church service

Went home last night and listened to The World Tonight With Robin Lustig, who introduced a report about a mystery worshipper in some evangelical church somewhere in England by pointing out that the ‘mystery worshipper’ concept was borrowed from mystery shoppers in the business world.

Whether intentionally or not, that comment encapsulates an enormous set of mistakes in current thinking about what church is for.

It might, of course, on some level, be interesting to know what people think when they visit a new congregation for the first time. (It would admittedly be very useful for many deacons courts to be more sensitive to how comfy the seats are and whether the microphone is working properly.)

But the church doesn’t provide a service, like supermarkets do. What’s on offer is not at all primarily determined by what people want or perceive themselves to need. Success in a church isn’t measured by profits or numbers of attendees or visitor satisfaction. Last night’s mystery worshipper didn’t feel comfortable with the message that you’re a bad person for not keeping the ten commandments, for example – which is unfortunate, because it’s exactly one half of the message which the church only exists in order to proclaim.

Churches (and individual Christians) need to perpetually resist the inclination to feel that they need popular approval for survival, and to think that if people aren’t comfortable with the gospel and its implications that we need to change things in order to remove that discomfort. It’s basically just a lack of confidence in the scriptures and the methods that the God of the Church has set out for us to follow. ‘Woe to the wicked, for it shall be ill with him,’ is never an appealing message – but of course it never needs to be proclaimed as a stand-alone message: ‘Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’

The how of making sinners into saints isn’t for the church to perform, but the church needs to retain the full conviction that this is what God does through its preaching of the gospel. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

It’s too bad if people’s disinclination to hear about sin and sinnership makes them fail to realise the significance of the salvation that’s available for sinners. Comfy seats and warm welcomes and a decent cup of tea need to be practiced all round, but if the complete gospel message isn’t there for people to listen to, they aren’t really ultimately worth the effort.

8 thoughts on “church service

  1. Well, pres. there could be a healthier version of this – i.e. you go round self-proclaimed Continuing Presbyterian westminster confession type churches, and note whether they have A Whiter Shade of Pale halfway through, Spiritual Dancing, heresy preached from the pulpit, use the NIV or inclusive translations, ekcetra.

    I was thinking some years ago of setting up (= getting someone to set up) a web-based Catholic survey along these lines – with a set of clearly described criteria and tick-boxes, to avoid rants, temptations to sin against charity etc. It was just a vague idea, inspired by reading about this mystery worshipper thing.


  2. I’m not sure which but there’s def a magazine that lists churches which people might be attending on holiday etc which does pretty much that :) AV psalms only etc

    the problem is with the mentality that whoever sends out the mystery so-called worshippers knows in advance what a good experience of churchgoing is going to be like, and rates according to trivialities rather than with any pretence of applyign any scriptural benchmarks

    and i’ve no idea why it made it onto the news last night, it’s been going on for years

    NB am replying after a last email check before going home, all-night commentating extravaganzas way out o fmy league :)


  3. urgh, they are out of mine too, at least if I plan to ever do any actual work.

    Gonnae say something about Tilda Swinton’s accent ? You bist the expert on this kind of thing, we would learn from you (in the old-fashioned sense of “would”).


  4. In the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland you can find out quite a bit about congregations in other parts of the world from the magazine and annual Synod reports. But they never tell you anything at all about congregations in the UK (apart from when a new minister is inducted, or communion dates change – nothing about the people). So (from published materials at least) a person brought up in Auckland would know far more about congregations in Texas and Ontario than about ones in Scotland, England, or Northern Ireland. And even people in Scotland can be in the dark – I am, but then I’m an outsider who doesn’t travel much. But I was surprised when a young man who I assume was brought up in the FPs, and has recently moved to one of the cities, told me he had never been inside the church building there until he moved there (I still haven’t, though I’ve been in a back annexe of it and seen pictures too.

    BTW I think I am right in saying that no-one has yet reviewed a Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland service on Ship of Fools’ Mystery Worshipper site, though there have been a couple of Free Church of Scotland ones, a couple of traditional Brethren ones, and Ian Paisley’s own Belfast congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.


  5. I suppose what with the grapevine being what it is, who really needs magazines ? Altho i don’t travel around churches that much either – there must be loads of places that i haven’t been.

    There was a mystery worshipper in St Jude’s a while ago (here) – thankfully not too brutal


  6. I used to read that Ship of Fools site, was on the BB for a short time, but when they ran the “most offensive religious joke” competition I stopped looking at it. The jokes were not just mocking Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims etc, but also mocking Our Lord Himself. They were not the frivolous friendly kind (a la comments on picture of shore of lake Tiberias saying “here Our Lord appeared to the apostles after His Resurrection, and cooked them breakfast) but truly vile. I would pity and pray for any Christian who had, for whatever professional reason, to so much as read this sort of thing. I couldn’t get the one I read out of my head for a long time. It completely passes my understanding that anyone calling himself a Christian could publish it. It was not somehting posted by a user and overlooked by the administration. It was entered into a rankign for voting. And I assume, given the number of entries, that there were others similar.

    I can only think that the administration of the site are more concerned with promoting Christianity as some kind of cultural artefact or lifestyle choice than with the Gospel itself. I know some people enjoy smutty jokes – bad, but there are worse vices to be worried about. But anyone who posted anything so vile and vulgar about a member of their family would excite distaste among his acquaintance, I think. How could a Christian treat Our Lord so? And yet they put themselves forward as advocates for Christianity.


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