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Suggestions from a Secret Shopper for Creating More Compelling Church Services

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I believe there are only two types of churches. That may sound like an overstatement, but let me explain. In the work my team has done over the last 10 years, and even in my personal experience, I’ve seen churches across denominations and regions fall into one of two categories:

  1. Churches that believe they exist for believers of Jesus, and specifically, for believers who align with their theology and practices.
  2. Churches that believe they exist for their mission field, which includes people that have yet to come to faith in Jesus.

Our data is showing some interesting things when it comes to these two kinds of churches.

The group that exists for believers are largely in decline, but to the surprise of many, the group that view their purpose as reaching their mission field are growing.

Our Unstuck Process is really designed to help ministries become more like the second kind of church.

Church Blind Spots

The clearer you get on your mission field, the easier it is to see everything you’re doing as a church through a clear lens.

And we’re seeing that as churches get more intentional about designing ministry strategies and environments (including the weekend services) with their mission field in mind, the more effective they become at reaching the people in it—both the people they were intentional about trying to reach, but also a broad cross section of all the people in their mission field.

Even churches who are clear on their mission field, over time, develop blind spots. We get used to the way we do things. We don’t see the “dust” anymore, so it becomes harder for us to really see what an outsider sees.

So in this last episode of our series on creating compelling weekend services, Amy and I discuss the blind spots pastors tell us our Secret Shopper service revealed for them, and some things we often counsel churches to do about those blind spots:

  • The two kinds of churches that exist—across denominations—and why one kind is growing and one kind is declining
  • Observations and metrics from the secret shopper portion of our process on the most common “blind spots” we see on the weekend
  • 3 questions to clarify your mission field, and why you need to ask them regularly
  • Critical questions to evaluate your message BEFORE and AFTER you teach it to gauge how well you’re helping people take next steps
One of our consultants puts it this way: Attending many churches for the first time feels like walking into another family's Thanksgiving dinner. #unstuckchurch [episode 136] Click to Tweet All church leaders have blind spots. But once you see what an outsider sees, you can't unsee it. #unstuckchurch [episode 136] Share on X

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We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.

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Sean (00:00): Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Often, the closer you are at something, the harder it is to see its imperfections. Whether it’s the dust in your house or wallpaper at church, it’s easy to develop blind spots. Without a fresh perspective, your blind spots can eventually get you stuck. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy wrap up our series on creating remarkable weekend services by sharing some lessons learned from years of secret shopping churches. Before you listen, make sure you have the show notes. You can get the show notes every week in one email along with the leader conversation guide, weekly resources we mention and access to our podcast resource archive. Go to to subscribe. Also, if you’d like to explore how your church can create more compelling weekend experiences as well as 12 other common issues that churches face. Take advantage of our open enrollment period for the “Leading an Unstuck Church” online course. New seats opened up on March 8th, and you can find more information at Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.

Amy (01:13): Well Tony, part of the unstuck process that we guide churches through includes a ministry health assessment. We’ve always believed that you have to get a clear perspective on where you are today before you can plan for where you’re headed. And one part of that health assessment includes a secret shopper. It’s a summary that we give churches after we attend their service, review their weekend service through the eyes of a first-time guest. Because we’re working with more than a hundred churches each year, we’ve started to see some common issues that churches deal with when it comes to their weekend service, specifically issues that keep them from connecting with new people through their weekend services. Today we’re going to talk through a few of the big issues, share some data behind them and offer some ways to address those challenges. So to get us started, one of the big challenges that we’ve seen in weekend services is that the people on stage don’t reflect the church’s mission field or or maybe, say, those people that they’re trying to reach. So Tony, why is this a miss for churches and what can they do about it?

Tony (02:11): So let me just back up a second. I have to guess, I don’t know personally, but there must be thousands of different denominations across the country. In fact, maybe one of our listeners can do the research for us and help confirm exactly how many. That’ll be a fun social media thing to do. So #unstuckchurch and just provide us the number of denominations. I’m curious, but I actually believe there are only two types of churches. The first type of church is a church that believes they are for believers of Jesus, and this church is for people that align with their theology and practices. And then the second type of church is the church that believes they exist for their mission field, which happens to include people that may not even have a faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And all of this may be a topic for another day, but the number of the first kind of churches that I just mentioned, they’re in decline if you look at the data. The number of the second kind of churches though, it’s actually increasing, which is a surprise to a lot of people. You hear lots of stories about churches closing their doors and churches that are in decline, attendance patterns are suffering. But that second type of church I actually mentioned, there are more of those churches today than there used to be. And many of those churches are actually growing in attendance. All that to say, the Unstuck process is really designed to help ministries become more like the second kind of church I mentioned, the churches for their mission field. And that begins with defining the mission field. And so some of the questions that we go through with churches that are trying to get clarity about their mission field is first, where has God placed our church? Secondly, who are we trying to reach within that mission field? Thirdly, what’s most important to that person that we’re trying to reach? What are their needs? And then how can the church respond to some of those needs? And as a result of that, it helps us get to the place where we have better clarity of the mission field we’re trying to reach. And then, as you alluded to, it helps us to become more intentional. And I want to put the focus on that word intentional because what we’ve seen is this, as churches get more intentional about designing ministry strategies and environments, including the weekend services, which is what this podcast series is all about, then they will begin to design environments with the person in mind that they’re trying to reach and not only will they more effectively reach that person. What we have seen with churches that take this type of focused intentional approach to designing their ministry strategies and environments, they’ll reach the person in the mission field they’re trying to connect with, but they’ll also end up reaching a broad cross-section of people in their mission field. Now, Amy, as you alluded to, we actually do a lot of on-site health assessment work. You do many of these visits. So I want to ask you about some of your experience around, some of the misses that you’re seeing around the weekend experience. In fact, something that shows up often in the reports is that churches didn’t welcome new guests in an appropriate way. Why is that important and what should churches be doing?

