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.
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 website—sort 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.