken my board and instead of being concerned about fidelity to God's word or some other non-corporate concept, the executives cared about these really bizarre and arbitrary metrics and models that had nothing to with our board's purpose. It means something if you think there's a product giveaway better than the Gospel and that is an issue that just isn't even broached here.
Still, Alter tries to show how widespread the practice is, looking at both the church marketing firms and secular secret-shopping firms seeking a toehold. Churches spend up to $2,500 to get their blunt advice. This one secular firm, which has 260,000 secret shoppers, has sent some of them to Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Unitarian churches. It seems to me that if the shoppers are evaluating water stains and clean bathrooms, that it's a completely separate issue than evaluating the theology of the music and the quality of the sermon. If you think that church is all about getting people in the seats no matter what, then that's one thing. If you think that there is a different standard for quality -- say, spiritual growth of your congregation or fidelity to doctrine -- you might not get much from a random, one-off visit.
Much of Alter's piece looks at the service Harrison provides and the experiences he's had:
Mr. Harrison has had far worse experiences as an undercover worshipper. He's been knocked out of the pew -- twice -- when someone scooted over too quickly. Once, a woman reached right over him to shake a friend's hand without excusing or introducing herself, he says. And on more than one occasion, Mr. Harrison says he's caught congregants complaining about the pastor. "I've had people tell me, 'You've come to the wrong service. Our pastor is speaking today; the associate pastor is much better,' " Mr. Harrison recalls. "I was horrified."
I've been going to church an average of once a week for 34 years and I've never seen anyone get knocked out of their pew. I feel like there must be something I'm missing about the mechanics here. Here's another paragraph that begs for a response:
Ron McCaslin, pastor of Cathedral of the Hills in Edmond, Okla., hired Mr. Harrison because his church was struggling to attract members even though the surrounding neighborhood was bustling with new residents. Mr. Harrison suggested changing the church's name and its billboard -- a 25-year-old wooden sign with Old English-style lettering. He also recommended changing the worship music to make the early morning service traditional, with well-known hymns that appeal to an older crowd, and the later service more contemporary, with a lively band. The church now draws about 500 people to its weekend services, up from about 350.
Okay, so I realize not everybody thinks worship style is theological issue but the idea that a one-time visitor could seriously recommend changing the liturgy of the service is just shocking to me. I imagine that there are theologians who feel the same way. And yet they are only mentioned in one paragraph -- the second to last one. And it's not very meaty of a response. It's almost an afterthought. As if an editor tried to get some balance in:
Some theologians warn that mystery-worshipper services will drive "spiritual consumerism." Evaluating churches as if they were restaurants or hotels might encourage people to choose their church not according to its theology, but based on which one has the best lattes or day care, says Paul Metzger, professor of theology at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore. "We tend to look for religion or spirituality that will give us what we want, when we want it," Prof. Metzger says. "There's a pressure for the church to be something that the church is not."
I'm just as concerned about the supply curve as the demand curve, though. And there's no mention of whether such an approach is damaging to the church itself. There's no mention of negative repercussions. There's no disagreement theologically about whether a consumer-based approach is appropriate to even embark on. And I think that would be a fascinating discussion. I'm sure that we'll see an outcropping of stories about mystery worshippers in the coming months. Hopefully other stories will have a bit more balance than this one.
Coincidentally, the Christian satire site Lark News has a story this month about mystery church shoppers.