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, and a professional mystery worshipper.
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, 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.
Harrison belongs to a new breed of church consultants aiming to equip pastors with modern marketing practices. Pastors say mystery worshippers like 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."
Some secular secret-shopping firms are seeking a toehold in the religious marketplace as well. Customer First, a national company with a database of 260,000 secret shoppers, has sent undercover worshippers to 20 churches in the last three years. Earlier this year, Guest Check, which specializes in hotels, spas, restaurants and golf courses, launched a pilot program for churches. It has dispatched shoppers to Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Unitarian congregations in Colorado and plans to expand the service to Washington, D.C.
The rise of these services has been buoyed by the growth of the secret-shopper industry. There are roughly one million secret shoppers in the U.S., according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Secret-shopper firms have expanded their reach in recent years from restaurants and stores to hospitals and public transport systems. Churches eager to adopt cutting-edge business practices have emerged as the latest market willing to pay for blunt advice. The cost can range from around $150 for a one-time visit to between $1,500 and $2,500 for multiple visits and a detailed report.
So far, secret-shopper services mainly target Christian churches, where declining "brand loyalty" among worshippers has become a common motif. A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which drew from interviews with more than 35,000 people, found that 44 percent of American adults have switched religious affiliations. Church leaders say they're seeking new ways to assess their services and evaluate everything from the style of music to how comfortable the pews are as they court fickle churchgoers.
Harrison, a 51-year-old former Assemblies of God minister who launched his secret-shopper service in 2006, charges about $1,500 plus travel expenses for a site inspection, worship-service evaluation and detailed report. He's inspected more than a dozen Protestant churches ranging in size from 50 to 5,000 members. He's yet to give his highest rating — five stars. Demand is growing: Harrison was recently tapped by Building God's Way, a church-consulting firm that works with 500 churches, to conduct undercover visits at 40 to 50 churches nationwide each year.
His critiques can be bruising, pastors say. "Thomas hits you with the faded stripes in the parking lot," says Stan Toler, pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City, who hires a secret shopper every quarter. "If you've got cobwebs, if you've got ceiling panels that leak, he's going to find it."
One weekend this past summer, Harrison drove up to Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, in a bright-red rented Chevrolet. Armed with a digital camera, he trolled the church's grounds and its new $13 million sanctuary, snapping shots of weeds growing in the parking lot, loose lighting fixtures and a fuse box missing a lid.
"Please cover as soon as possible," he wrote in his 67-page report. Few staff members were around on a stifling Saturday afternoon, but Harrison had a cover story just in case: He was a friend of the pastor's visiting from out of town, and was touring to get ideas before renovating his own church.
Before inspecting the church grounds, Harrison called Trinity early in the morning to test its voicemail, scrolled through the church's Web site and asked a clerk at a nearby copy shop if he knew anything about Trinity. The young man hadn't heard of it.
The next morning, Harrison — who has a round, dimpled face, a salt-and-pepper mustache and a talent for blending into crowds — arrived a few minutes before the Sunday worship service started. He strolled past the coffee bar where dozens of people chatted, past the electronic giving kiosk and into the cavernous, stadium-style sanctuary, where he sat alone in the eighth row.
Wearing a short-sleeved shirt rather than his usual suit and tie, Harrison fit into the boisterous, casually dressed crowd of 800 worshippers. He turned off his cellphone and filled out a visitor-information card. The lights dimmed as a 10-piece rock band took the stage and ripped into a rollicking song. Harrison discreetly scribbled notes onto a tiny pad tucked into his palm.
The church scored a solid four stars — three stars on hospitality and cleanliness, four on appearance and five on the worship experience. Harrison praised Trinity for using ushers ("I just think it's classy," he says) but hammered the church for its coolness toward visitors. "None asked my name. None asked about my church background. None asked about my spiritual condition. None invited me to return," he wrote in his report.
Trinity's pastor, Jim Hennesy, who has led the congregation for 14 years, says he frequently brings in consultants to make sure quality doesn't slip as his congregation grows. The church, which belongs to the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, now draws 3,000 people to its services, up from 1,000 members 14 years ago. It drew 1,200 new congregants this year.
"They see things we've grown accustomed to," Hennesy says of consultants. He doesn't always heed their advice, however. He differed with Harrison's critique of how his church treats visitors, noting that Trinity tries to make newcomers feel welcome without singling them out or putting them on the spot.
Harrison has had far worse experiences as an undercover worshipper. He's been knocked out of the pew — twice — when someone scooted over too quickly. Once, a woman reached right over him to shake a friend's hand without excusing or introducing herself, he says. And on more than one occasion, Harrison says he's caught congregants complaining about the pastor.
"I've had people tell me, 'You've come to the wrong service. Our pastor is speaking today; the associate pastor is much better,'" Harrison recalls. "I was horrified."
Raised in a Baptist household in Little Rock, Ark., Harrison says he wanted to be Walter Cronkite when he was a boy. He studied communications in college and managed several local radio stations in Oklahoma before getting ordained in 1993. He served as an associate pastor at three congregations around Oklahoma, and in 2005 launched his church-consulting firm, Media Embassy, which helps churches polish their media and public-relations skills.
Harrison stumbled upon the idea for his secret shopper service after reading a book called "The Five Star Church." Having been a secret shopper for a pizza restaurant in Broken Arrow, Harrison figured churches could benefit from similar scrutiny. So he contacted the author, Toler, and suggested a service based on the book. Toler liked the idea and offered to be the guinea pig. The results shocked him. "We came in at 3.5," Toler says.
Ron McCaslin, pastor of Cathedral of the Hills in Edmond, hired Harrison because his church was struggling to attract members even though the surrounding neighborhood was bustling with new residents. Harrison suggested changing the church's name and its billboard — a 25-year-old wooden sign with Old English-style lettering. He also recommended changing the worship music to make the early morning service traditional, with well-known hymns that appeal to an older crowd, and the later service more contemporary, with a lively band. The church now draws about 500 people to its weekend services, up from about 350.
Some theologians warn that mystery-worshipper services will drive "spiritual consumerism." Evaluating churches as if they were restaurants or hotels might encourage people to choose their church not according to its theology, but based on which one has the best lattes or day care, says Paul Metzger, professor of theology at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore.
"We tend to look for religion or spirituality that will give us what we want, when we want it," Prof. Metzger says. "There's a pressure for the church to be something that the church is not."
Others say that church shopping has become necessary for churches seeking to compete in an increasingly mobile and consumer-oriented society.
"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."
Harrison grades churches on a wide range of categories, using a colored-light system: green is good, yellow means caution, and red signals trouble. Here are a few details from a 67-page report on a Texas megachurch.
COMMENT: "The brick-paved island in front of Arena needs attention. Some weeds are growing through the cracks."
GRADE: Yellow Light
COMMENT: "Tissue boxes are placed at the end of each row. All looked tidy."
GRADE: Green Light
CATEGORY: Parking-lot greeters
COMMENT: "From the parking lot into the church, I was not greeted by anyone. Upon leaving church and returning to my car, I was greeted by very friendly man who wished me 'a good day.'"
GRADE: Yellow Light
CATEGORY: Greeters in the sanctuary
COMMENT: "I was not greeted upon entering the seating area in either service. In the second service, I even moved to a second area of the auditorium about 10 minutes into the service — but still no greeting."
GRADE: Red Light
COMMENT: "The message is appropriate and meaningful. It is challenging and inspiring."
GRADE: Green Light