An advertisement for a writer's retreat.

If you think the church visitor who came in and sat near you is taking more notes than the pastor’s sermon deserves, there’s a chance he or she might be a “mystery worshiper,” especially if you live in Britain, where a group called Christian Research is getting ready to expand a pilot project designed to give churches a visitor’s-eye view of their congregation.

Writing church reviews isn’t new: for some time volunteers have posted online reviews of churches around the world on the Ship of Fools Web site. If you work for Christian Research, however, you can get paid to attend worship, pay attention, and complete a report on everything from the cleanliness of the bathrooms to the friendliness of the people and the relevance of the sermon.

A popular book making the rounds of many Christian leaders in America is based on a similar concept: in Jim & Casper Go To Church, minister-author Jim Henderson hired an atheist copywriter and musician named Casper to visit churches with him across the U.S., comparing notes on their experiences. Any number of pastors are finding the book quite helpful.

Christian Research also hopes its company’s feedback will provide valuable information to churches in Britain, many of which have suffered severe decreases in attendance.

The concept of a mystery worshiper is intriguing, and it could indeed assist greatly in helping churches understand why they are — or are not — attracting and/or keeping new members.

It has often been said, but remains true — you only get one chance to make a first impression.

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