Alaska News

Mystery church shopper observations could help Alaska churches

During the past decade I've aggressively visited churches in Alaska and beyond observing church treatment of guests and members. My ADN Church Visits blog has evaluated over 100 churches using four criteria: warm welcome, hospitality, music that's not merely entertainment and well-delivered, Bible-based sermons.

A recently released study mirroring my approach was featured in a fascinating Christianity Today article titled "Mystery Shoppers Rate Church Size." The study itself was performed by Faith Perceptions. Its mystery guest program used unchurched mystery guests who were paid $45 to visit churches and evaluate them in 16 categories: community awareness, signage, greeting upon arrival, pre-service atmosphere, seating, music, in-service greeting, message, speaker, post-service atmosphere, information, friendliness, children/youth ministries, diversity and outreach, likelihood of return and overall experience. These are similar to the kinds of observations I've used in my blog for many years.

A well-known fact, but one seemingly ignored in the Anchorage church community, is that guests make return visit decisions in the first five to eight minutes of their arrival at a church. Many churches I've visited totally ignored me as guest, treating me as an interloper to a private club. Guests to my home would dread return visits if similarly treated.

Churches in all 50 states were visited during the study, which included 4,288 mystery visits to 450 churches, with types of services: 65 percent traditional, 28 percent contemporary, 7 percent blended; visitors by gender: 59 percent female and 41 percent male, with 96 percent of guests expressing a belief in God or some higher power.

Churches were grouped by size: microchurches (up to 80 attendees), small (81-150 attendees), medium (151-300 attendees), large (301-500 attendees), extra large (501-1,000 attendees) and megachurches (1,000-plus attendees). Study data revealed that megachurches ranked highest in 10 of the 16 categories. Microchurches excelled in four categories. Small and medium churches had the highest rankings in only two categories; large and extra large excelled in only one category.

Microchurches did best with greetings, pre-service and post-service atmosphere, and friendliness. Small churches did best with midservice greetings. Medium churches did best with signage. Large churches did not excel in any category, and extra-large churches did best with children/youth ministries. Finally, megachurches ranked highest in community awareness, seating, music, message, speaker, information, children/youth ministries (tying with extra-large churches), likelihood of return and the overall experience.

In general, my observations from local church visits square with these statistics. ChangePoint, for example, mirrors this study's findings. At 3,500 members, ChangePoint appears impersonal when first attended. But, as I've pointed out in previous articles, some members have reported it's possible to be treated more personably when sitting in a particular area of the church and establishing acquaintances with those in that area. Also, ChangePoint's successful small-group focus tends to foster better personal relationships by creating a "church within a church" environment. Pastor Dan Jarrell, ChangePoint's teaching pastor, told me, "My goal is to create a small-church feel here."


ChangePoint is well known locally for its outreach to many sectors in the church community. With excellent ministries for children and youth, it provides incredible informational opportunities with ministry fairs and an upcoming block party. Pastoral messages are delivered by a top-notch ministerial team headed by Jarrell. Its excellent musical group, as noted previously, is incredibly loud with some lyrics lacking theological punch. The music program is the most frequently shared concern by people commenting on my writing or writing me directly. Uniformly they share the music's too loud. Megachurches like ChangePoint have the financial resources to fund their excellence, which can at least partly account for their capturing 10 of the 16 category top positions. The study also indicates megachurches were rated as very poor in two areas: post-service atmosphere (congregation/pastoral interaction with mystery guest) and diversity/outreach (how diverse the church is and how it connects with the community regarding age, socioeconomic status, gender and ethnicities in the area). Unfortunately each church grouping size fared poorly in diversity/outreach. It's a national problem and deserves the attention it's finally getting.

On the other end of the spectrum, microchurches struggle financially, and are less able to provide all the benefits of the larger churches. Although they may provide greetings upon arrival, they often tend to be the "20 questions" type of greeting, which can be less than hospitable to guests. Questions such as "What's your name?," "How did you hear about us?" "Where do you go to church?" etc. are directed to guests in rapid-fire succession. Their size lends to a better pre and post-service atmosphere as people and pastors may engage them in conversation. A developing trend reveals small-church pastors working full-time jobs to support their ministry efforts. Nonetheless, churches, especially small ones, are closing at a rate of 50 per week across the U.S. My pleasant visit with Dimond Grace Fellowship several years ago mirrored the strengths microchurches possess.

This was a great study offering significant commercial value for this church consulting firm. I'm glad they shared the results. Anchorage churches can and should do better. I plan to incorporate paid church shoppers in my church consulting work. However, many churches could achieve the same results by encouraging several members to visit other churches weekly. No church is perfect, and all can stand taking a hard look in the mirror.

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits Anchorage-area churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,