Secret Shoppers at the Church Ignore Substance

Alexandra Alter of The Wall Street Journal wrote an article about churches hiring “mystery worshipers”, like Thomas Harrison, to critique their churches.

Waitaminute… I’ve heard that one before

I suppose our situations are a bit different.

In Harrison’s case, he’s critiquing things that don’t matter at all.

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.

His critiques can be bruising, pastors say. “Thomas hits you with the faded stripes in the parking lot,” says Stan Toler, pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City, who hires a secret shopper every quarter. “If you’ve got cobwebs, if you’ve got ceiling panels that leak, he’s going to find it.”

They say he critiques the “strength of the sermon” but I think that has more to do with the way it’s delivered rather than any legitimacy or fact-worthiness of what he is saying.

I have to ask: What is the purpose of these “secret shoppers”? The article states the goal is to put more butts in the seats:

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.

Do they have such little respect for potential congregation members that they think anyone will care about the cleanliness of the bathroom and the lack of enthusiastic greeter over what the message(s) of the church actually is?

Or maybe they don’t care about reaching people like me (atheists). Maybe they just want to bring in more Christians — those who go to competing churches. But I would hope those Christians are also not swayed by the weeds in the parking lot instead of what the church says and does.

I’ve been inside many churches that were gorgeous buildings, inside and out. The people I met when I visited were kind and sweet. The whole sermon was like a wonderful Broadway show. The performances was incredible. And, yes, the bathrooms were very nice as well.

But when you hear what the pastor is actually saying, when you see him mistaking fiction for fact, when you when you see how the church members seem to care little for anyone outside their faith (or willing to convert to it), when you see the types of programs they put on during the week (anti-Science, anti-Gay, etc.) — that’s why I want little to do with the church. I would hope that’s the reasoning others give for why they don’t attend a particular local church.

If you are manipulated by such irrelevant things as how happy a greeter was or how clean one of the rooms in the building was, then you are just swayed by marketing and money instead of anything to do with the faith.

Mark at 40 Year Old Atheist might have a different way of explaining this sort of phenomenon:

This is what I will henceforth call the Chocolate on Top of Shit Argument for God — the idea that, if we ignore enough of the Bible, and put a coat of chocolate on top of the crap underneath, it will magically become palatable.

That’s what this is — If you have unedible ice cream, no amount of sprinkles, cherries, whipped cream, or chocolate sauce will make it better.

And if people are attending your church because of the added extras instead of the substance of what the church says and does, do you really want those types of people in your congregation?

I’m not the only person who thinks this way:

Some theologians warn that mystery-worshipper services will drive “spiritual consumerism.” Evaluating churches as if they were hotels might encourage people to choose their church not according to its theology but based on which 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,” Metzger says. “There’s a pressure for the church to be something that the church is not.”

(via GetReligion)

  • http://terahertzatheist.ca Ian

    The key is to put buts in the seats with wallets in need of emptying. Cynical but most likely factual.

  • Daniel H.

    Consumerism is indeed a plague on the church in America.

    A lot of seminaries spend more time on leadership/marketing/budgeting classes than classes on the Bible, with the result that church leadership knows all about marketing and budgeting, and almost nothing about the Bible/the Faith.

  • Richard Wade

    When you can’t actually improve your product or service, you print “New!” on the box, offer flavored coffee in the lobby, and have a prettier girl in the ads. In the short term, it works. The money is the same color. The few more discerning consumers go elsewhere or, like us, lose interest entirely.

    In the long run you get whatever kind of customer to whom you appeal. As these churches concentrate on increasingly shallow things to attract people, they will attract increasingly shallow people. Folks who are looking for something of substance will find it increasingly rare.

    …a stray plastic bucket under the bathroom sink…

    Although I am a very deep and profoundly thoughtful person, I must admit that would be a deal breaker for me. ;)

  • Julie Marie

    What must a pastor think of his congregation if s/he thinks this is the sort of stuff people who are seeking a connection to the divine are focused on?

    Oh my my.

  • http://thesouloneverypath.blogspot.com christy c

    This is a toughie, because real Christianity has to be non-judgemental–even to the judgers. It’s the whole “don’t hate the haters” conundrum.

    So this is much ado about nothing, theologically. Christians aren’t required to be perfect. As a matter of fact, they are acknowleged as pretty crappy most of the time. Just one more thing, I guess.

    Just a blip.

    But certainly enough to scare me away, and you…….

    But we weren’t going anyway, right?

    It reminds me of when the EU criticizes the US’s hypocrisy. Do you care? Maybe you do.

  • BZ

    I know a pastor who could easily give all those marketing based churches a run for their money, based simply on the strength of his rhetoric and passion. So not all churches are that shallow, or have to be to get members. That type of thing does seem to be growing, though.

  • llewelly

    Do they have such little respect for potential congregation members that they think anyone will care about the cleanliness of the bathroom and the lack of enthusiastic greeter over what the message(s) of the church actually is?

    If they do, they have a realistic view of their customers. Most congregants ignore the ‘substance’ of the sermon too.

  • TXatheist

    This article showed up on the faith blog of the Austin Stateman and I mentioned the original ebay atheist…

  • http://notapottedplant.blogspot.com Transplanted Lawyer

    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.

    Not only that, but they’re going to need to hire an extra security guard after that weird dude came in out of the desert and started smashing up the Moneychangers’ Bank ATM next to the Starbucks.

    Seriously, I find the huge megachurches much more objectionable than the small ones because they are so obviously awash in money. They’re competing for souls, they’re competing for dollars; and it’s not about using religion to teach good ethics and encourage parishioners to be good people, it’s about draining tithes from the congregants so as to pay back the millions of dollars that had to be borrowed to buy the land and construct these monstrously huge and sophisticated buildings.

  • Larry Huffman

    This reminds me a little of the M*A*S*H episode where Ned Beaty played a higher ranking chaplain who comes to evaluate Father Mulcahey. “Gotta grab them, father!”

    I agree that this does seem to belittle so much about what they claim. When they speak to us, it is about the high level areas of their faith. Being petty enough to complain about a bucket in the bathroom when they are supposedly saving their followers from the peril of hell seems odd.

    I think that we also need to remember that to a pastor it is a job, day in and day out. And…to many perishoners, they are his (in rare cases her) employers. I think this is much more about the congregation making sure the pastor is earning his pay in his job…that they are funding.

    Also…while the mormon church does not actually hire ministers (so it was not a paying job to me, though it took a lot of my time), I was a member of a bishopric in the mormon church before I left, and we dealt with much the same. Members complaining about every little thing…and then other members who would tear up the building and not seem to care. It was an actual concern that we did have to focus on. The reason? Churches are in the money making business…and they will not make money if there are not people in the seats to contribute.

  • Kimberly

    or maybe people are at a loss for offering something meaningful to people and constantly recognizing “talk to the hand.” so they are using whatever methods they have to love others. i don’t like country club church but i have had experiences in my life that i’d like to share with hurting, lonely, and seeking people.

  • Jeff

    “Thomas hits you with the faded stripes in the parking lot,” says Stan Toler, pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City, who hires a secret shopper every quarter. “If you’ve got cobwebs, if you’ve got ceiling panels that leak, he’s going to find it.”

    He hires his own “secret shopper”? He can’t, like – look around himself?


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