Some churches experience a visit from a mystery worshipper. What is a mystery worshipper you may ask? It is a person who comes to your church in order to write a report on it; the ecclesiastical version of an Ofsted inspection. This sort of thing is not sanctioned by the diocese however, it’s usually an individual initiative. The Ship of Fools, a Christian satirical website encouraged its readers to be random mystery worshippers, and the results of their visits were posted on line for all the world to see.
There are many stories about the welcomes strangers have received. The best one I heard was of a single man who dropped in to a church and sat down. Immediately he was ordered to move and sit elsewhere because he was in a regular worshipper’s favourite pew. He complied and sat at the back, where he was instantly recognised as the Bishop designate. Sadly I never got to find out what happened next.
I went for lunch with a clergy colleague and she suggested that we take note of the welcome we received at our lunch venue and see if it offered any pointers for the welcome our churches offer. There was a spacious car park. The door to the pub was open and welcoming. Inside was warm and comfortable. So far, so good. The barman however looked bored and remained sullenly uncommunicative. The waitress approached our table, said “Hello” brightly, and asked me how I was. However she did not look at my friend, or greet her or ask her how she was. Had she been trained, I wondered, to use this form of words? It seemed to us that she had in effect addressed the table, not the people sat at it. I once experienced a welcome at a church like this. From the strange and awkward conversation that I had, I deduced that the person who ‘welcomed’ me was clearly following a script; once he discovered that I was already a Christian, he dropped me like a hot stone and went off to speak to another person in case they were one of ‘the lost’. The result was that despite the fact that the ‘welcomer’ had been trained to welcome, I didn’t feel welcomed, in fact quite the opposite, I was left in no doubt that they considered speaking to me was a complete waste of their time. Some places however do it well. In another church where I was a stranger I was approached by someone who engaged me in conversation. They found out a little about me and then introduced me to someone who shared a common interest.
At the pub where my colleague and I were conducting our ‘research’ something strange happened and I’m still trying to decide what I think about it. A man in shorts and a t-shirt came up to the table and asked if we were all right. I said “Yes we are, thank you.” It seemed strange that a fellow diner should approach us like this. But then he started to clear empty glasses away. So it became obvious that he worked there. But he didn’t introduce himself so I asked “Are you the manager?” “No, the owner.” At that point I introduced myself as the vicar of Hockley Heath and Packwood. He didn’t tell me his name. I managed to engage him in a few words of conversation but he was soon gone. We wondered why the owner was waiting on tables. Were we to be impressed by this? Or were they short-staffed that day? That could explain why he didn’t stop to chat. Or was he the kind of manager who likes to see things at the coal-face? His mode of dress was momentarily confusing. There is a tendency among some clergy not to wear a clerical collar, but in my experience people like to know who they are dealing with. Would you take orders from a policeman who was not wearing a uniform?
I don’t know what a mystery worshipper would make of St.Giles and St.Thomas churches. I dare say that they would see things differently to us. Perhaps they may offer insights that we could benefit from. But I am very pleased by the welcome our two churches offer. Many times I have seen people talk to strangers after a service. Most of us are skilled at talking to people and making them feel at ease. I pray that we will continue to use our common sense and be open and sensitive to strangers in our midst, not because they might number among ‘the lost’ or be mystery worshippers, but because they are human beings.