MASON CITY, Ill. -- You have no doubt heard of mystery shoppers who visit department stores and secretly evaluate customer service.
Now, there is a new wrinkle to this old concept: Pastors are using it to improve people's experiences at their churches.
"Even the American Medical Association recommends to their member doctor to have secret patient shoppers," Thomas Harrison said. Harrison is the founder of Secret Church Shopper, a firm that travels to churches across the country to secretly evaluate worship experiences.
"I never know when the phone rings if it is New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or some other place," he said. "I have the most interesting questions people ask me."
Harrison also finds interesting things while visiting churches with as few as 100 members to as many as 10,000. He listed some of those interesting evaluations in a recent interview with CBN News.
"I've noticed poison sumac growing in the flower beds, next to the main entrance, four foot tall," he said.
"Churches are cluttered. They have collections of materials in various places and there seems to be no order," he continued. "And if you think about it, we do that at our home, too."
"There have been occasions, honestly, where I have entered the worship facility excited and no one has spoken to me," he added.
And if you think it couldn't get worse, Harrison said he's "seen all sorts of bug infestations."
Harrison's attention to detail is only exceeded by his heart for helping churches improve and reach more people with the gospel.
CBN News followed him on a recent secret visit to Mason City Christian Church in Central Illinois. Pastor Joe Briseno had invited him.
"I'm really excited about what Mr. Harrison and the ministry has that he and I want to share it with a lot of people. But I have to keep that to myself," Briseno told CBN News.
You've Been Punked!
Briseno is also a bit nervous about what his church members will think when they find out.
"It's almost like you have been punked. I think there will be a good reception," he said. "I have been working with my leaders here at the church, kind of preparing them, without them knowing."
When Briseno first came to lead the Mason City congregation, it was meeting in a small church building and hovered at about 200 members.
It quickly grew to 400 members and relocated to a larger new facility, but the congregation has hovered at 400 for the last few years.
"Since we have moved into this larger building, we have begun to attract people from surrounding towns and villages around here. Some drive 30 miles. Some drive 40 miles," Briseno said.
"We have also noticed in our church that we have had people come," Briseno continued. "They will stay for a while, but then they will leave. And we will try to reach out to them, so there has been, for lack of a better word, a little bit of a revolving door."
Hurting Prospective Members
With that in mind, Harrison always pays close attention to how church members greet and treat guests. After all these years, one story still stands out.
"During the fellowship time where everyone is shaking hands, a woman behind me leans over past me to shake the hand of the woman in front of me, and in the process doesn't say hello, you're in my way, or anything," he recalled. "So I feel abandoned and while everyone else is shaking hands, I'm just standing here. And prior to that I had been bumped from my seat two times."
Harrison urges churches to make reaching people who are new to the church experience a top priority. So after every visit, he delivers a 30- to 50-page report to help the church improve. It's based on The Five Star Church, a book dedicated to Christian excellence.
"The same God who called us also made us. And there are occasions when our body does not function the way God intended or designed. And we have to go to a doctor or to a physical therapist," Harrison said.
"And the same God who heals us, also provides these occupations," he continued. "So, it is all about diagnosis. It is a snapshot of what is happening in this congregation at this time."
Pastor Briseno said he hopes that snapshot will help his members make a difference.
"All of us have pastors, we have blind spots," Briseno told CBN News after the service Harrison evaluated. "And no matter how much research we do or how much we seek to improve what we are doing for the glory of God, and the effectiveness of His kingdom, I think that there are areas we all can improve on."
*Originally aired August 21, 2013.