Monday, September 29, 2014

Has Your Church Been Visited by a Mystery Worshipper?

On September 27 I published a column in the Free Press about a couple of church crawls—one by students at the University of Ottawa, the other by an individual in Barrie who decided to try to visit and blog about all 73 churches in that city in a year. Subsequent conversation about church visits on Facebook brought to mind this column I wrote a number of years ago about my family’s experience visiting local churches.

Has your church been visited by a Mystery Worshipper?

Never heard of it? The Mystery Worshipper project is a venture sponsored by the British Christian on-line magazine Ship of Fools. Through the project people clandestinely visit churches and then submit reviews to the magazine’s websitesort of like how mystery shoppers visit stores to help rate their staff and service. 

The aim is to “give the churches a shot in the arm by showing them how they look to outsiders.”

Anyone can be a Mystery Worshipper. All you have to do is fill out an application on the magazine's web site. Mystery Worshippers are given a 20-question survey that includes questions about the warmth of the welcome, the length of the sermon, the quality of the preaching and whether the reviewer would consider attending that church regularly.

They are also asked to indicate what part of the service was like being in heaven, and what part was "like being in . . . er . . . the other place."

The only clue that a Mystery Worshipper has visited your church is a calling card, dropped discreetly into the collection plate. The review is then published on the Ship of Fools website.

I am not an official Mystery Worshipper. But a few years ago I did a bit of mystery worshipping. Together with my family, I visited five different churches in Winnipeg. We tried to see each church through the eyes of a newcomer, with particular emphasis on hospitality—did we feel welcome as visitors?

All five churches did poorly on that count. Which is a bit of surprise, since reaching out to others is a core value for most churches. But in almost every church we were ignored.

People walked around and by us in the foyer, happily greeting each other and engaging in animated conversation. Even people sitting near us in the pews failed to offer a greeting. Only in only one church did one person stop to say hello. Otherwise, we were on our own.

Our experience was not unique. Jane Fisler Hoffman considers herself a “professional” church visitor. As a conference minister with the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, she gets to visit a lot of different congregations.

“Nearly every church believes itself to be friendly and welcoming,” she says. “But that truth is not always readily apparent to the nervous first-time visitor who has just moved into the area or who is having a new sense of spiritual seeking.”

Ways churches can help visitors, she says, include listing the worship time on the answering machine and web site; by putting up lots of signs—regular attenders know where everything is, but visitors don’t; and having “visitor-friendly bulletins” which lists all the responses and instructions.

But the most important thing churches can do is to train some members to be on the lookout for visitors.

“The standard doorway greeters who look at you with that ‘are you a first-time visitor or an old-time member I should know?’ question in their eyes rarely do more than smile and shake a hand," she says. "Other members should be trained and, if necessary, assigned to watch actively for visitors and help them find childcare, coat racks, and so forth.”

Of course, a church is so much more than what happens in the foyer. But first impressions do matter; church growth specialist Herb Miller says that only 12 percent of first-time visitors ever return the following Sunday. 

Why do they come back? Because they are made to feel welcome, he says. 

And there’s nothing mysterious about that.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Do Rocks Have Rights?

Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki has announced what will likely be his last campaign. His goal: To enshrine clean air and water in Canada's Charter of Rights. His announcement reminded me of a column I wrote in 2007 on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire—about whether rocks have rights.

In 1807, the British Parliament signed into law the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the first step towards the worldwide eradication of the African slave trade.

Today, over 200 years later, it seems obvious that people should not be bought, sold and enslaved. But back then the prevailing view was that the slave trade was necessary, even if it was brutal. 

Stopping it, it was argued, would have negative economic consequences; only a very few people believed that it was morally wrong. It took 20 years of tireless work by William Wilberforce, a courageous Christian Member of Parliament, before the trade was ended.

The abolition of slavery is just one example of how humans have evolved ethically. Other examples include the civil rights movement in the U.S., the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the extension of human rights to women, gays, people with disabilities and others.

It can be argued that the human race has often failed to live up to these ideals—shamefully, there are still parts of the world where people are enslaved, and there is still far too much discrimination. But most would agree that these are noble aims to strive for.

While progress has been made in developing rules to govern human relationships, we have not done as well when it comes to developing an ethic to guide our relationship to the earth.

True, there is a growing consensus that we need to change the way we live if humans are to survive. But real change won’t occur until we believe that it is morally wrong to pollute the planet.

Not wrong because it has negative economic consequences. 
Not wrong because it will negatively affect our way of life. And not even wrong because we will die if we don’t stop dumping on, paving over and polluting the environment. It’s wrong because that’s no way to treat anyoneor anything. 

Rocks, in other words, have rights, too.

It’s a radical shift in thinking. Traditionally, we have mostly thought of rights as belonging to human beings. But more and more ecologists are arguing that the earth is not to be prized because it sustains life, but because it has value in and of itself.

One of the earliest to promote this way of thinking was Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management in the U.S.

In his classic 1949 essay, The Land Ethic, Leopold suggested that next human moral evolution would be the expansion of ethics to govern our relationship to the earth. 

Leopold proposed the following ethic for the way we deal with the environment: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the earth. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

More recently, Wendell Berry, a Christian environmentalist, author and farmer, has added a spiritual dimension to Leopold’s idea by suggesting that there is a sacredness to the material world, and all of its nonhuman inhabitants.

Berry argues that the earth, and all its aspects, are invested with value not just because they were created by God, but because they are expressions of the divine.

Says Berry: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us . . . we must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Many people today, including many religious people, are taking the issue of earth care seriously. That's all good, but maybe the next step is to believe that it is morally, religiously, spiritually and ethically wrong to abuse the earth—that rocks, trees, flowers and all other living things have rights, too.