Amy (05:43): I’ll tell you what the average score in this area, and our scoring scale in this section is from one to five, the average score with our churches is 2.7. And for me that’s like a C+, which is really frustrating because to welcome someone is so easy. And I don’t mean like the worship pastor who stands up at the top of the service and says, “welcome everybody.” That does nothing for a new guest. That doesn’t give them any cues as to what to expect. And you know, I believe the welcome that I’m talking about has a purpose to build a connection and trust with these new people that are coming. We want them to feel welcome, and we want them to feel at ease because we recognize that a church, man that can be intimidating to people and very unfamiliar. And so, you know, we often talk about ways that you can do that. Well, make sure you are a genuine person who is extending that welcome. Invite people. We talk about this to sing. Maybe even let them know we’re going to start with the time of singing. Nobody sings anywhere, Tony, except the shower, in the car. But people don’t gather. So that’s weird to outsiders, which is so normal maybe to insiders, but let them know you’re going to sing and let them off the hook if they don’t want to do that. And then don’t start your service with all these words and terms that an unchurched person wouldn’t understand. And so I think that’s the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to a new person. If you’re not welcoming me, I don’t really think you’re expecting me and it’s a sentence or two that just says we’re glad you’re here. You know, “We’re going to do X, and we invite you to participate. But if you want to take a pass, that’s fine, too. Just glad you’re here.” That sets a completely different table for a new person than when it’s missing.

Tony (07:25): Absolutely. Our friend, Sean, kind of alluded to this as if we were welcoming some. Do you remember how he talks about this as if we’re watching someone welcoming a guest to our house?

Amy (07:37): No, he said it’s like walking into another family’s Thanksgiving dinner and nobody says a word to you. Nobody greets you. You just walk in and sit down at their table.

Tony (07:49): But, I think what you’re saying with that C+ score is that many churches are in a sense doing that very same thing, aren’t they?

Amy (07:56): Yeah, and don’t wait. I mean, if you wait to welcome me until the teacher comes up, I’ve been sitting here for a half hour feeling a little uneasy and unsure of what’s happening. You know, do it at the beginning of the service. Sorry, I guess I’m telling people what to do. Maybe you just asked my opinion, but you got it.

Tony (08:16): Amy, that’s actually one of the reasons why I appreciate you being on our team so much is just when you, “Tony, you need to do this.”

Amy (08:26): Oh, well I’m going to direct this question back your way. I’m learning some tricks from you. You’ve worked closely with many senior pastors who often are the primary teacher or communicator at their church, and one of the misses we experience during the message is a lack of application or next steps. In fact, we talked about that a little bit on our last podcast, but why is it so important to have a next step aligned with the message? And do you have any tips on what pastors can do to develop a rhythm of including application in their message?

Tony (08:57): Yeah, so this may be hard to believe, but if you think about it, it’s absolutely true. I mean, that life application element in the message, we’re finding is key for helping churches actually see more first-time guests and then indirectly, of course, over time that would impact attendance itself. In other words, when the life application score was high, those churches were very likely then to see a growth in people inviting friends and those friends actually coming back then for a second or third visit. When the score was low, it was very unlikely to see that type of engagement. So with that, I would just encourage teaching pastors to be thinking about these critical questions. Did the message provide ways to apply God’s word to everyday life? Was I challenged to believe, think or do something different as a result of the message? Was it applicable to both Christians and first time attendees, some who may not have yet a relationship with Jesus? Was it memorable? And then were there takeaways? Was there a clear next step that was defined as something specific that you were encouraging people to do in response to the message. And by the way, you can help people with life application beyond what you teach on Sunday morning. Provide discussion questions, use email or text message to provide additional Bible study and application ideas. Just engage with people throughout the week as well. You can link small group curriculum to the teaching or create a simple webpage with recommended resources or videos or next steps that people can engage. Again, I think too many times we think of teaching message only on Sunday morning from the platform. And if we’re intentional about life application, there should be all kinds of opportunities for us to provide that encouragement throughout the week.

