Faith Perceptions analyzes the church experience

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Faith Perceptions partners with church leaders of all denominations across the country to determine their first-time guest experience. It is the brainchild of Melanie Smollen, project specialist for Hendrickson Business Advisors in Cape Girardeau.

"I met with some church leaders and they said there was absolutely a need for it," Smollen said.

Melanie Smollen of Faith Perceptions sits inside Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.
Laura Simon

Smollen drew inspirations from mystery shop programs used by businesses to create the Mystery Guest Program. It is geared toward church leaders who want to know the impression their church makes on first-time visitors. These studies are conducted without the knowledge of the congregation.

"We want to capture church as usual," Smollen said. "Part of the reason is to give a true first-time impression."

This program sends 12, primarily "unchurched," people to 12 services at the church being studied. Unchurched people are defined as those who do not have a home church they attend on a regular basis. Faith Perception has a team of 4,000 mystery guests in 43 states.

"I wanted people bringing in that seeker attitude," Smollen said.

After attending a service, guests use a 10-point scale and written responses to describe their experiences through on online survey. Each church is rated in 15 areas: directions, signage, preservice greeting, preservice atmosphere, seating, music, in-service greeting, sermon, speaker, after-service atmosphere, connect-resources, friendliness, children's ministries, return and overall experience.

Faith Perceptions takes the responses from these surveys and compiles them into a report for the church leader.

The program began in 2008 in Missouri. Since then they have surveyed 1,152 different church services and 108 churches. From these services, they compile an index of cumulative data from the entire year to be distributed every June.

"It gives them a snapshot of what to look for and where churches of like size might struggle," Smollen said.

According to this index, the average weekly attendance of these churches was 407 with 55 percent of guests being female and 45 percent male. Of the services attended, 59 percent were traditional, 32 percent were contemporary and 9 percent were blended. Of the mystery guests who participated, 91 percent believed in God or some higher power; 26 percent do not identify with a formal denomination; 23 percent were not raised with a formal denomination. The average age of mystery guests was 41.

Churches were categorized by size, which was determined by their average weekly attendance. Microchurches had an average weekly attendance of 0 to 80; small had 81 to 150; medium had 151 to 300; large had 301 to 500; extra large had 501 to 1,000; and megachurches had more than 1,000.

The index shows that large churches were ranked higher than smaller or larger churches in nine of 15 categories, including preservice greeting and in-service greeting and friendliness, among other categories. Smollen said this is because first-time guests are more likely to be noticed in a church this size than in a larger church.

"A person could walk into a megachurch and not be recognized if they didn't want to be," Smollen said.

Paul Short

St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Cape Girardeau took part in Faith Perceptions from November 2011 until April 2012. Pastor Paul Short said while their results were fairly good, the program also gave them some areas for improvement.

"How can we improve basically what can be referred to as customer service?" Short said. "I felt like this was a really great way for us to discover that."

Short described his church as extremely friendly and said this is the reason many of their members joined the congregation. However, he said it is still possible for new people to go unnoticed.

"Jesus went to the unnoticed," Short said. "I think that is what we ought to be doing."

Having received their survey results, Short said the church's board of assimilation is looking for ways to improve their welcoming and information processes. While he believes the church already possesses an atmosphere of warmth and welcome, he said there is still room for improvement.

Faith Perceptions recommends a follow-up study to determine if a church has implemented strategies to make the recommended improvements.

"I think that would be invaluable," Short said.


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