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someone who anonymously visits a church service in order to gather information about how good the service was and how welcoming people were
'GOD is watching us, so they say, but this weekend roles will reverse as a small band of mystery worshippers will sneak into churches all over London … to find out how good they actually are …
Churches in Wanstead, and one in particular which has already been the subject of a mystery worship, will be on their toes as everything from sermons to the price of a cup of tea and the comfort of the pews will be on the agenda.'Wanstead & Woodford Guardian 26th March 2005
An unfamiliar woman sits at the end of the pew and makes copious notes during the 10:30 family communion service. Was she particularly bored, and felt that she had to while away the time writing a few letters? Surely the sermon wasn't that boring, and the Sunday school choir were on particularly good form … If you are a regular church-goer and have asked yourself questions like these during recent months, then you may have witnessed the presence of a completely new brand of undercover researcher, the mystery worshipper.
anonymity is preserved throughout the assessment … the mystery worshipper's visit is later revealed through a calling card in the collection plate – by the time it is discovered, this ecclesiastical spy has been and gone
In recent years, mystery worshippers have anonymously visited churches all over the world, though mainly in Britain and North America. They have the specific aim of undertaking an unflinching evaluation of every aspect of a church service and its congregation's ability to make people feel comfortable and welcome. Mystery worshippers will ask practical questions such as: How long is the sermon? Do the seats or pews feel comfortable? What is the style of worship and music (i.e. 'happy-clappy or stiff-upper-lip')? They will also consider rather more serious issues such as: Does the service inspire my faith? The mystery worshipper is briefed specifically to 'hang around after the service looking lost' as a means of measuring the friendliness of the congregation – how did people respond to an unfamiliar face? Anonymity is preserved throughout the assessment. The mystery worshipper's visit is later revealed through a calling card in the collection plate – by the time it is discovered, this ecclesiastical spy has been and gone.
The mystery worshipper concept is the brainchild of Steve Goddard, a former marketing executive with Walmart. Goddard was familiar with the retail giant's use of mystery shoppers, market research staff posing as customers, to check the quality of service in its stores. In 1998, he co-founded the online Christian magazine Ship of Fools, which dubbed itself 'the magazine of Christian unrest'. Inspired by the mystery shopper concept, he launched the Mystery Worshipper Project with the intention of promoting a critical evaluation of churches and distributing information on the Ship of Fools site. Since then, the site has posted more than 1,000 reports and recruited many volunteer mystery worshippers. On April 24th 2005, the first city-wide event was undertaken, when over 100 Greater London churches were visited on what was referred to as Mystery Worshipper Sunday.
The derived term mystery worship is now also being used to refer to church services which are unwittingly assessed by a mystery worshipper.
This article was first published on 9th May 2005.