I Mystery-Shopped Your Church

Have you ever been a mystery-shopper?

Some years back, a college classmate contacted me to say he worked for a marketing firm and needed a mystery shopper for Seiko watches in my town. He sent along a script and the addresses of several stores carrying displays of those time-pieces.

I would walk into the store, and tell the clerk, “I’m looking for a man’s watch in the medium-price range.” If he or she took me first to the Seiko display, I announced, “Congratulations! I am the Seiko mystery shopper, and you have just won 10 dollars.” (It’s probably more now, with inflation.) They signed their name on my form, I handed them the money, and went on my way.

That was a fun thing to do.

I’ve known of pastors to invite a friend with a love for the Lord and skills in discernment to mystery-shop their church. They drive up to the church as a typical visitor and take notes on every aspect–the appearance of the campus, the availability of parking, whether it was obvious which door to enter, whether greeters were on hand, how they were greeted, and a hundred other things.

Not long ago when our association did a self study and complete reorganization, one of our pastors made it abundantly clear he wanted us to form such a task force that would be available on request (stress that!) to mystery shop churches.

The task force has not been formed and I’m retired from the leadership of the association, so the decision is in the hands of others, but here’s what I’ve been doing.

I’ve been mystery-shopping every church I have spoken in over the past year and 3 months of retirement.

Here is my report, pastor.

1. The church’s entry-way needs some attention.

I know the custodian probably swept the area Saturday. But the wind came up overnight and has whipped the leaves around, making it appear the entrance to the front of the sanctuary has not been swept in weeks.

Someone would do well to walk over the grounds first thing Sunday morning with a plastic bag for any litter and a broom for last-minute tidying up.

2. The greeters ought to be standing outside the front door, not inside it.

I know, I know. Sometimes the weather is cold or too hot or rainy, and ushers do not want to stand outside. But that’s their place. If they refuse, let them continue standing where they are, but enlist two more volunteers to stand outside the door of the sanctuary to greet worshipers and to hold the door.

Why outside? Mainly, for the message they send: We are here, we are open for business, this is the door you enter, we want you to come, and we are ready for you.

3. The interior walls could use a new coat of paint, pastor.

Walking down the hallway from the sanctuary to the classrooms and offices, I noticed lots of handprints on the wall. This says the building has been well-used over the years, and that’s only good. But a coat of paint would freshen it up.

In your congregation, you have church members who would rather paint a wall than eat a sirloin steak. Find them, hand them a bucket of white paint and a roller and get out of their way.

4. The bathrooms need a great deal more attention than they are getting.

It’s not enough to empty the trashcans and replace the tissue on the rollers (although, some churches do a poor job of both!). The walls have a way of deteriorating next to the men’s urinals. I suppose it has to do with acid from the splash, if you want to get right down to it.

In your church, you have handymen with skills in wall board and such whom you can enlist to upgrade the bathrooms.

In my last pastorate, I was concerned that in the worship center, the women’s bathrooms were the same size as the men’s. And both were tiny. Women need more space than men in these things. And since next door, we had a small office that was getting almost no use, we knocked out the wall and doubled the size of the women’s facilities. The volunteers who did this are still heroes in the eyes of those grateful ladies.

There needs to be a shelf just inside the bathrooms for people to lay their Bibles. A trash can near the exit is good, so people can use their towels to open the door before discarding them.

Here’s a great place where a volunteer could make a real difference. Enlist someone with a real servant’s heart to monitor the bathrooms throughout Sunday morning. (A man for the men’s, a woman for the women’s. Did I need to say that?) Wipe up the water on the counter, run a mop over the floor, replenish the tissue rolls.

Last Sunday, I spoke in a church that had small bowls on counters in the bathroom and at other locations filled with peppermint candies. A nice touch, I felt. Such attention to detail speaks volumes about a church and is appreciated by newcomers.

5. Are the rooms marked well? First-timers will appreciate if they are.

Have you ever driven up to a church that had numerous doors and wondered which one to enter? This is not good for a first-time impression.

The church I belong to is hampered by the fact that the educational building–housing offices, classrooms, and nurseries–is in the next block from the sanctuary. Nothing can be done about this until in some distant time, a new building is erected next to the worship center. However, the doors are marked in huge letters to guide parents bringing babies or children to their rooms. Furthermore, prior to Sunday School, several men and women stand in front of the educational building as greeters and escorts to assist newcomers.

6. One of the worst things I’ve encountered was churches that keep the front door locked. They say, “No one enters that way.” (I say, “You have made sure of that.”)

I’m thinking of two churches.

Church A was constructed and situated so that people would enter from large parking lots off to the side and in the rear. There being no parking in front of the church at all, they presume no one will be entering that way. So all the elaborate doors and foyer are useless, and the doors are kept locked. I find myself wondering what kind of idiot this architect was. Sorry. I feel strongly about this.

Church B intends for people to enter by the front doors, but not for Sunday School. (Do not ask me why this is so. I’m only the visiting preacher.) So, usually about 15 minutes prior to the worship service, some usher will walk to the front of the sanctuary and unlock the front doors. As the visiting pastor, if I walk up to the front door and find it locked 30 minutes prior to the service time, I am furious. I make it a point to find someone in charge and insist that that door needs to be unlocked a full hour before the service. We need to make it easier for people to get to church and not harder.

7. Take a look at your printed materials, pastor.

Are they neat and attractive? What would a first-timer learn about your church from reading them? What kind of witness would your handouts give to a non-Christian?

