This article first appeared in a guest blog for The Exchange at Christianity Today. You can go here or just stay put and keep on reading.
I get that some people reject faith in God and therefore will never darken the door of another church, but what I can’t accept is that some people don’t come back because they felt rejected by the church.
Question: How many people have visited your church in the past year?
Tougher question: How many never came back?
Deep, soul searching question: Why?
Unchurched people are more skeptical than ever about attending church. Yet there are scores of people that visit churches every weekend, searching for something. So why aren’t they returning, and does it have anything to do with what they experience when they get there?
“I didn’t feel the church was at all very welcoming. In the 25 minutes I spent there outside of the actual service, nobody spoke with me. Although everyone seemed to be talking with each other, no one found the time to talk with me.” – Excerpt from a Mystery Guest Report.
Unfortunately, I read comments like that all the time in our research. And, the truth is, unless you’re new yourself, it’s hard to really know what a person encounters when they visit your church for the first time. The only real way to know what guests are experiencing in your church is to get unbiased feedback by someone outside of your own system. What you learn may be tough to hear, but not hearing it is even more difficult in the end.
Before we go any further, let’s unpack what “unbiased” is (and is not):
Unbiased means someone who is neutral or impartial. It doesn’t mean you go ask your Aunt Betty to visit your church and tell you what she thinks. And no, you can’t use a member from your clergy friend’s church across town. Why? For the same reason I don’t ask my husband if the dress I’m wearing makes me look fat. I already know what his answer will be and he’s not about to stick his hand in a bear trap. People you know aren’t as willing to give you honest feedback because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings.
Since mystery guests attend the church anonymously and submit their thoughts to us – not you – they’re not afraid to tell the truth because they have no affiliation with your church (or any other church for that matter). These are the kind of people that represent who you are trying to reach, so their thoughts and opinions are going to be the most valuable in helping your church improve the way you welcome guests into your church.
Three things you’ll get by bringing mystery guests into your church:
- Gain perspective. You are about to see your church through a lens that you’ve never seen it through before: The guest lens. Prepare yourself. You’re going to see what it’s like to visit your own website and try and find worship times or information on children’s ministries. You’ll learn what it’s like to find a place to park, and walk through doors (assuming you can find the right door), and face a crowd of people you’ve never met before. You’ll know if people are friendly, what it’s like to maneuver your way to the restroom using only signs, or how comfortable parents feel checking their kids into your Sunday school or kid’s ministry. You’ll see how easy it is to follow along with the elements of the service, and you’ll know when someone fills out the information card if they were actually contacted.
“I let my kids go up for the children’s time with the pastor, and when it was over they left with the rest of the kids. I had no idea where they were going, who the leader was, or how I would get them back!” – Excerpt from a Mystery Guest Report.
- See your blind spots.
The problem with having blind spots is that you don’t know you have them therefore you don’t ever do anything about them.
What if you knew that guests didn’t have a clue about your Sunday school or that you have a welcome center? What if you learned that a new family tried to visit last Sunday, but found themselves alone because service times had changed and nobody updated the website? (Write that one down – we see it a lot). Imagine what you could do if you knew the reasons people aren’t becoming part of your church.
- Know where you have opportunities to improve. If you’re like a lot of churches, you may have ideas about what the problems are and how to fix them. To quote a good friend of mine, “I’m probably not going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but you may be walking past things you can no longer see.” Mystery Guests help you see what you can’t see on your own, but they also tell you how to make it better.
Wanting things to be better means we have to be willing to get feedback. Honest feedback. Having mystery guests visit your church gives you the ability to walk a mile in your visitor’s shoes. Then it’s up to you to take action and make future Sundays the most welcoming they can be.
About Faith Perceptions
Faith Perceptions is a market research firm that provides churches and faith-based organizations with research about their target market. We send mystery guests into churches across the country each week to report back to us on what their experiences are like. We use this information to help churches improve the way they welcome and connect with guests. Faith Perceptions has been evaluating the first-time guest experience since 2008.