Monday, October 20, 2008

Mystery Worshipper

A great post today from Fr. Jonathan Tobias on his blog. Second Terrace:

Mystery Worshipper
“To try to keep their flocks, churches are turning to inspectors, who note water stains, dull sermons and poor hospitality.”

This was the grab-line splayed atop a recent Wall Street Journal article about “mystery worshippers.”

The phrase is not so bad by itself. It sounds mystical and refreshingly outright religious. It could be the name of some neo-pagan group which is looking for some institutional endorsement so that its practitioners can get a free parking token at the local hospital. The Wicca leader/shaman/coven-coordinator can wear the same badge that my brother (who is a protestant minister) and I (who am not) wear at AGH Forbes. Why not “mystery worshippers”?

(by the way Ben, you need to pick up your new badge: it’s still hanging in the file close to Ms. Wicca)

But then I read the article, and my hopes are dashed. I would have preferred honest-to-goodness pagans: this kind, which is pagan with all sorts of self-conscious smugness but without the earthy rootin’ tootin’ Eleusinian cachet, is a big bad bore … I mean, boor.

The “mystery shopper” of WSJ fame is a suit-and-tie guy who leans pensively on a pew, with his left arm draped casually over the top lip of the wood, with an inchoate mainline color-swirly pretending to be a stained glass window in the background. For a few thousand bucks, this guy (and other “consultants” like him) will sneak around your church and grade you on your sidewalks, Kleenex, parking-lot greeters, greeters in the “sanctuary” (sic), and the sermon. He is kind of cutesy in that his evaluations are couched in the kindergarten-ese of “yellow light,” “green light” and “red light.”

(please ... what are "parking lot greeters"? the only "parking lot greeters" I've run into are the Gubi/Bethlehemers at my friend's place, who run out at you on Christmas Eve shaking collection-cans for the poor, I suppose, and frankly, that has a lot more to do with Halloween than Nativity Eve)

This particular “shopper” is a former AG minister who charges $1500 plus travel expenses for a site inspection, worship-service (sic) evaluation and detailed report (over 50 pages). He complains about musty odors in the children’s room, the unkemptness of tissue boxes at the end of pews, faded stripes in the parking lot, the length and quality of the sermon, weeds in the churchyard, scary bathrooms and dustbunnies, and the relative charm of the greeting staff (you know, the people who are wearing the “Hi, My Name is Blank” stickers that peel off cleanly only from textiles that flame out in 2 seconds).

The philosophical framework for this program was established by my erstwhile friends in the Church Growth Movement, the Fuller Brush Crusade. These are the peeps who brought us that fundamental bon mot “There’s no such thing as sheep-stealing, only sheep-feeding.” These are the ones who equated recruitment with God’s Will, and who inflicted the idol MBO on churches, and that cocytus, geryonic emblem called “The Mission Statement” upon even the elect.

But what set this program into motion was a recent event. A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 44% of American adults have switched their “religious affiliation” (another sic). Ergo, “Church leaders say they’re seeking new ways to assess their services and evaluate everything from the style of music to how comfortable the pews are as they court fickle churchgoers.”


Mind you, I’m all for friendliness and welcome. I discourage, in my parish and anywhere else that will listen, the habits of uncivil behavior and the attitudes of tetchiness, clannish strife, and xenophobia. I encourage niceness and forgiveness, and patience with us converts who are still trying to find their way in the Big House of God.

But, mind you, I also encourage devotion. We cense wafts of ascension that carry our prayers, despite their hardship on respiration. We endure long services and a ritual that offends the modern knee. We confess, not anonymously or in a group, because we recognize (contra Oprah) the growing need for shame nowadays, because of that four-letter word called "sin" (which we are not afraid to utter out loud: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner" -- an anti-consumerist statement if I ever heard one).

I call myself and my friends to repentance because we remember that God is Love, but He is also Terrible. He is Good, but Wild. He is Ineffable, Inconceivable, Invisible, Incomprehensible: there is no room in the commercial church for a wild God Whose Name is above all Names.

Do you really need to spend $1500+ for someone to tell you where your cobwebs are? Can’t your baba’s point them out and your gentlemen kill the spiders with their brooms? Or maybe the ceilings are too high, and you’ve got those hellish mercury lamps, and your meeting space is like a modern contemptible theater whose lines are intentionally diffuse, designed to meld with the audience consciousness so that passions can be aroused all the more efficiently. Maybe the grounds are too large and impregnated with carcinogens so that your old guys can’t mow the lawn and pray while they sweat under the sun? Maybe the children should be in Liturgy instead of being cooped up with their kind while they rehearse the jingles of a sesame street catechesis.

Maybe there are too many hallways if you can’t clean them, too many parking spaces if you can’t paint them, too many people if you cannot know them.

Maybe your building/facility/praise-center/corporate-office is not a real building. Perhaps its design is so inhumane, so unearthly, so offensive to the Created Order that time itself will quickly wear it away. Perhaps your successor will fire Mr. Harrison and the “mystery worshippers,” and put up a Cross instead. Perhaps, even, an iconostasis. The usual megachurch design is one of the reasons why Creation groans: it cannot believe that the children of Adam could inflict upon it such a grievous erection.

Maybe people are shifting listless, like tumbleweeds, from one “affiliation” to another, because no one has the guts to tell them that the Creed is the only Symbol, and the Eucharist is the sole Constitution of Life. The people are wandering the wilderness, looking for manna, but their particular “Moses” cares only about the lay-out of the camp, and how neat are the latrines.

Here I will lodge the most uncharitable thing I’ve written on this phosphorescent page: the reason why more people aren’t Orthodox is because so many other places say that they are just as effective substitutes.

No, they are not. If “mystery worshippers” have the “wisdom” (last sic) sought and paid for by the commercial church, then it is not real wisdom that is bought, and it is not the Church that is doing the seeking.

So, Mr. Harrison, Mystery-Worshipper that you are, it's too bad that you're not a pagan like your title implies, because you'd have been so much more fun. But as a consolation, take this invitation to come to the St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church.

Leave your red lights in your car, and set your clipboard aside. There will be evaluations made, to be sure. But they will be made on you. And not by me or anyone else (that is, of the creaturely sort).

There is an Evaluation, but we call it Judgment. Until that Day, Church is a moment and a place to repent and to pray, to believe and to become.

I am sure the usual discomforts of people and house will bother you: but all these “bothers of the brothers” are only the first calls to leave the world and to escape the Sheol of your "comfort zone."

Only God comforts, but He does so under the Sign of the uncomfortable Cross.

A little difficulty, a little discomfort, a little discipline and hardship helps to start you off, to take up your Cross and follow Him.

(The logo is from a site I used to visit now and again for a laugh - Ship of Fools. The "Mystery Worshipper" is a regular feature of their site.)

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