Thoughts from a Church Secret Shopper


I often walk through a church service as a secret shopper. It’s my way to assess how aware and prepared a church is for a newcomer–specially one that might be outside of the faith. As I experience a weekend service for the first time, I try to answer the question that every first-time guest asks himself: “why should I come back here?” The question is not as much about musical style and preaching method as it is about connecting spiritually and emotionally. The Answer to that question begins at the parking lot and ends on the way home.

It’s not about any one thing, and, yet, it is about every single thing.

I’m not sure most pastors and church staff realize that newcomers want to like the church they chose to visit. They are looking for reasons to say, “I want to be part of this congregation.”  Whether they are apprehensive or down right afraid of the experience, excited or just wanting to please a friend or family member, deep down they want to enjoy it; they want to connect with God and with people.

Unfortunately many churches are not intentional about helping the unchurched, or the unchristian to find a connecting point. How many times church leaders have welcomed new people from the platform, but practically “uninvited” them by not having clear next steps for those who want to know more about the church. “We’re a very friendly church” I once heard. Well, they were definitely friendly to each other, but not so much toward someone new–as I was “crowded out” of a pew, that, obviously, belonged to a group of senior citizens–and was forced to move to another row. On another particularly painful visit, the church’s music minister greeted the congregation on Easter Sunday morning with glorious thundering welcome: “I see a lot of strangers here today.” Ouch.

My prayer for the Church is that we take Jesus’ words in Luke 14:23 to heart and find a ways to “compel” people to come in, and, as they come, we’ll learn to love them beyond the welcome time.

What’s the most awkward moment you have experienced in church?

  • I don’t know if it’s the most awkward, but I seriously loathe the forced greetings: “Turn to your neighbor and say ‘hello!'” as in… “We didn’t feel like taking the energy to say hello to you before service started, but now that the guy up front said that we have to, I will…” Urg. Leads to awful conversations, including, “Are you a visitor?” (what if I’m not?) Oh — makes me think of most awkward: “Turn to your neighbor and say ‘hello’!” No one spoke to our family, the visitors. Awkward.

  • Alecia Roberts

    My husband went to work in Afghanistan shortly after we moved to a new area where we didn’t know anyone.  I began visiting a church.  Though no one took an interest in welcoming me or getting to know me, I felt the pastor was feeding me scripturally and that I should continue to visit.  One Sunday following the service during which I placed a sizeable check into the offering plate, the pastor caught me off guard when he asked me to stand before the congregation and share a few words with the congregation.  I informed all who were there that my husband was working in Afghanistan, I was new to the area therefore didn’t have any friends locally to spend time with yet God had sustained me through it.  I had thought members of the church would take an interest in getting to know me over an invitation to coffee or lunch.  Not only did that NOT happen, no one offered to introduce themselves to me or to carry on a conversation.  I visited that church for three months. When I stopped visiting, I began receiving automated phone calls inviting me to their services.  AMAZING!

  • Last year, I was in the process of finding a new church to connect with. There were a few I went to where not one person even said hello to me. I didn’t go back.

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