Spies in Church

When I was in seminary I heard stories about certain countries sending students to American seminaries to study missions.  No big deal, pretty cool actually, right?  Sure, unless it is a country that is closed and hostile to the gospel.  Apparently the potential exists for these countries to send students as “undercover spies” to learn the strategies and methods of missionaries who are posted in countries where preaching the gospel is outlawed.  These “students” then return home and set up sting operations to catch missionaries and persecute them.  That’s a pretty scary scenario.  The good news is that I also heard stories about these individuals, who as a part of their undercover mission are required to take classes in Bible and theology, were so touched in the heart by the gospel message that they converted and embraced Christ.

That, however, is not the kind of spies that this article is referring to.  Today’s article deals with spies in church.  These spies aren’t sinister, they’ve actually been hired by the churches that they visit.  Many retail businesses retain the services of “secret shoppers” to visit their stores and evaluate customer service.  In this same way, it has become popular for churches to hire people to visit and provide an evaluation of their experience so that weakness can be addressed.  Chuck Lawless, Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary wrote an article about the most commonly reported problems these undercover church visitors discovered.

If someone visited your Sunday School class next week and did an undercover evaluation, what would they find?


Below are the findings from Lawless’ article, and a comment of mine regarding how our church might be evaluated in each category. 

1. Church websites are often outdated, boring . . . and useless.

We typically tell the spy only the name of the church and the city, and we ask him/her to learn about the church first from the website. More than one spy has called us to say he cannot find the service times, isn’t convinced the map is correct (if there is one), called a phone number no longer in order, cannot determine the church’s basic beliefs, or thinks the church will be old and boring based on their Internet presence.

We recently had a couple visit, who informed me that they first heard about PSBC by discovering mypsbc.org.  I took that opportunity to inquire about the helpfulness of our website.  I was relieved to hear that they were impressed, and found it very informing.  I know that our web site is a major tool for connecting with new people, as is our church Facebook page.  Both sites connect with more and more people weekly.  Anyone wishing to help with these digital gateways should contact me to find out more.

2. Churches are not friendly.

Our spies know to take note of how many people greet them apart from a time when the worship leader tells the congregation to welcome one another. More often than not, no one greets our representative before or after the service. Churches are friendly, but most often only to people they already know. I once served as a spy myself, and the church greeter escorted me to the “friendliest class in the church” – where not one of 60+ attendees spoke to me!

We had an article recently which evaluated our friendliness as a church.  We cannot have too many reminders though, that friendliness can’t be banked.  It has to be displayed each and every week, and it has to be authentic.

3. Church facilities are not generally marked well.

Church signs often have more cluttered information than a person can read when driving by. Guest parking – if any exists – is not apparent until an automobile is far into the parking lot. In larger buildings, which entrance is best to use is not clear. Signage inside the building is not helpful. In some cases, the church can be an easy place to get lost!

This is an area in which we must improve.  We need to do an evaluation of signage and have someone make some practical suggestions for improvement.  I have some ideas about small sandwich signs which could be placed outside main entrances each Sunday directing people to the sanctuary , and children’s areas.  Let me know if you would like to help with this.

4. Churches aren’t prepared for guests.

Sometimes there is no guest parking. Often there is no welcome center (or there is an unmanned welcome center!). Our spies have attended churches with no means to secure contact information from guests. Some have attended small groups that gave our spies no study material for the day. I can count on both hands the number of churches that later followed up with our spies – who were, to the church’s knowledge, their guests.

We make a strong effort each week to follow up with guests through pastoral contacts, the Cookie Crew, and through Sunday School.  As far as I can tell we have adequate guest parking, though we need some parking designated for parents with small children or expectant mothers near the children’s wing.  We have an attractive welcome area in a prominent location, and Darlene Bacon does a wonderful job of keeping it staffed.  Again, this area requires vigilance each week.  If you would like to join in these efforts, please contact me.

5. Churches are poorly equipped for protecting children.

If our spies take their children with them, we tell them not to do anything that makes them wary in releasing their children to child care workers. If the children’s area is not secure, if the worker does not require needed information, or if our spies simply feel uncomfortable, they keep their children with them. That happens quite often.

We are taking strong steps in our preschool and children’s department to build a culture of security.  Required background checks on all workers, detailed registration with emergency contact information, and strict attention to who is allowed in and around children/preschool classes are just a few of the ways we are strengthening this area of our church life.  If we are to be a church that strengthens families, we must be a safe place for families to bring their children.

6. Worship through music often needs improvement.

Our spies understand that churches have different worship styles, and they know to contextualize their assessment as much as possible. What we hear from them is that worship through music is often poorly done, regardless of style. Musicians have not practiced, lyrics are difficult to sing, and leaders lack passion.

Our worship service is without a doubt, one of the great strengths of PSBC.  Credit is due to Christopher, but also our dedicated and skilled musicians, choir members, and sound/light technicians.

7. Churches are not always clear in “what to do” in response to worship.

We ask our spies to do their best to think as the unchurched, particularly in trying to follow the direction of worship. Too often for my comfort, our folks reported they would not have known what to do if they wanted to follow Christ, join the church, or deal with a sin issue. I can only wonder if others left the same way.

This is probably an area in which we can improve as well.  We need to provide clear instructions in spoken word and in writing for new and unchurched people as to how they might respond if they feel led.

These are a few of my first reactions to an interesting approach regarding church evaluation.  What are your thoughts about these findings?  Again, how might your Sunday School fare in such an evaluation?

Categories: Sunday School, Wants to Grow | Leave a comment

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