It's been done before. A non-Christian is paid to attend church and provide their honest feedback about the experience. The latest rendition of this experiment is occurring north of the border in Canada. Christian talk show host Drew Marshall has paid two college students, one male and one female, to attend five different churches in the Toronto area. Their observations can be read on Marshall's website, but below are a few highlights from their excursion into Christendom.
The two students visited one of the fastest growing mega-churches in Toronto. Like many megas it has positioned itself as "the church for people who aren't into church." On this Sunday the pastor spoke about wealth and possessions. What did Drew Marshall's guinea pigs think?
Why is it that I should not seek out possessions and money, but the church is permitted to do just that? Does taking 10% of every congregant's income not count as seeking out money? Why should the institution be rich, and the congregation not? If you really believe you should be living the aesthetic life led by Christ and his apostles, why aren't you doing it? If money and possessions aren't important, why aren't you meeting to discuss the meaning of Christ's ideas and life in the local park? Notwithstanding the need to broadcast to your rather large congregation, and obviously you'd have to come up with a solution during the winter months, but really: why the son et lumiere? I found the medium more than a bit out of whack with the message.
Which brings me to another point: all that razzmatazz kind of unsettles me. We live in a culture where distraction is often misdirection - like a magician who gets you to look at his left hand while he's disappearing something with his right. I found myself wondering why a group that liked its preacher so straightforward felt most at home in a medium of flashing lights and sound. Read more.
The paid church visitors also made a stop at the Sanctuary, a downtown congregation with deep involvement in the community - particularly with the homeless and poor. The Sanctuary provides free meals and cloths as well as medical care to those in need. One visitor's first impression was telling:
I could tell then and there we had found what this experiment was set out to accomplish, a church that saw past the money, power and the heighten sense of moral superiority that we have grown accustomed to. Charity, real charity. About time.
I was floored, for close to a month now I have been told of all the wonderful things the Christian church provides without any physical evidence of its truth, but here it is, in the flesh. I have to smile, we have traveled to the city's massive churches where thousands worship and yet we find what we are looking for in a turnout of 35 on Sunday. Read more.
Overall, both Taylor and Sabrina (the non-Christians) gave the Sanctuary overwhelmingly positive marks - far more favorable than any other church they visited. Drew Marshall later tried to identify what set the Sanctuary apart. His conclusion:
This is the only Church where the majority of time, finances and energy is NOT spent on the Sunday service. At Sanctuary, it actually would have been unfair to only score them on their Sunday service, the smallest part of what they do. Read more.
What is the big lesson for church leaders? I'm not sure, and I'm hesitant to make any sweeping conclusions based on the opinion of just two people. However, Taylor and Sabrina do force us to ask an important question. Why does the majority of most churches' resources get funneled back into Sunday morning (facilities, staff, programs)? And, in a culture growing increasingly suspicious of "razzmatazz" is a spectacular worship production still the best way to draw people to God? (Has it ever been the best way?)