I Was a Secret Shopper — At Churches

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

Most everyone has heard about secret shoppers, and like Amway, a lot of people have given at least some consideration to trying it, myself included. The way it goes is something like this. First you sign up to be a secret shopper, and then you either get emailed opportunities to shop secretly, or else you go to the company’s website and sign up for opportunities in your area. There are very specific directions that must be followed, and a form that must be completed once you have completed your mission. As a secret shopper you generally have to report on the outside of the building, the signage both inside and outside of the store, the treatment you receive from the people working there, and the overall appearance of the store. Sometimes you are also required to buy something for which you are compensated. After writing the report and submitting it, you receive your compensation, which generally runs around $15. Most of the time it’s not worth it.

One day I ran across a similar kind of advertisement recruiting people to become secret shoppers at churches. I was intrigued. From what I read, the directions for being a secret shopper at a church was very much like being one at a retail establishment. The one catch was that it required sitting through the entire service, and actually interacting with people who were there. From a financial standpoint it didn’t make a lot of sense to do this given the time involved and the work, but I thought I would give it a shot anyway.

I was literally getting paid to go to church. I liked the sound of it.

Once I registered, the next step was to pick from a number of assignments. The requirements of each assignment were the same. I was to arrive in the area where the church was located well ahead of time so that I could approach the building from different directions. I was to note whether there was any signage leading to the church and whether finding the church was easy or difficult. I was also required to stop into a nearby business and ask someone in the store if they knew where the church was located.

Once I had completed the preliminary tasks, I was to go to the church. There I was to note what signage was on the outside of the church, whether the days and hours of their services was posted, whether the pastor’s name was on them, how obvious the main entrance was, and whether the parking was adequate. I carried a small notebook to jot all of this information down. There was no way I would ever remember so much.

It was then time to make my entrance. Under no circumstance was I to tell anyone that I was there to observe the service and to evaluate it, along with everything else I have mentioned. If asked, I was to say I was visiting from out of town. That was true and not technically a lie. But it was misleading, and being told to mislead people in church seemed ironic. Once inside the church I was required to obtain a copy of the church bulletin for the service as evidence I actually attended and wasn’t just scamming the company I was doing this for. Later on I would have to scan it and attach it to my evaluation form. I also had to note whether the restrooms were easy to find, and whether childcare was available.

During the service I was to note how many people were in attendance. I was also to note whether people sat together in larger groups or as isolated couples and singles, and whether they tended to sit in the front or back. I was to note the demographics as well, paying attention to race and ethnicity, whether the congregation was older or younger or mixed, and whether there were many families in attendance. I also had to evaluate the sermon in terms of its length and topic. Additionally, I had to note whether or not anyone came up to me to welcome me and whether I was given information on joining the congregation.

The music in the services was wide-ranging. Some had the traditional elderly lady playing the organ, most likely the same woman that taught piano lessons in her younger days. Some churches sounded like a bad night of karaoke. Others paraded a small group of oh-so-cute kids to perform for their grandparents. Still others were a full blown rock concert.

When the service concluded, I was to hang around for awhile and observe whether people bailed out right away, or if people tended to hang around after the service to visit with each other. This was always the difficult part for me. Standing by myself after the service made me a magnet, and more than once I had to mislead people by telling them I was from out of town and I was doing fall photography in the area. That one worked every time.

By far the most enjoyable aspect of this endeavor was driving around to various towns in the fall. The leaves were in full color much of the time, and walking down the sidewalks on fall mornings was enjoyable, as was stopping in to local establishments to enquire about the church I was about to attend.

The differences between the various churches was amazing. Some churches were almost all elderly. When I attended those churches, I wondered where all their children and grandchildren went. Did they move away? Did they attend service at a different time? I wondered how the church would continue in the years to come if the congregation slowly died out and there were no younger parishioners to take their place.

The congregations I visited were almost exclusively homogenous in their racial and ethnic make-up, including the ones I visited in the city. To be blunt, they were white. There was the occasional congregational member who was brown or black, but they were few in number and easy to spot. Almost always they were married to a white church member, though there were several families I saw that were not white. I was reminded that America is never more segregated than it is on Sunday morning.

The sermons ranged from inspiring and interesting, to stale and staid. Some spoke of helping your neighbor and being a Christian all 7 days of the week. Some spoke of safeguarding our environment, and working for peace. In these churches, the people seemed more friendly and more outgoing. If I was going to be invited to join, it would be one of these where this happened. In these churches, they had groups of people who participated in food drives and fundraising events for helping people who needed it. There was something uplifting about being in their presence.

Other churches seemed stale and repetitive. The people didn’t so much sing as they moaned their way through the songs. The sermons referenced old Biblical passages and beat them to death with repetition. No connection was made to modern life, and I was left wondering if anyone in the entire congregation understood a thing that was said. Here it seemed like people were attending in order to avoid going to hell rather than because of an interest in improving their spiritual lives. In these churches it was less likely that anyone hung around after the service, and even less likely that anyone would come up to me to find out who I was and what I was doing in their church. I could just as easily been shopping at Target.

Most churches made some use of technology, usually by way of streaming the service to people who were confined to home. Some had flat screens mounted on walls with the words of whatever song was being sung so that people didn’t have to thumb through a thick hymnal to find the lyrics. One, however, took technology to a higher level. Behind the minister was a humungous flat screen with guess who? Yep. The minister himself. Small spotlights illuminated the minister as his exaggerated motions betrayed his secret desire to be one of those pastors in a multi-million dollar megachurch, complete with offshore bank accounts, indiscretions with female congregation members, and expensive automobiles.

Or so it seemed.

After gathering all of my notes, I would spend my Sunday afternoons writing up the critique and evaluation of the experience. I tended to be more generous toward those churches who promoted treating other people with kindness all of the days of the week, and I tended to be more critical with those services that seemed more traditional. If I left with a smile on my face feeling good about humanity, they received a good review. If I left feeling hopeless and that mankind is doomed, I was less generous.

It was an interesting experience to see where and how people spend their Sunday mornings, when I was more likely to be taking a walk or stopping in to a Starbucks to read the Sunday news. The range of services was wide, and no two congregations were alike. The experience of each was unique to its location and the makeup of the people who attended there. I didn’t undergo a transformation or anything, and I didn’t join any of the churches I visited. Would I do it again? Probably not. It was a lot of work for small pay, but being able to peer into spiritual lives of other people, even if just for a bit, was time well spent. I understand better what drives large numbers of people in America.

And I got paid to go to church.

I am a teacher in an alternative school and work a small hobby farm in southeastern Wisconsin with my wife Kathy.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store