This mystery visitor report from the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva (Illinois), 2004-2005, will give you a pretty good idea of how you could implement your own mystery visitor program.
In early October, 2004, I scheduled three visits by "Mystery Visitors," people who visited a worship service at UUSG and reported to me what their visit was like. Mystery Visitors were paid $100 each, from my professional expenses account. I scheduled Mystery Visitors for each of the three worship services, but the Mystery Visitor who came to the Sunday 9:00 a.m. service unfortunately did not complete a report (nor got paid!). I will try to schedule a different Mystery Visitor for that worship service this spring.
Sunday at 11:00 a.m.
As this family pulled up to UUSG on the early October Sunday of their visit, they felt excited. They found parking easily. The church looked wonderful -- "beautiful" -- and they saw a welcoming greeter standing outside the door. "It was a very inviting sceneÉ. our hopes were very high."
Once inside the church, they found the greeter there to be very friendly. However, no one showed "any recognition of our very friendly 10 year old son." This did not sit well with them.
After leaving the greeter, they felt a little lost. They weren't quite sure where to sit or what to do, and felt "we were on our own." They found a place to sit, but although people were talking all around them, no one said anything to them.
They did feel welcomed by the minister at the beginning of the worship service, and during the "meet-and-greet" time just after the welcome. But aside from that, they felt there was "no recognition of our presence," and they felt "somewhat excluded." They did like the sermon, saying it was a "great sermon," and adding, "If not for a great sermon, we would probably not return -- could've been more welcoming. No one other than one other person sitting next to us made an effort to even say hello." They also found the order of service "confusing, and [it was] hard to follow the two sheets of information."
At the end of the worship service, they discovered there was no social hour (this was before the Membership Committee added another social hour on Sunday morning), and commented that they "had no chance for socialization." To make matters worse, they said, "When we were leaving at the end of the service we weren't sure how to exit the sanctuary -- and no one bothered to assist us or say goodbye."
The great sermon (senior minister was preaching that day) raised their overall impression above mediocre -- but overall, they felt the worship service was just "OK."
Saturday at 5:00 p.m.
The couple who were Mystery Visitors to the worship service at 5:00 on Saturday reported that it was "fantastic, a really good experience!!" They loved the time -- "As busy as we are, I appreciate having an alternative to Sunday morning worshipÉ. Sunday morning is one of the few times we have to leisurely hang out together."
They found it was not easy to get directions to UUSG from the church Web site, and they found the driving directions to be confusing. Overall, "getting to the church was a little difficult."
Once they arrived, however, parking was easy, and they easily recognized the building from the picture on the Web site. One member of the couple had high praise for the building itself: "As an artist and a lover of architecture, I found the building itself to be astonishly beautiful both inside and out. I was truly moved by the loving care the building has obviously received. I was impressed with it as a visual and physical symbol of our Unitarian Universalist heritage."
They were pleased to be greeted by the ministers: "I was astounded to meet not one, but three members of the clergy at the front door. All three were particularly welcoming. I wondered if the laity would be as inviting -- they were!" They found the actual worship service very welcoming. They liked the sense of history that is a part of the worship service. They were welcomed during the "meet and greet" time after the welcome. They liked what they call the "unpretentiousness" of the service, specifically mentioning the "For All Ages" by the Minister of Religious Education. They loved the music.
One of them prefers small churches, and the other prefers to see a crowd, but UUSG managed to please them both.
They never made it to social hour because "we had our own social hour" right in the sanctuary. "Several people spoke to us right in our pew after the service. Others actually lined up to speak to us. It was very enjoyable."
Finally, they both liked reusable orders of service -- they were impressed that the church cared this much about the environment.
The Mystery Visitors found the Saturday evening service far more welcoming than the service on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. A social hour has been added after the 11:00 Sunday service, which addresses some of what the Mystery Visitors found. But generally speaking, the Mystery Visitors did not find UUSG to be particularly welcoming at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday.
Congregational weakness: It is not clear why the Mystery Visitors felt so unwelcome on Sunday at 11:00. It could be because their child was not welcomed. It could be because Sunday at 11:00 is less welcoming. In any case, not everyone find UUSG to be a welcoming place.
Congregational strengths: Both sets of Mystery Visitors commented on UUSG's beautiful building. Both sets of Mystery Visitors appreciated being welcomed outside the church building. Both sets of Mystery Visitors commented on how much they liked the worship service, naming sense of tradition, sermons, "For All Ages," and music. One set of Mystery Visitors found that UUSG could please both the lover of small churches, and the lover of full, active churches.
Overall, the strengths of UUSG outweigh any weaknesses.
The weaknesses can easily be addressed by paying more attention to welcoming newcomers (especially children) on Sunday mornings. Remember that these visits took place back in October -- in the mean time, many members of the congregation have been working (formally and informally) to improve our reception of newcomers.
The strengths have some surprises. We already knew we had a strong worship service, and that it's nice to have people outside the church to greet people coming in. But we did not know the extent to which the building is a major attraction for newcomers. Even more interesting, UUSG can attract both lovers of small churches and those who want a large-church experience -- an unusual strength worth paying attention to!
Rev. Dan Harper, January, 2005