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‘Mystery guests’ help assess friendliness at Tennessee church

At his favorite coffee shop, Dale Jenkins identifies his target: the stranger he’ll invite to be a “mystery guest.”

The preacher will offer the person two $10 gift cards to visit his church that Sunday — one card now and the other when the guest reports back Monday.

“I tell them we are needing some help determining if we are a friendly church,” said Jenkins, minister for the Spring Meadows Church of Christ in Spring Hill, Tenn., which started with 40 to 45 people seven years ago and has grown to 450 to 500.

He gives limited instructions: Keep up with how you’re welcomed. Count how many speak to you. Track where you’re greeted, be it the parking lot or foyer.

“I have used a form but have found a conversation is more revealing if they will keep notes during their visit,” Jenkins said. “Some may think this is too gimmicky, and it may be, but it is so hard for us to get an honest read on how we make guests feel.”


Thomas Harrison provides “secret church shopper” services on a professional basis. 

Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, United Methodists and others across the nation hire Harrison.

“I evaluate every portion of the (visitor) experience from entering the parking lot to exit from the church,” Harrison said.

Common weaknesses that he finds:

• Clutter: “Welcome areas, offices, foyer, Sunday school rooms often are magnets for clutter. Guests will visit restrooms and Sunday school classes before they visit your worship space.”

• Lack of signs: “Signage is neither informational or directional. Guests may not know where to park, which door to enter or how to navigate the halls.”

• Embarrassment: “Some churches embarrass a guest by making them stand up to identify themselves.”

 Inadequate follow-up: “If churches do not have a system of gathering a name and address of the guest, how can follow-up occur? Once you have a name and contact information from a guest, follow up.”

Wayne Kilpatrick preaches for the Heritage Place Church of Christ in Irondale, Ala., which in eight years has grown from 60 members to 210.

First impressions are crucial, he said, and extend beyond friendliness and “Wow!”  worship experiences.

“It is very important that the church grounds are mowed and edged, shrubbery trimmed and classrooms neat, clean and attractive,” Kilpatrick said. 

Moreover, sermons require a “So what?” aspect. 

“Preaching must be biblical and personal,” he said. “Those who preach need to remember that we preach to instruct, convert and convict, not to impress.”


Before ever turning into a church’s parking lot, most guests will check the congregation’s website, Jenkins said. 

“It has become the electronic vestibule,” he said.

That means that churches should make sure their website is visitor-friendly, Jenkins said.

For example, are driving directions and worship times easy to find? Does the site highlight activities such as Vacation Bible School and Children’s Bible Hour that might appeal to a family new to town?

On Mondays, the Tennessee church follows up with “no guilt visitation” — taking guests homemade banana nut bread and a keepsake such as a keychain or pen featuring the church logo. 

“We don’t go in unless they insist,” Jenkins said.

Along with old-fashioned home visits, the church uses cutting-edge technology to connect. To each guest for whom he can find an e-mail address, the minister sends a personalized, video “thank you.”

  • Feedback
    John Jenkins, I have long said that a monkey can SWELL a congregation. If people are flocking to a particular congregation in large numbers, something is up. Simply “handing out” something to entice people into the door is not evangelism. Show me an example in the book of Acts where something of material value was ever offered prior to a person obeying the gospel.
    Corey Smith
    Petersburg Church of Christ
    Petersburg, TN
    January, 26 2013

    Has anyone noticed it “visitor friendly” congregations are more evangelistic than those congregations considered not to be “visitor friendly?”
    Have the “visitor friendly” congregations grown via immersions or swelled by Christians just switching congregations?
    Are “visitor friendly” congregations more friendly in general?
    John Jenkins
    Pigeon Forge
    Gatlinburg, TN
    June, 13 2012

    That was might ornery of you, but you made me smile!
    Bobby Ross Jr.
    The Christian Chronicle
    Oklahoma City, OK
    June, 12 2012

    I am an older woman and was visiting a CoC in
    Murfreesboro, TN. I sat beside an older couple and was totally ignored. After the service I leaned over and inquired, “Are you all visiting the services today?” They were long-time members and were so embarrassed by my question. They kept me talking until the auditorium was empty, apologizing and explaining that they had been ill. I know it was onery of me but kind of fun. And I think this couple will be friendlier in the future.
    Joy Estes Shaw
    Park Plaza Church of Christ
    Tulsa, Oklahoma
    United States
    June, 12 2012

Filed under: National

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