‘Mystery worshipper’ scheme could go nationwide
by Jennifer Gold
Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2008, 11:07 (GMT)
Following the highly successful ‘mystery worshipper’ trial in December and January, the researchers behind the pilot project are now looking into the possibility of rolling out the programme nationwide.
The mystery worshipper programme is based on the ‘mystery shopper’ scheme that has become an established tool in the business sector, helping retailers in particular identify their strengths and areas in need of development.
In the pilot project, 13 mystery worshippers, who are not regular churchgoers but paid mystery shoppers for research organisation Retail Maxim, were enlisted to evaluate churches across the Midlands, all of which were unaware of the visits. They looked at warmth of welcome, length of sermon and style of music, among other aspects of the church service.
The inspectors were generally impressed with what they found, with the churches involved averaging a rating of 85 per cent, and five churches scoring a full 100 per cent, reports The Baptist Times.
Evesham minister, the Rev Edward Pillar, told the newspaper that he was “chuffed to bits” with the findings of their mystery worshipper.
Now the researchers behind the pilot project, the Christian Research Organisation and Christian Resources Exhibition, are exploring the potential of a nationwide service which would allow churches to pay for a professional, non-church-going evaluator to join in worship services and return a quality report back to the church, reports Baptist Times.
Benita Hewitt, chief executive of CRO, told The Baptist Times that a national mystery worshipper programme could be in place as quickly as May.
“I come from the commercial sector, where the practice of using a mystery visitor to assess an organisation is normal,” she said.
“I wondered if it could be adapted to churches, to show areas where they are doing well, and to highlight how they can better meet people's needs.
“We found we were able to do that, and were pleasantly surprised by the findings.”
She said that CRO and CRE were in discussions about the expansion of the programme.
“We have a lot of research to do, to see how much churches would consider paying for this, but that is what we are looking at,” she said.
Stephen Goddard is public relations consultant at CRE and co-editor of Ship of Fools, which has already been running a voluntary mystery worshipper service for the last 10 years.
He believes that mystery worshippers could help churches make more tailored preparations for Back to Church Sunday, in which churches across the UK send out thousands of invitations to lapsed Christians inviting them back to church. This year’s Back to Church Sunday takes place on 28 September.
Mr Goddard said, “These are professionally trained researchers from a non-church background looking for things like eye contact, help with directions and other measurable things, while Ship of Fools is much more impressionistic.
“The advantage is that it's using someone who doesn't normally come to church. That person is the eyes and ears of an outsider, and it's sometimes easy to forget the outsider.
“There are possibilities, and at this stage I must stress they are notional, of whole denominations or dioceses paying for a pilot project, and of using it to help churches prepare for Back to Church Sunday.”
Mrs Hewitt said, “We thought the results were astonishing. The researchers had not been to church for several years, and were surprised and excited by what they found.
“I think in many churches, the love of God really shone through. There was a genuinely warm welcome to the stranger.
“I think the trial shows that churches can have more confidence in what they do.”
The Rev Ian Bunce, head of the Baptist Union of Great Britain's Mission Department, expressed his support for the mystery worshipper programme and its possible extension, saying that churches should constantly review how they welcome strangers.
“I think churches should always be looking at how they welcome new people,' he told the newspaper.
“For people who don't go to church, they don't know what's behind that solid door. 'It's as culturally alien as it would be for a Baptist to go into a betting shop. You would get through the door and then would not know what to do.”
He pointed to the use of non-churched people as a particular strength of the mystery worshipper scheme. “And it's very encouraging that they found a great story,” he added.
Evesham’s Rev Pillar added: “The first I knew about the mystery worshipper visit to Evesham was very much after the event.”
“If people in Evesham are to make a spiritual journey with us then surely we can at the very least try to make their first, often uncertain steps, as painless as possible and hopefully as kindness-filled as possible.
“Love and kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness go a long way as we welcome people to make their journey with us.”