I read an article a few weeks back about man named Greg Atkinson who visits different churches just about every week. When he attends, he usually loiters around the parking lots and restrooms, sizes up greeters and security, and even lurks around the nursery and children’s spaces. Because of his suspicious behavior, he’s been followed around and even detained by church members. One time he was even threatened with a Taser and nearly arrested.
Actually, Atkinson is not just some creepy guy who needs to be watched, he’s actually a “watcher” himself. He is a “secret shopper”–or in this case a “secret worshiper”–who is paid as a consultant by church leadership teams to come in and attend their services and evaluate and scrutinize every component of their Sunday morning experience. He provides praise for where the church does things right, and constructive criticism for where they are missing it, from a visitor’s perspective.
Atkinson has written a book on his experiences, due out later this fall, titled Secrets of a Secret Shopper.It will offer practical hints for churches that can’t afford his services to do their own self-evaluations to better improve their Sunday services, especially for their guests.
It’s always healthy to get the perspective of an outsider, especially when it comes to blind spots and habits that we tend to overlook. We always want our services at Shelby Crossings to be mindful of how much our guests feel welcome. Now that does not mean that we compromise our message so that they never feel uncomfortable. The message of the cross, and the gospel itself, can be downright offensive to those who want to live their lives independent of Christ. But as I remember someone saying a long time ago, we want our worship service to be “a safe place to hear a dangerous message.”
Whether we employ a mystery worshiper or not, it is important that we always put ourselves in our guests’ shoes and see our times together through their eyes, whether that be a Sunday morning worship service or Life Group, or an off-campus small group during the week. Do they feel welcome? Does anyone reach out and talk to them, and offer to help them find their way? Are we speaking in a foreign churchy language that they can’t even begin to understand if they don’t know all of our code words?
As we prepare for our services on Sunday, I always try to think of it in terms of “having company over.” Most of us would admit that when we know we have guests coming into our home we will straighten up the living room some, and do a little more cleaning that we would if you it was “just family.” Likewise, in church, we want to put our best foot forward for our guests every week, so that we can remove any barriers that would keep them from experiencing the presence of God in our midst and responding to the gospel.
Fundamental to our Sunday preparation is expectation, that there will be guests in the house, and that we need to be sure to look outside of ourselves to make sure they feel welcome. And quite frankly, that may be the hardest part. When we all come to worship to see what we can get out of it, it is easy to be self-absorbed and neglect the person next to us. But we must be purposely unselfish in reaching out with the love of Christ to those around us, even if it means stretching us outside of our own comfort zones.
Of course, there’s one more step in the process. If our preparation is predicated on our expectation that guests will come, our expectation is determined by our invitations. If we are inviting guests, and hoping and expecting them to show up, it will change the way we see things altogether. Be assured, when you invite, you expect, and when you expect, you prepare…and your whole mindset is different in how you do church.
So, here’s the challenge. First of all, who among your unchurched friends and neighbors do you need to invite to join us for worship on Sunday, or in your small group during the week? Reach out to them and offer them a sincere invitation. Secondly, open your eyes on a Sunday morning to see those around you who might be guests, and introduce yourself to them. Maybe even strike up a conversation, invite them to lunch, or even invite them to your group later in the week. And finally, let’s all gather together, “not looking out for your own personal interests, but for the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:4)
I am praying for you, and I can’t wait to see you this Sunday.