Skip to main content

Mystery Shopping for a Church

A growing number of churches are hiring marketing companies to employ "mystery worshippers." Jeff WInkler spent a day grading a local church—and feeling guilty.
  • Author:
  • Updated:


“Stop rubbing your head,” the Significant Other said, after the nice church official walked away. "You look like you’re lying."

I’ve lied before. And a confessional of all the terrible things I’ve done in a church would be so vulgar as to offend even decent secularists. But I’d never lied in church before. I even abstain from the devotional declarations and Eucharist. So I rubbed my head again and asked for forgiveness. Because later, I’d be asking for a check.

MYSTERY WORSHIPPING, WHICH IS exactly like mystery shopping except with churches, has taken off in recent years. Such mystery programs got their first glimpse of the spotlight in 2008. Hard-ass mystery-worshipper Thomas Harrison was featured in the Wall Street Journal(he kinda comes across as an Anton Ego-esque character), and Church Check, an offshoot of mystery-shopping company Guest Check, was established. That same year, Melanie Smollen received approval from her Missouri-based marketing company, Hendrickson Business Advisors, to start a church-focused side project called Faith Perceptions. It started with 12 church clients. Faith Perceptions now evaluates 2,500 church services nationwide, using about 6,500 mystery worshippers. Judge not lest ye be paid.

Becoming a mystery worshipper is incredibly easy, especially if you’re an avid Craigslist surfer. A few clicks later, Faith Perceptions’ online form will ask for basic information and include general questions, like, “Why do you think you’d make a great mystery shopper?” Nervous about honestly explaining my lack of regular church attendance, I played up my background. Momma’s an ex-nun and Pops, an ex-sociology teacher, used to take me to a different denomination every Sunday for the socio-religious experience, after which we got donuts. (I didn’t mention the donuts, nor the tweenage Baptist ski trips, during which every boy but me received adulterous acts). A day later, Faith Perceptions accepted me as their personal critic and shopper.

“Candidates that are really ideal for us are people who don’t have a church home,” Smollen told me. “Because that’s quite honestly who the churches are trying to reach. They’re not trying to find somebody who already has a home church.”

This squares with what University of North Carolina marketing professor Andrew Petersen called “intrinsic versus extrinsic referral.” Basically, it’s best to market to “extrinsic” people moderately engaged in a product because they’ll then reach untapped audiences. Antagonists—like, say, devout Satinists—are obviously bad, but so is marketing to “intrinsic” folks with set brand-loyalty.

An intrinsic consumer is "just going to be the one who steps up and says, ‘In my heart, I just want to tell you how great this is,’” said Petersen. If that sounds vaguely religious that’s because, in church, it’s called “testifying.”

“A church is a not a business but they’re still wanting to make a profit, but it’s a very different type of profit. Their profit is for the Kingdom of God. Honestly, if that’s not their goal then they shouldn’t be doing that."

FAITH PERCEPTIONS PROVIDESA list of 16 things for mystery worshippers to rank on a scale of one to 10 during their visit. We’re also required to write extensively on our reasoning, although St. Augustine-level critiques aren’t necessary. Some of the items are seemingly mundane: parking (nice—didn’t get towed for docking the four-runner in a “compact car” spot); signage outside and inside (decent—we found the place and the bulletin board, while visible, wasn’t seizure-inducing like so many others); seating (quite good—pews lined with plush, red velvet); and the bathroom (clean as Disciples’ feet).

Those were the easy critiques. Then came the more difficult ones, for reasons entirely personal.

One item asks you to evaluate the church’s youth program. Both Smollen and an amateur marketer (who is tentatively writing a book on church marketing and preferred to remain nameless) told nearly identical stories about visitors leaving their children in the care of church teachers, only to be left in the dark about where their little babes had been shepherded and where they should be gathered. Call it a parable. Another important evaluable item is how the church members interact with strangers. This, both M-Dubbers noted, is often a problem area for houses of worship.

“A lot of churches are friendly, but they’re mostly friendly to each other, not to people on the outside,” said Smollen. “Not because churches want to be cold and unconcerned, they just don’t think about it.”

This, disconcertingly, was not the case at the church the S.O. and I attended. They treated us like angels. In fact, that really nice church official marked us as soon as we came through the sanctuary. Being around his age and appearing to need no immediate asylum, we were easily spotted. We’d barely sat down in the plush, red velvet pews before he came over, introduced himself, and asked all sorts of prying questions only acceptable in church or on Craigslist. That’s when I began rubbing my head. This continued when his wife, the youth leader, come over and chatted in the same manner. After that, the sweet old lady in front of us turned around.

