Maybe you should pay people to come to your church

To hear and see the video testimonies of teachers who have doubled, see

Do you know what a mystery shopper is?

The idea is this. A retailer pays someone to shop. (My wife would love this job!) They shop and then report to management about their experience--how helpful and courteous the staff, how clean the restrooms, and so forth. Of course, at the time they are shopping, no one knows that they are actually an employee of the company. They pose as a regular shopper. It is a mystery who these people are.

When Jim Henderson was a pastor he used to do this regularly as a means of improving his church. He wanted to get a feel for what it was like to visit his church, so he hired "mystery worshippers" to  visit and then report to him on their findings--how friendly the people are, how clean the rest rooms are, and what is an outsider's perspective on the music and preaching.

Maybe you should do the same. Maybe you should hire people to come to your church and give you feedback on how you could improve. Maybe for just a little more they would attend Sunday School as well and give you feedback on that.

I sold my soul on Ebay

The practice of paying people to come to church prepared Jim for what happened next. A friend, Joe Myers  (and author of Organic Community) knew of Jim's practice of paying people to come to his church. Based on this, he thought Jim would be interested in the ad that Joe found on Ebay. Atheist  Hemant Mehta, a twenty-three year old graduate student of DePaul University was offering his atheistic attention to the highest bidder. He was tired of people pigeonholing atheists and wanted a fun way to show that he could attend church with an open mind and give the speaker, the church and the denomination a fair shot at converting him. And, he was doing it at a pretty cheap price as well--ten dollars per service. If the winning bid was $10 he would attend one service. If it were $20 he would attend two and so forth.

Jim Henderson won the bid at $504. For $504 he bought a soul on Ebay. "Quite a deal," he thought.

The Wall Street Journal heard about this story and ran a front page article. It created quite a media frenzy and has recently resulted in both buyer and seller publishing their own book:

  • Jim and Casper Go to Church, by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper
  • I Sold My Soul on Ebay by Hemant Mehta

I found both books to be very interesting. I'd recommend both to you. Both tell the stories of atheists attending many churches--including some of the most well known churches in the country and reflecting on their experience.

It raises a question, though: should we care what atheists think about church, or is church to build up the saints. Or, is it about pleasing God in worship? Should we care what the unchurched think about church? Should we design church for the unchurched?

You are probably aware that these questions have been rattling around the evangelical scene for the last twenty years, mostly because of the influence of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren and the whole seeker sensitive movement. I'd like to look at what the Bible has to say.

Should we care what unbelievers think?

This suggestion will raise a question in the mind of some: should we care what unbelievers think of our worship service? We are hear to worship God, we should only care about what God thinks. We aren't here to please men but God. What do we care what man thinks?

You can get to sounding really spiritually really quickly on this one. Consider this passage. There is a hidden message here:

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25 and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

The main message here has to do with speaking in tongues, but that is not what I am inviting you to look at. I'd like to invite you to look at something else. In verse 23 there is a reference to outsiders coming to church. The clear message of this passage is that as they think about how they speak in tongues, one consideration is how this is going to play for outsiders. Paul seems to be saying pretty loudly that we should care what unbelievers think about our church service.

Of course, you could take this too far. I am not suggesting we let unbelievers totally set the agenda for the way we do church, just that we should give it some consideration.

Where is the attic?

A great negative example of this can be found in my home church.

The space where the youth meet is called the Attic. I remember for years reading about meetings held in the Attic. I didn't think too much about it, because this was before my kids were youth-age. I always pictured the attic as, well, an attic--a dusty upper-story room with exposed beams and poor lighting--just the kind of space you would likely enjoy.

When my first-born was old enough to attend youth activities, I started asking around as to where this mysterious attic space was. Come to find out, it is not an attic at all. It is a house about a block down the street that has been converted into youth space. And, no, the building has no attic. I don't actually know where the name attic came from. The story seems to be lost in history.

The building now has a sign on the outside designating it as the attic. This is a help. This story illustrates the classic insider/ outsider dilemma. Insiders invariably pick up code names--special abbreviations and other insiders language to communicate with one another. This is natural and normal and happens with any close group. Families will have inside jokes and stories they can tell using only a few words--a kind of short hand to the whole event.

The problem arises when we have an outsider in the room and forget that all this code is meaningful to us, but not so much to the outsiders. Phrases like The Attic and BSM and WMU and Discipleship and Sunday School ABF and ABC don't carry near as much meaning to an outsider as they do to us. Theological words like redemption and reconciliation and propitiation and even saved and lost have a rich meaning to insiders but they mean almost nothing to outsiders.

Paul is reminding us in this Corinthian passage that when you do church, you ought to give considerable thought to how it all plays for an outsider. Bill Hybels did not invent the seeker service. It is in the book.

How do atheists feel about church?

I have just finished reading two books that answer this question, but let me give you one snapshot here.

Jim Henderson ended up asking another atheist--Matt Casper to join him on a national tour of a smorgasbord of churches. Jim refers to Matt as "Casper the friendly atheists.

One of the early churches they visited was Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. Before I tell you how Casper the Friendly Atheist rated Saddleback, let me say that I am not being critical of Saddleback or Rick Warren. I am, in fact, a big fan. And, let me say, it is clear that everyone does not feel as Casper does--or there would not be 20,000 people showing up every week.

Still, here is Casper's input. On a scale of one to five, Casper gives Saddleback--across the board--two out of five stars. Why? He thought it was too polished, too professional, too excellent, too slick.

Casper and Jim had a long conversation about this over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. At the end of the conversation Casper asked, "You want to know what did impress me? You want to know what I give five stars to?"

Jim waited for the answer.

"This conversation. This moment. This human touch of you listening to me and really hearing me out and not judging me."

There is a lesson there. To him who has ears to hear, let him hear.

You may never be able to preach as well as Rick Warren and you may never have the music of Saddleback. But, you can listen to people. Love people. Have then in your home. Take them to Starbucks. Listen. Love. That is what will impress them.