A few of our churches in Missouri are taking an interesting step in their search for excellence in hospitality. They’ve contracted to receive in-depth evaluations through an extensive program of engagement with mystery visitors, using methods similar to retail’s “Secret Shoppers.”
This is how it I understand it to work: During the period of a couple months, the congregation will be visited or contacted nearly 20 times by people hired to provide extensive written reports on their experiences. For instance, each of the worship services offered by the church will be visited on more than one occasion by more than one person. The evaluators (who will come from a mixture of churched and unchurched backgrounds!) take notes on such things as the ease of locating the church, parking lot experiences, signage, the hospitality and helpfulness of ushers and greeters, the friendliness of members, impressions on the content and comprehensibility of the music and sermon, the “after-service” experience, and the visitor follow-up. They even stop by nearby convenience stores or fast food restaurants to ask for directions to the church to check out the community visibility of the congregation! In addition, different evaluators will visit the church office or day school during weekdays and report on their experiences as they inquire about ministries of various sorts. Some contacts are by phone, perhaps posing as someone asking about Bible study or mission opportunities. In all of this, the evaluators will take note of helpful or unhelpful responses.
OK. Everybody relax. Before I go any further, let me assure you that these evaluations are only being done at the pastor’s request and with the approval of the church leaders. There are no surprise visits. However, for those churches that contract for the service, only the pastor and a few leaders will know that the evaluations are being conducted so that the mystery visitors experience typical behavior. Bob Farr, our Director of the Center for Congregational Excellence, is looking to integrate this moderately expensive but extremely helpful feedback tool into the Healthy Church Initiative for churches that request it.
I’ve already heard a great story from the first of our churches to use the service. One of the mystery visitors contracted by the company to do the survey had no church relationship and generally held the view that churches are irrelevant, old-fashioned, unhelpful, etc. But after visiting the church to complete the survey, the secret visitor had a change of heart, and after the surveys were completed, the visitor returned and eventually became involved and joined the church! “I had no idea church could be like this!” summarizes the evaluator’s experience. Now is that cool, or what?!?
This all brings several reflections to mind. For instance, I think about how it would feel to be the pastor of a church that had decided to receive this feedback. Imagine knowing that maybe this week, or the next, or the next after that, there would be an unknown visitor evaluating our sermon, our music, and our hospitality, and we don’t know who they might be or when they might come. Wouldn’t that cause us to put a little extra polish on the sermon prep? Wouldn’t that make us a little more conscious of how we were doing with everything from music and microphones to greeters and announcements?
Well, guess what. Any Sunday in any congregation, persons may appear in our midst searching for community, for connection, for care, and for Christ. And as they leave our services and get into their cars to drive home, they will ask themselves, “What will I do about the experience I’ve just had?” How they answer that question will determine whether they return another Sunday, or never show up again. Every Sunday pastors and congregations face mystery visitors, and knowing this should motivate us to excellence and engagement. For the visitor, this Sunday is the only Sunday that counts, and we have to get it right. Are we ready for the mystery visitor?
I’m also mindful of all the Talmudic, early Christian, and monastic parables, stories, and fables that use the archetype of the mystery visitor. In almost all of them, the stranger who appears ends up being a manifestation of the divine.
In Christian theology, we’re asked to see the possibility that the visitor among us is none other than Christ. Jesus surprised his disciples by telling them that he had come visiting them. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” or “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me…” “When did we see you a stranger?” the disciples asked. They hadn’t even recognized that it was Christ. “As much as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
For Jesus, how we treat the mystery visitor matters!
Yours in Christ,
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