Department stores hire mystery shoppers. Restaurant chains bring in undercover diners to rate their food and service. Churches enlist Thomas Harrison, a former pastor from Tulsa, Okla., and a professional mystery worshipper.
Mr. Harrison -- a meticulous inspector who often uses the phrase "I was horrified" to register his disapproval of dust bunnies and rude congregants -- poses as a first-time churchgoer and covertly evaluates everything from the cleanliness of the bathrooms to the strength of the sermon. This summer, Mr. Harrison scoured a megachurch in Cedar Hill, Texas, and jotted down a laundry list of imperfections: a water stain on the ceiling, a "stuffy odor" in the children's area, a stray plastic bucket under the bathroom sink and a sullen greeter who failed to say good morning before the worship service. "I am a stickler for light bulbs and bathrooms," he says.
Mr. Harrison belongs to a new breed of church consultants aiming to equip pastors with modern marketing practices. Pastors say mystery worshippers like Mr. Harrison offer insight into how newcomers judge churches -- a critical measure at a time when mainline denominations continue to shed members and nearly half of American adults switch religious affiliations. In an increasingly diverse and fluid religious landscape, churches competing for souls are turning to corporate marketing strategies such as focus groups, customer-satisfaction surveys and product giveaways.
I can see some merit in this concept but it is kind of creepy. After all, is the most important thing about a church is the cleanliness of its bathrooms? Do water marks on the ceiling or worn carpets really matter? Does the presence of insects trying to flee the onset of winter doom a congregation's attempts to reach out to visitors? If so, my church is in trouble because we rent a 100 year old church building complete with drafty bathrooms, cracked plaster and creaky floors. Just yesterday I found a swarm of Asian beetles (they look like ladybugs) that got in through a crack.
The Reformers had a different set of criteria to judge whether a church was true or not: The right preaching of God's Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and church discipline. Those things are much more important than the presence of dust bunnies or an occasional spider web. When will we focus on the things that really matter?
I'm not alone in my concern. A writer from Out of Ur has also chimed in with his concerns. That's where I first saw this article.