Despite the now-constant stream of lies (like mystery shoppers, mystery worshippers cannot reveal themselves), diligence required an inquiry into the children’s services. I was filled with unholy guilt. Naturally, when the sweet old lady asked if we had any lambs of our own, I didn’t even bother with my standard reply (“Not that I know of!”). The conversation died uncomfortably fast.

THERE’S BEEN PLENTY OF hand-wringing where Christian marketing and mystery worshipping is concerned. The worry expressed in conversations about contemporary worship is that churches, particularly Christian ones, face serious tribulations in wooing folks away from the ever-increasing threat of unGodliness. Never mind the  saber-rattling about a War on Christians. The rise of self-identified secularism is real, both demographically and as a quasi-religion with its own icons and prophets. Although false idols were so much cooler when they weren’t granite benches.

Then there’s the other concern—repeated in nearly every article on Christian marketing—about becoming the enemy. One pastor called the recent push by Warner Bros. to promote Man of Steel, the continued “commodification of Christianity.”

Because churches feel they are losing the battle for relevance against formidable opponents like MTV and liberal Hollywood, the theory is that they must make sacrifices. Namely, diluting both principles and message by utilizing corporate techniques like marketing. Essentially, viewing people not as sinners but as under-valued consumers. “I hate to use the word ‘marketing’” said the amateur marketer, unprompted and a bit guiltily, “but churches need to know if people can find them online or if they’re not doing a good job.”

While it’s true that churches are using very contemporary ways to bring in members, and that the non-denominational identification (the “unbranded”) has increased slightly in recent years, church attendance actually went up in 2010 and has stayed relatively consistent among various age groups (shorter: old people like church). So with fears of a Heathen America a tad misplaced, perhaps concerns about appropriation of capitalistic tools in the “Christian Marketplace” are as well.

“The practice is the same, the end result is different,” explained Smollen. She knows a thing or two about both; her husband is a minister. “A church is a not a business but they’re still wanting to make a profit, but it’s a very different type of profit. Their profit is for the Kingdom of God. Honestly, if that’s not their goal then they shouldn’t be doing that."

SMOLLEN’S BUSINESS MODEL IS quite strong. She sends about 12 (hmmm!) mystery worshippers to the same church over a three- to four-month period for the best possible sampling. The result is a 100-page report “sliced and diced a number of different ways,” which she’ll review with select church leaders aware of the project.

Though all these services are done for the glory of God, they do require time and money. As a marketing professional, Smollen was naturally hesitant to discuss specific details regarding how much she charges, saying only that the options are “structured reasonably because ministries are not-for-profits” who are “good stewards of their money.” It’s just that they may not be the best stewards of people.

“The bottom line is,” Smollen said, “if I want to know if I’m making people brand new to my church comfortable, who better to ask then the very people who are brand new to my church.”

Not that secular marketing doesn’t have anything to offer.

“What I find interesting about [mystery] shopping is it actually causes you to think about how you evaluate things," Petersen said. "And when you actually go and you say, ‘I have to look at these things and I have to put them on paper.’”

That was certainly the case with what seemed like the most important item (No. 10) on the mystery worshipping evaluation form: The Message. The sermon was on “Security Systems,” which was a bit less exciting when it became clear the Reverend was talking about Luke 9:57-62, and not a parable about the recent NSA leaks. The idea that I’d miss my own parents’ funeral to disseminate the heavily edited transcripts of a stranger who died thousands of years before seems, at the very least, an insult to common decency. Most egregious, however, was the Reverend’s interpretation of Frost’s “A Road Less Traveled.” Her poetic analysis was such that it’d be impolite to discuss it at all. Suffice it to say that the Reverend’s reading of the poem was emphatically less ambiguous than Frost intended.

If this sounds unduly harsh, it’s only a consequence of earnestly wrestling with content of the sermon. I’d never actually done that before. Petersen suggested this forced engagement might be a clever way to get converts. While Smollen said she’s happy if/when unbranded people find a church, that isn’t her main goal.

“We never set out to be an evangelistic tool but we’re not going to turn anything like that away,” Smollen said. “That’s a win for everybody.”

THE WIN FOR EVERY mystery worshipper is a $45 check for services rendered, along with a nice helping of guilt in my case. Both the S.O. and I agreed that the really nice young couple were the kind of evangelicals we wouldn’t mind sitting down with for a cup of coffee and an acoustic guitar jam session. We both felt terrible for lying to such lovely people.

“Yeah,” said Petersen when I confessed this, “guilt is a whole ‘nother thing [compared to] the rest of the business world.”

It’s never a church that tries to make you feel un-cool for not needing some product—unsaved, perhaps, but never excluded. In fact, the church we attended invited everyone to partake in the Eucharist. No questions asked. The grape juice was sweet, the bread even sweeter. They even had a gluten-free option. I gave it a 10 out of 10.