The Mystery Worshipper is a Ship of Fools project that we launched in 1998. That’s when we started to send out volunteers to take part in church services worldwide, from Singapore to San Francisco, from Brisbane to Bombay, to file a first-timer’s impression of how it was to be in church that day.
The Mystery Worshipper arrives at the average local church incognito, looking just like an ordinary visitor. They join in wholeheartedly with the singing and worship. They listen thoughtfully to the sermon. They attempt to mingle with people during the after-service cup of tea. And then they go away and write a witty and thoughtful report on the whole experience.
There are just a few simple rules, the most important of which is that they have to visit a church where they are not known. As the book of Hebrews says: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’
The Mystery Worshipper comes like a thief in the Nunc Dimittis, and then tells our readers what it was like to actually be there, in that church, on that particular Sunday. They answer the questions that go to the heart of church life. Such as…
How long was the sermon?
How hard was the pew?
How warm was the welcome?
How cold was the coffee?
How much was it like heaven?
How much was it like… er… the other place?
Every Mystery Worshipper comes equipped with the Mystery Worshipper calling card, which they drop into the offertory plate during the collection. The message is simple: ‘You have been blessed by a visit from the Mystery Worshipper. Read about your church soon on shipoffools.com.’
Obviously, the spirit of the project is rather mischievous. Sending sacred spies into the back pews of churches isn’t something that has been done on this scale before. But the Mystery Worshipper isn’t only an entertainment, as it also has some theological objectives.
We want to show people who are on the edges of faith what church is like today. The project turns church inside out to show people what happens inside these weird and scary-looking buildings they see in the street. The reports say: ‘This is what worship, preaching, and Christian communities look like today.’
We’re also very committed to valuing and celebrating the many traditions and expressions of the Christian faith around the world. The Mystery Worshipper is a genuinely ecumenical project, helping Christians appreciate different ways of celebrating their faith.
Finally, we want to help churches get better at what they do. The Mystery Worshipper holds up a mirror to local churches and says, ‘This is what you looked like on this particular Sunday, in the eyes of a stranger who just walked in off the street. Did you expect to look like this? Are you happy?’ We think critical reflection is very important for churches, and happily, there are churches which have taken their report on church weekends and discussed how they can do things better.
Over the years, several hundred people have signed up to become Mystery Worshippers, and we’ve published over 3,000 reports. Although the project has a humorous feel, we ask our volunteers to make a significant commitment in time and energy to produce their reports, and we’re indebted to them for what they do.
For our part, we spend significant time in editing reports, fact-checking, and publishing online.
One of our reporters put into words why so many people have signed up for the project: ‘For me, your Mystery Worshipper campaign is a brilliantly positive way to find out exactly what is wrong with the church and put it right. And I would like to be a part of that. I want to be inspired again. And it seems like getting involved in something like this – instead of just staying at home and bellyaching – is exactly the right thing to do.’