Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

October 19, 2013

'Mystery guests' evaluate churches for firm

TRAVERSE CITY — You may want to smile and offer your hand the next time a stranger sits beside you in the pew. He or she may be a “mystery guest” for a market research firm for churches.

Faith Perceptions’ mystery guest program moved into northern Michigan — including Traverse City, Kalkaska and Petoskey — about two months ago, said originator Melanie Smollen. The five-year-old program has evaluated more than 3,000 worship services nationwide to help churches understand their first impressions and how to engage and connect with their guests.

“Pastors know why people come to their church because they can ask,” said Smollen, creator and president of Faith Perceptions, a division of Missouri-based consulting firm Hendrickson Business Advisors. “What they don’t know is why someone comes and then leaves.”

To help answer those questions, Smollen’s company works with churches to evaluate worship services over a three- or four-month period. A dozen unchurched mystery guests, hired through Craiglist postings and newspaper ads, earn $45 each to attend a service and complete an online survey covering areas like music, website and friendliness. When the surveys come back, Smollen creates an aggregate report noting trends, strengths and opportunities. Then she discusses the results with church leaders in long-distance consultations.

“The basis of all this is to help churches better connect with the people they’re trying to reach,” she said. “Are they reaching people, connecting with people, making people feel welcome?”

Phil Smart, global outreach pastor at Kentwood Community Church near Grand Rapids, hired Faith Perceptions about two years ago without telling anyone except two of the church staff. The church has a diverse weekend congregation of about 2,500, divided between three Saturday services and two Sunday services.

“We needed a clear, unbiased perspective about some things,” said Smart, who also is responsible for the church’s marketing. “You get insulated a bit. You think everything is great and that some of the things you’re doing don’t bother people. We did get some good information: how people saw us, high points, low points, areas we need to improve on.”

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