Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mystery Worshipper

It is a rare pleasure to be a visitor in someone else's pews on Sunday.  For the last several years, I have had to be in my own parish on Sundays, greeting parishioners and visitors as they arrived for worship.  But for the first time in a long time, I am free to visit congregations that I have only ever heard about or visited for a special occasion, such as an ordination or installation.  It's fun.  As I sat in an unfamiliar church on Sunday, I thought about the Mystery Worshipper column from the Ship of Fools website, which sends reviewers incognito to congregations to evaluate the worship experience.  Now, of course, I had not come to scrutinize or judge that parish's liturgy, but simply to worship joyfully alongside my brothers- and sisters-in-Christ.  I was incognito, in a manner of speaking; I wasn't wearing clericals, and so looked like any ordinary visitor.  And yet, being back in my home diocese,  I knew a few people. 

The interesting thing about the visit was the level of anxiety and awkwardness I felt upon entering the church.  I had forgotten what it was like to be a stranger.  Would I be welcomed?  Would anybody talk to me?  Or would they pretend that I was invisible?  Episcopalians can often be shy and uncomfortable greeting strangers.  Mainline denominations aren't known as the Frozen Chosen for nothing.  (There is so much we could learn from Baptists and Mormons!)  As a priest, I have had to confront many times peoples' hesitation to do hands-on evangelism and outreach in the wider community.  It's unsafe and scary.  There is the potential for an unpleasant response, for anger, for rejection.  But there is also the potential for transformation, for acceptance, and for intimacy.  The same risks emerge when strangers pluck up the courage to visit our churches. 

The difference between these two scenarios is the people that are made most vulnerable in the encounter.  When we wander outside the safe confines of our churches, we are the strangers.  But when visitors come to us, they risk invisibility or rejection.  I was used to being on the other side of the welcoming experience, the position of strength and privilege.  But now, the tables were turned, and I felt vulnerable.  For the record, the clergy were very welcoming and warm, and I was deeply grateful for their hospitality.  The sermon was outstanding.  The worship was authentic and inclusive.  It occurred to me that it is a good thing for people, especially clergy, to be the mystery worshipper from time to time.  It reminds us of how hard it is for the stranger to seek welcome and belonging.  It impresses upon us the seriousness of our call as Christians to offer hospitality and to be mindful of the stranger's vulnerability and trepidation--and hence, courage--in walking through our doors on Sunday morning. 

So, how welcoming is your congregation?  Perhaps the following questions from this mystery worshipper will help get you started in evaluating your hospitality.  My recent experience as a visitor certainly caused me to be honest about my own strengths and weaknesses.  Watch your congregation this upcoming Sunday, see how it fares, and then reflect as a community on your observations. 

How long did it take before a visitor was greeted by someone in the congregation?
Did someone in the congregation greet the visitor beyond simply handing him or her a service leaflet?
How many people greeted the visitor?
Did anyone ask the visitor's name?
Did anyone tell the visitor his or her own name?
Did rank-and-file parishioners greet the visitor, or only the clergy?
Did anyone ask the visitor to sign the guest book?
How intuitive and user-friendly is the service leaflet and other worship resources for a visitor?
How was the visitor greeted or engaged during the exchange of the Peace?
Did anyone invite the visitor to coffee hour or fellowship following the service?
Did anyone talk to the visitor during coffee hour?
Did anyone offer to follow-up and speak with the visitor sometime in the following week?
Did anyone invite the visitor to participate in some other aspect or event of the congregation's life?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is reflective of the kinds of concerns that float through a visitor's mind as he or she struggles to look comfortable in a new space among strangers, trying to participate in an unfamiliar liturgy. 

1 comment:

  1. I adore your blog Father! Thank you for enriching my life every week with your videos and posts!