Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Give Me That Five-Star Religion

There are secret shoppers, who tattle on the clerks who yack with their friends when they should be helping you find the next larger size in those jeans. There are sub rosa diners, who let management know that the soup was salty and the waitron haughty.

Through an article by Alexandra Alter in the Wall Street Journal, I learned last week that there are also mystery worshippers who rate churches on both godliness and cleanliness. (As if religion weren't enough of a mystery....)

As for the ratings:

No friendly greeting? Ding!

Weeds sprouting up in the brick walkways? Ding!

Boring sermon? Ding!

No surprise, I guess, given that religion is a pretty big business. And given that, according to a Pew survey cited in the article, 44% of American adults have switched brands, errrrr, religious affiliation.

We are, after all, a nation of consumers who like to shop around.

Most of the action is with the large Christian churches with congregations in the thousands, which have taken a very pro-marketing approach to getting folks through the door and keeping them there. The mystery worship biz has become an off-shoot of marketing firms that specialize in things-Christian.

Mainstream secret shopper companies are branching out and offering church evaluation services, too.

I was intrigued by the mention that one of the secular secret shopper companies had run a pilot project of the concept, and had done work for several denominations, including Unitarian and Catholic.


I thought that the only marketing Unitarians did was word of mouth among ex-Catholics.

And just what do Unitarian sermons get dinged on? Failure to ask enough questions?

But the idea of mystery worshippers at Catholic churches completely cracks me up.

Sure, the Church has sent mystery worshippers out for years, but the ones I've heard about were mostly to liberal congregations so they could spy on what the priests were saying.

I know that things have changed, but the Catholic Church of my youth would have found the entire notion of mystery worshipper preposterous.

First off, in those days, you didn't get to shop around: you belonged to the parish you lived in. Almost period, almost end of story. The almost was because, if you wanted to belong to an ethnic parish, you were free to do so. We had a Polish-American family on our street who went to Our Lady of Czestochowa.

This, of course, set them apart from everyone else in the neighborhood, but it was okay with the Church. If you lived in Worcester and were French, Polish, Lithuanian, or Italian, you could join Notre Dame, Our Lady of Czestochowa, Our Lady of Vilna, or Mount Carmel.

But that was the extent of freedom of choice.

And why would the Church of my youth have cared what you thought about the way you were treated or greeted?

If you didn't go to Mass every Sunday, it was a mortal sin and you were going to hell.

With the fires of hell hanging over you, who was going to jump ship because of a little scum in the holy water font.

Today's mystery worshippers rate the cleanliness of the church bathrooms.

Well, there didn't used to be any such thing in the churches of my youth.

In case of a real emergency, you could use the toilet in the rectory. But this had to be a real emergency. Even then, the housekeeper would treat you as if you had come to steal money from the collection plate. Although I wouldn't know, as I never once had to use a toilet at any point during my church-going career.

And rating the sermons?

Captive audience, baby. You sat, and you listened. Or you sat and stared off into space. Or, as I saw once, read Lady Clairol hair-dying directions, which she had tucked into her missal.

We had our own rating on confession: you tried never to go to Monsignor Lynch, because he not only listened to your sins and actually commented occasionally, but he gave a comparatively hefty penance: Five Our Fathers, Five Hail Marys, Five Glory Bes.

So, nascent worship consumers that we were, we tried to avoid Msgr. Lynch.

Of course, since we went to confession supervised by nuns, they always managed to force some of us into the line for Msgr. Lynch.

Msgr. Lynch, by the way, was the priest who heard the one and only non-rote (I-fought-with-my-sister-I-talked-back-to-my-mother-I-lied-to-my-father) confession of my life. My big sin was this: I had bitten my fingernails and, although I knew I had broken the then-required three-hour fast, I went and received communion, anyway. Since knowingly breaking the fast and receiving communion was a mortal sin, I figured I had a mortal sin to confess.

Msgr. Lynch didn't quite see it that way.

He told me, "Don't be foolish."

I realize now that he was being quite rational, but at the time it was a true shocker, since he was pretty much contradicting what we were told by the nuns on a regular basis.

But back to the mystery worshippers.

"My competition is Cracker Barrel restaurant down the street," says Pete Wilson, pastor of CrossPoint Church in Nashville, Tenn., who regularly enlists a secret shopper to evaluate his 2,000-person congregation. "If they go in there and are treated more like family than when they come to CrossPoint Church, then it's lights out for me."

So to compete with Cracker Barrel more effectively, churches hire the likes of Real Church Solutions, which tees up its "Shopper Program" with a bit of F.U.D.


The provide a "3-step, comprehensive church evaluation resource for churches."

They make no bones about who they're sending. They call it a "Secret Shopper." And after the "Secret Shopper" makes an unannounced visit, the team evaluates the strengths and weaknesses, then debriefs the church staff.

In the WSJ article, they price the service-services out at $1500 to $2500 for visit and report. But for the church marketing companies, the "Secret Shoppers" can be the thin edge of the wedge.

It is common for church leaders to retain Real Church Solutions for ongoing coaching or consulting at the completion of this evaluation. RCS is available to expand the findings of the Church Secret Shopper Program into a specially designed leadership training, church growth plan, or staff leadership training, depending on the interest of the church leadership.

No mystery here. This is business baby.

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