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.”