Mystery worshippers spy on church
By Mags Storey | Ontario Correspondent
Steve Goddard and other mystery worshippers have been visiting churches for over 10 years. PHOTO: COURTESY SHIP OF FOOLS
LONDON, ENGLAND–For the past 10 years, Steve Goddard and others like him have been secretly visiting churches worldwide to evaluate them on the divine and benign–including the welcome, worship, preaching, seating and the quality of the coffee.
Goddard came up with the idea for Mystery Worshippers while working as a mystery shopper, and the idea took flight in 1998 when he and friend Simon Jenkins launched UK Christian humour website www.ship-of-fools.com
“Being a mystery worshipper is weird,” Goddard says, “because you’re not in church to worship–you are there for sleuthing.
“You have to put a mystery worshipper calling card in the collection plate, and you have to do it surreptitiously or you will be identified–which is hard in congregations of 12 people. Some mystery worshippers have been discovered and escorted to the pastor’s study to explain themselves.
“We also ask our mystery worshippers to stand around after the service looking lost, which is difficult because you have to look really sad and miserable. It’s terribly nerve-wracking.”
Thousands of churches and events have been visited so far, including the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI and the funeral of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Eleven of the 155 churches hit last year were in Canada–including Saint Roch in Quebec City, whose congregation was “friendly without being pushy.” At St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto, the sermon was “scripturally dense, but relatively easily to follow.” At St. James Vancouver, the mystery worshipper met Bear, the parish dog.
Loretta Jaunzarins is a Ship of Fools fan and pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hamilton. She was shocked when a mystery worshipper’s calling card was discovered in her collection plate after her Sunday service.
“I thought this is it, I’m doomed!” says Jaunzarins, who had just preached an unconventional sermon on U2. “But we got a good review. We were happy with it.”
Churches are given the opportunity to respond online. After St Paul’s Cathedral in Regina was chastised for the pattern on its green vestments, a deacon contacted Ship of Fools to explain it was an aerial view of the prairies. One UK congregation demanded an apology after a report prompted its ushers to quit. Another accused their priest of creating a fake review lavishly praising himself.
“We had one minister pin a bad report up on the notice board in the church with a sign saying: ‘We must do better,'” Goddard says. “We’ve even had churches asking us to send them a mystery worshipper.”
Critics of the reviews point out they are unrepresentative and biased–something which Goddard acknowledges.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he says, “because it gives an insight into the mystery worshippers themselves as well as the church.”
West Edmonton Christian Assembly is a growing and active evangelical church with a wide range of spiritual and practical community programs. But a visiting mystery worshipper all but ignored this in an extremely critical review which instead derided their physical appearance, dress sense and “very narrow” theology.
“We found their review by accident and laughed our heads off,” says senior associate pastor Dave Wood, whom the reviewer accused of playing a “weird” piece of music “that sounded like a pig being threaded through a meat grinder.”
“Some of it was incredibly biased,” he says, adding the reviewer was “highly critical” of their evangelical, Bible-based world view. “We found some of it challenging. But some was just nuts.”
“A complete outsider is much more aware of minor things than a church-goer,” Goddard says. “It is a massive issue crossing the threshold of a church for the first time.”
“If I need a kick, give me a kick,” Jaunzarins adds, “I always pray that God sends us the people that we need each Sunday–even mystery worshippers.”