Traverse City Record-Eagle

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.”

Some of those areas were surprising, such as signage and church greetings, he said.

“A lot of it was first impressions. For instance, we have a huge parking lot and a huge building. You drive up and there’s no direction about which door to go in,” he said. “Also we’re a young church, 30 percent non-white, but all the ushers are older white men. So that made us think we needed to add diversity to that area. We didn’t see that before.”

Smollen said signage is just one area where many churches score low. Others include children and youth ministry program communications and friendliness to and followup with church newcomers.

The latter are areas to which the Traverse City native is especially sensitive.

“I didn’t grow up going to church,” said Smollen, whose father has a farm near Suttons Bay. “I was outside the church until I was 30. And when I did go to church I felt like I was an outsider. Those impressions just stay with you.”

It wasn’t until the then-single mom began looking for a church home for her children that she discovered Bay Pointe Community Church.

“They didn’t just make me feel welcome, they pursued me,” she said.

Now Smollen, who married a church technical director and moved to her husband’s hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo. in 2007, is passionate about helping churches grow through seeing themselves through the lens of somebody new. With the help of more than 6,000 mystery guests and an eight-person staff, she has worked with non-denominational, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist and Lutheran churches.

She said larger churches tend to score higher on worship, messages and information resources like informative and interactive websites that are easy to navigate. They often score better on music and available resources. But that doesn’t mean small churches shouldn’t try to improve.

“While bigger churches tend to have more money, there’s lots of ways to have excellent ministry without a lot of money,” she said. “Just because you’re small doesn’t give you a pass to be mediocre.”

Smart said his church made some changes based on the study’s results but didn’t follow up as it should have because of a senior pastor transition. Still, he believes the study was worth the cost.

“There’s always a squeaky wheel saying, ‘Hey, we need to fix this.’ This lent some validity to some of those issues,” he said.