Mystery worshipper

In my job, I have opportunity (and feel slightly obligated) to attend other churches. The experience of walking into an unfamiliar worshipping community has become quite familiar. So there’s less raw emotion & fear of rejection, and more clinical detachment & analysis of patterns in my approach to the situation.

Frankly, as a single person, I’m fairly accustomed to walking into places by myself, and as an ambivert, I’m equally comfortable with lurking around the edges without speaking to anyone and being greeted and dragged into conversation. As far as churches in my denomination go, I generally know a fair bit about the church and its pastor(s). So I recognize that my perspective may not be shared by others.

I realized, walking into a strange church last Sunday, that I was kind of a “mystery worshipper” – a stranger who goes into a service and provides commentary on it.

Perhaps unlike some mystery worshippers, there are certain theological emphases I look for in churches of my denomination, particular words I want to hear and some I don’t. I look around the sanctuary to look for any suggestions of diversity in what is generally a visibly homogeneous congregation. I observe how many voices are heard from the stage and whether there’s any gender diversity there.

The congregational singing is always interesting. It’s less important that the band be professional, though I do always hope for solidly competent with a leader who knows how to lead, not merely sing into a mic. Does the congregation sing along? Do they know how to harmonize? (The presence of hymnals – albeit ragged, stained and neglected – in the pew pleased me as did the singing of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but my enjoyment of an acapella verse was severely marred by the fact that I couldn’t hear a single voice other than my own singing the lovely, simple, moving alto line. On the other hand, robust man-singing almost made up for it.)

However, much of this is theory, semantics. I don’t want to reinvigorate worship wars. We all could probably bear having some of our linguistic tics pointed out. Where the rubber truly hits the road with mystery worshipper visits is the friendliness quotient.

This is probably one of the hardest to change, because it’s not just tweaking wording or shifting programming; it costs something to be friendly. Something is required of us to welcome a stranger.

Hospitality, in fact, is not free – it demands we give something of ourselves.

This church was halfway there. I was warmly greeted at the door by professional smilers who held the door open to usher me in. But there’s a reason Wal-mart greeters are a stereotype calculated for dismissal. An obligatory greeting is better than none...but not by much. There’s really no exchange in that interaction; the script has been written to keep things moving along. Greeters aren’t bad, they just don’t count toward a genuine sense of actually meeting someone at church to lay the possibility of a relationship, which, I think, is a big part of what we are looking for in a church home. That’s why we use the language of family.

Similarly, whatever version of the passing of the peace/turn-and-greet-your-neighbour a church does is a worthy practice (regardless of the distress it may cause the shyest introverts), but unless people are doing more than handshaking and peace-invoking, it will not create the impression in the visitor that hospitality has occurred.

I walked out of the church without a single individual having addressed me as a human being rather than an obligation.

I don’t necessarily judge, for in such a large church, how is one to know who is new and who simply sat in a different part of the sanctuary, or came to the early service instead of the late one.

And even in a small church like my own, it is so easy to turn to my friends and begin to share an experience, or to start running down the list of people I need to speak with on committee issues.

But if community really is a value, and if God’s love for us is to be experienced personally and individually, not facelessly or collectively, we need to make sure that anyone who walks through our doors gets a taste of our belief that each person is created in the image of God, loved deeply and fully by God, and therefore, of value to us too.

I’m a proponent of commitment to a local church body, but I do think any regular churchgoer should on occasion put him or herself in a strange-to-me church situation, preferably alone. Seeing another body’s rhythms from an outside perspective provides helpful insights for what works well or doesn’t in your own community, and helps you experience what it’s like to be the outsider. 


Part of me definitely misses the anonymity - the way I used to be able to in and out without so much as a peep from anybody at my former church. But at the same time part of me questions why that can happen in a church that's supposed to be a family. And that's the paradox for someone like me who finds people exhausting - the church should be a place to be comfortable and friendly and blah blah blah, but sometimes you just don't have the (mental) energy to spend on all that stuff - even if it's good stuff.

I've enjoyed the few times in my past I went to different churches on my own because I could go in and out without acknowledgement, see what other communities are doing, get some good thoughts from a sermon, and not feel judged for not singing.

But you're right, that 'community' feeling should really never be lacking in a church setting.
kar0ling said…
Thanks for sharing your perspective, Eric. It's good to be reminded that the glad handing can be stressful for introverts. I guess we need to figure out how to do community well for extroverts and introverts.

And thanks for the subtle jab at my postscript argument. ;) We also need to leave room different ways of participation and appreciation.
I know this is off topic of your main post, but it's related to your postscript so I thought I'd share. Because when I came across the following portion in Andy Stanley's book Deep & Wide, I suddenly felt understood and warm inside.

'It is important for song leaders to remember that there is a segment of our population that doesn't like to sing ... I remind our song leaders from time to time that they aren't doing anything wrong. Some people just don't like to sing. And that's okay. And please don't guilt people into singing. An individual's willingness or unwillingness to participate in corporate singing is not a reflection of his or her commitment to Christ or spiritual maturity.'

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