Look at its announcements. Is there sufficient information about upcoming events? Is there contact information for those wishing to learn more? Is it clear how people can get in on these things?

I’ve seen bulletins that announced suppers to be held at Jim and Judi’s home on Thursday night “at the usual time.” The youth would be going to Bobby’s house after church tonight. “You know what to bring.” The men are going to be doing a work project for Mrs. Allen; “see James for details.”

Who are Jim and Judi? Who is Bobby, where does he live, and what should we bring? Where does Mrs. Allen live and who is James?

Just so easily do we send signals to newcomers that they are unwelcome in this place.

8. Pastor, what is happening in your sanctuary prior to the service? Walk out there and take a look.

I’ve been in churches where the atmosphere prior to and leading into the service was that of a high school homecoming rally: people calling across the auditorium, laughing, running, playing, arguing, reviewing last night’s ball game, teasing, anything but preparing to worship.

I’m aware that sincere ministers differ on what a service should involve, but to my way of thinking, a worship service deserves and requires a certain degree of reverence. The musicians can help with this in their pre-service choices. Church staff can also assist by walking through the auditorium and speaking quietly to those who are distracting worshipers by their noise and antics.

9. How you begin a worship service could well be the single most important aspect of the entire hour.

As a visitor, I am most impressed when the worship leaders have given attention to the beginning of the service. They walk out, take their places on the platform, and start the music smartly; then, someone approaches the pulpit and speaks clearly uplifting words of praise and warmth.

Likewise, I am distressed when the service time comes and goes, and finally the choir and musicians straggle in. The preacher stops jawing with a friend and walks to the pulpit and says something innocuous like: “Well, how’s everybody this morning? Wasn’t that a great ball game last night? I see Tommy is with us. Great touchdown, Tommy. Well, it’s a beautiful day, and I hope you’ve come to worship….”

Inspire us, pastor. Lift us up. This is no place to rehash the ballgame, I don’t care if it was the Super Bowl and your New Orleans Saints took home the Lombardi Trophy. You have bigger things on your mind and heart today. You are here doing business for God.

We’d appreciate it if you would act like it.

10. Don’t preach too long, pastor. Unless you are a very, very good preacher.

As I write, last night a young pastor friend and I were discussing this very point. He admitted that he often preaches 45 minutes. “I’m trying to cut it back,” he said.

I said, “My friend, I’ve preached a few thousand sermons and listened to several hundred over these decades. It’s my judgment that only the best preachers can hold their audience for 45 minutes. And, frankly, I’m not one of them, and you sure ain’t.”

He laughed. “I said I’m working on it, Joe!” And we both laughed. He knew I was ragging him to drive home the point.

My experience is that when my sermon goes overtime, it’s due to the pastor’s failure to adequately prepare. The better prepared I am, the more able I can express a point succinctly.

When I was a young teenager, our house burned down. Within days, my dad and older brothers were cutting timber from our property which they traded for dry lumber at the planer mill so we could put up a new house. My 94-year-old mother still lives in the house we built then.

At one point during the construction process, Dad decided it was far enough along that we could move from my grandmother’s home where we had been staying into the partially completed house. A friend advised us not to do that. “You’ll never get it finished if you do,” he said.

We moved in anyway, and found out he was right.

What happens is that you become accustomed to the unpainted wall or unfinished ceiling or unhung wall board. We finished the job, but it took forever, seems like.

We grow accustomed to the fingerprints on the wall, the water on the floor, the bare place in the carpet, the misspelled words in the bulletin. That’s why it’s a good idea to enlist a friend to visit your church and tell you what he sees.

Get a good friend to do this, one who will tell you the truth, no matter how it hurts. He or she will be doing you a great favor and blessing the Kingdom of God.

6 thoughts on “I Mystery-Shopped Your Church

  1. Well Bro. Joe, You did it again. Like the convicting power of the Holy Spirit over sin, you hit me between the eyes: again. You seem to have that power every time you write something. I keep reading in spite of the pain it often brings! Are you sure I shouldn’t preach 45 minutes? Boy, that hurts! I’m going to put this list before the DEACONS; pray for me!

  2. Joe, This is a very, very good and timely word. Although many churches are doing better in this area, many are still behind the curve. “Mystery shopper” is an excellent illustration and idea!



  3. Dr. Joe, Great ideas. As you may know, we are re-locating. We will be applying these and other things into our planning. You have preached at FBCPCB. We have never had an enterance, only a ‘bottleneck’. Now we will have seven enterances and need seven times the greeters. Should be in the new facility around Thanksgiving.If you are passing through PCB, stop in. I’ll buy your lunch, or is it your time to buy mine? God Bless.

  4. Thanks for some great ideas. I took copies of this to church this morning and gave copies to each of the board of trustees members and the worship commmittee members. We’ll see how they react. Thanks.

  5. Bro Joe, this is the best idea that I have ever heard of. You should get this out to as many pastors as you can. I, like you, have seen some strange things in our churches. I guess one of the most common is singing happy birthday to Sis. Sue and Aunt Jane. Wow Thanks again. David Hanna

  6. Loved this, Brother Joe! I remember my dad, a pastor, encouraging his congregation to go attend other churches for a week or two (not all at once), so that the members could feel what it was like to walk “cold turkey” into an unfamiliar church. The idea was to help them see how difficult that is, and to begin making our own church more warm and welcoming to visitors. “Always make a beeline for any visitors,” was what he told me again and again growing up. At least twice a month, my folks invited visitors home for lunch. It was a way of life for them, and something I really admired.

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