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When being an unbeliever qualifies you for a church job

By Jennifer S. Hendrickson

“Get Paid to Go to Church.” This headline appears in classified ads all over Missouri, and it’s catching the attention of unchurched individuals everywhere. It’s not a gimmick or a scam. It’s a mystery visitor program designed to provide feedback to church leaders on how their worship services are experienced by first-time visitors.

The program is similar to mystery shopping which businesses have used for a long time to enhance their customer experience. Churches are now using the same theory to create a more inviting experience for their visitors.

Ron Watts, senior pastor of La Croix Church in Cape Girardeau, MO, which has 2,000-plus in weekly attendance, is one of 25 churches in the state to engage a consulting firm to help guide church growth. He explains: “I know why someone attends a worship service and decides to stay because I get to ask them. What I don’t know is why someone attends a service once and never comes back.”

Watts admits that when the concept of utilizing mystery visitors was first introduced to him, he was interested but also cautious. “We knew that we might not like some of the things we learned about our church in this process, but if we are to do a better job of reaching those outside the church, we need to know.”

Faring better and worse

After receiving the church’s first report, Watts confirmed that it was a good investment. Some categories were better than expected and some fared worse, but all of the feedback was helpful. La Croix is currently implementing changes and are anxious to see how those changes are perceived by the next round of visitors.

Watts was so encouraged by the idea of hiring mystery visitors that he introduced the concept to Bob Farr, director of Congregational Excellence with the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church. Farr is charged with a revitalization mission called the “Healthy Church Initiative.” The Healthy Church Initiative helps many congregations identify and overcome obstacles to vitality.

“Before we started using secret shopper reports, there was a missing piece to the puzzle: We didn’t know what was happening on Sunday morning. Now we are armed with more information and can help the churches fully address their needs,” Farr says.

Farr’s team generally write five prescriptions for each church to help in the revitalization effort. Since employing the mystery visitor program, Farr has found the consultants are able to write one or two of the prescriptions based on the data found in the 12-visit report. “It just adds a whole new dimension in our quest to better understand why the church is declining in membership and how we can help get them back on the path to growth,” he reports.

Never same visitor

The firm sends a different unchurched individual to attend client churches each week and aggregates the written and numerical responses into quarterly reports. This feedback is instrumental in identifying changes that should result in increased attendance and membership.

Common themes that have developed from the shoppers include:

  • While congregations may be friendly, they really mean they are friendly to each other. The mystery visitor can feel lost and excluded.
  • Some churches have greeters at the beginning of the service, but neglect to offer support and guidance for new-comers after the service is concluded.
  • Signage in the larger church is an issue. If there are multiple entrances, visitors don’t know where to enter or where to go once they’re inside.
  • Often the language on the sign is “internal speak.”

Mystery visitor programs, focus groups, community surveys and congregation surveys are tools that help churches of all denominations reach people in a more effective way. Remember, it’s not about the “headline,” it’s what you do with the knowledge gained.

Jennifer S. Hendrickson is president of Hendrickson Business Forms, Cape Girardeau, MO. [www.faithperceptions.com]

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