The Mystery Worshipper
by Alexandra Alter
The Wall Street Journal
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.
At least half a dozen consulting companies have introduced secret-church-shopper services in recent years. The A Group, a Brentwood, Tenn., marketing firm for churches and faith-based groups, now conducts mystery-worshipper surveys at 15 to 20 churches a year, up from a handful five years ago. Church marketing company Real Church Solutions in Corona, Calif., introduced mystery-worshipper services five years ago. "First-time guests, they don't come with mercy, they come with judgment," says the company's president, Chris Sonksen. "They're looking for a reason to leave."