Churches gain insight from Secret Worshipers

From The Southern Illinoisan, May 1, 2010

Secret shoppers have been staples of service and retail industries for years. Restaurants have mystery guests rate the food, service and atmosphere so management knows what facets need improvement. Stores use the hired shoppers to rate everything from the friendliness of staff and the cleanliness of the shop to the selection and music.

Now a growing number of churches, including some in southern Illinois, are gaining insight into their congregations through the use of mystery worshipers.  These church visitors can range from individuals who don’t attend church, hired by a pastor to critique a church, to fulltime consultants, scoring churches on factors including services, buildings, music and parking.

“I try to feel like someone who has never gone to church before,” secret worshiper and church consultant Ken Lupton of Springfield, Mo. said. “I try to act like I don’t know what I’m doing with a ‘somebody please help me’ mentality.”

Lupton, who has conducted secret worshiper studies for churches throughout the midwest, recently visited Anna’s First Baptist Church. Only Pastor Tony Foeller and his wife knew Lupton was coming. Since the visit, Foeller has been sharing results from Lupton’s visit with his congregation. He said the 44-item report included some things that may surprise church members.

“I was surprised, big time,” Foeller said. “We’ll go over the complete report on Sundays. I’ll tell them that how we did. I’ll see the ashen faces and then we’ll get to work on it.”

Foeller said that studies like those done by Lupton are simply taking a secular idea and applying it to a religious setting.

“Nothing is different from the secret shopper concept. It’s just seeing your church in a consumer culture. That’s not the bottom line, but we have to see it that way,” he said.

Lupton’s checklist includes items on the entire worship experience including the sermon, the church’s music and its facilities—all the way to the parking lot.

“I’m looking for directions even in the parking area,” Lupton explained. “I’m wondering as a guest will people accept me, will I be treated right and will I feel welcome. I’m even looking for someone to help me figure out where to go and what entrance to use. Most of the time I don’t find anybody.”

The study opened Foeller’s eyes to parking and facility problems.

“Of course, all of us in the church know where the guest spots are, but we’re not the ones that need to know. Those spaces need to be more clearly identified, he said.”

He added that the study showed building entrances need to be more clearly defined. Foeller said one of the biggest surprises in the report was the church’s score on Lupton’s friendliness scale.

“We’ve gained a large number of people recently who tell us that we’re a friendly church, but then we had an expert who visits hundreds of churches a year tell us we’re not there, yet,” Foeller said.

Lupton said friendliness is a common problem.

“All churches assume they are friendly and they help people connect. That’s the biggest mistake,” he said. “The strategy has to be to build friendships, not just be a place that is friendly. Churches assume a lot happens in making people feel welcome, but because it doesn’t intentionally happen, it doesn’t happen at all.”

Lupton added that most church visitors are looking for people to assist them, point them in the right direction and to engage in conversation with them right away.

“Just shaking my hand and introducing themselves isn’t enough,” he explained. “People are looking for connections and if you can’t build relationships soon, the likelihood of them coming back isn’t good,” Lupton said.

Getting first-time visitors to be second-time attendees is one of the goals of secret worshipers, said Phil Nordstrom, lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Murphysboro. Nordstrom said his congregation has hired consultants in the past to analyze the church and make recommendations. He said that in a way, the church always is subject to scrutiny.

“We have secret shoppers every Sunday, they’re just our guests,” he explained. “They respond in several ways, including if they come back. We also ask for their feedback.”

He said the suggestions from secret worshipers have assisted in the way that the church organizes and plans.

“They help us get past some of the points where we get stuck in growth,” he said. “Things like how we take care of our guests, how we follow-up, how we present our facilities and our organizational structure.”

Good or bad, the findings of secret worshipers give churches information they can use to improve.

“Who would not want to do this? You can learn so much about yourself as a church,” Foeller said.

“It has helped us prioritize what should be next as we look into the future for our facility and our programming,” Nordstrom added.

Lupton said sometimes the results can be astonishing.

“The worst assessment I ever gave was to a church in Kansas City four or five years ago,” he said. “It demoralized the staff when I told them, but the pastor told me it was the best thing they had ever done.”

Lupton added that since then, a fellow consultant had told him that the church is now one of the friendliest churches he had ever seen.

“The bad news was really the good news. They immediately started working on the culture of the church. They realized that’s why they asked me to come in the first place. Sometimes it happens immediately, sometimes it takes a while.”

Both Foeller and Nordstrom said they recommend using secret worshipers to other churches, whether the guests are professional consultants or just individuals from the community who do not usually attend church.

“After all, it’s about how we look to those who haven’t been reached yet,” Foeller said. We have to remember that we don’t exist for us, we exist for those who don’t know Christ.”

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