Amy (11:03): And I would say, Tony, when you talked about those two different types of churches at the very beginning of the podcast, you said one church is for the mission field, which includes you know, many people who have no faith. What you just asked, those five questions, it feels like that’s part of the win for our message, and I think it was podcast one in this series, I was trying to emphasize the importance of senior pastors and communicators getting feedback both in advance of the weekend and after the weekend. And those five questions could be a great litmus test before it ever hits the airwaves on Sunday mornings. Right? Give the message to a few people, talk through and ask those questions. Was the next step clear? Did it apply to both Christians and first-time attendees? Was I challenged to think, believe or do something differently? If you can catch that before Sunday and make sure you include it, you’re just going to increase those chances that people are going to come back because it made a difference in their life.

Tony (11:57): Absolutely.

Amy (11:59): All right. Let me ask you a quick follow up question. Does the length of the message matter? How likely is it that I’ll take a next step after maybe an hour-long message? 30-minute message? Does that have any play in it?

Tony (12:12): Amy, sometimes I think you just lob me questions like that cause you know that I have some emotion wrapped up inside of me that needs to be unleashed. So, let me just say this as boldly as I can. Yes, the message length does matter. And what I find is many times, again, I think teachers overestimate their ability to hold the attention of the people that are listening. They think they can do that longer than they actually can. And so, if your sense is you can hold your audience for 45 minutes, your message probably needs to be 35 or 40 minutes. If you think you can hold the audience for 35 minutes, your message probably really needs to be 25 or 30 minutes. Just recently, I was reading an article on Inc., on their website, and this author was talking about how to capture and hold an audience’s attention. And I’m not going to read the entire list. There’s nine different items that were covered. But the two that I want to highlight — number five on the list was get to the point. Give them only one point, make it early and often. And if you do that, they’ll carry you out on their shoulders. I mean, that’s just a great word picture of probably way too many lengthy messages. Frankly, many of them from politicians on television, but that’s a story from another day. And number nine I thought was key, too, on the list. Keep it short. Stop talking before they stop listening. The mind can’t absorb what the behind can’t endure. I love that. Again, a great word picture. Get to the point. Keep it short. I’ll let you read the other seven items on the list.

Amy (14:04): That’s good. Yeah. I always know it’s been a great message when the message is done and I’m like, “Oh, it’s over?” And that makes me want to come back like that time flew by.

Tony (14:16): Yeah, that’s right. All right, Amy, another big issue that may surprise some, or maybe not, is that the interior of the church doesn’t feel like anything else that we’ve experienced outside the church. Again, we’re trying to think about our mission field here. And that’s true both inside and outside the worship center or auditorium. Why do you think that’s a big miss for churches?

Amy (14:40): I don’t know. I just go, man, if the interior/exterior, if it feels dated, worn and full of fake ficus trees, you know, and I secret shop.

Tony (14:50): Aw, come on. You have something against ficus trees?

Amy (14:50): Well maybe, because then I go, is that what I’m going to experience? A message that’s dated, warn and fake? Sometimes it can feel like you’re just stepping into a time warp, right? Again older, dated, not relevant. It makes me go, as a secret shopper, “Do you even know who I am? Do you even know what I struggle with? Do you know what it is that I value?” And again here, Tony. This is where I always say an outside perspective is so important when it comes to facilities because we all habituate to our environments. We don’t see the stained carpet anymore. We don’t see the clutter. We don’t notice that our signage is terrible because we know the drill. We know where everything is that we need to go to, but new people don’t. And so when, instead of putting them again at ease, we cause them a lot of undue stress navigating through the buildings. But when we think about the community that we’re trying to reach, here’s some of the questions we need to ask ourselves. Is it clean and clutter-free? Does the feel of the space match the feel of the people they’re trying to reach? Is the decor up to date? And again, you’re just trying to communicate. If people walk into a time warp, you’re not going to have a very good first impression and maybe less openness to people inviting people. Does it need new paint or carpet? Is there a like-new condition? I often think about all the other places we go to in society. You know, if we go out to the theater, if we go other places, man that has a feel and a vibe that’s new and relevant, and it’s intriguing and that’s the way we want our buildings to at least have an assemblance of that feel. I know we can’t spend all of our budget on, you know, making our facility the Taj Mahal, but we can make it so that it’s clean, clutter-free, inviting and feels like places we go to. So when it’s done well, people feel like I fit here. When it’s done well, people know where to go when they get there, which by the way, again, to a new person, is a huge deal. They don’t want to have to ask people where they’re going to go. Signage should cover this, and you know what? It also should feel like this place has life. I still can’t believe the number of places, churches, I visit that it’s dark and it’s overwhelmingly brown, and we can get better than that. Right?

Tony (17:09): Yeah, absolutely. So my theory is number one, I mean the challenge that you just identified is kind of like our own homes, though I think we take care of our own homes a little bit better sometimes than we do than our churches. Because we’re accustomed to it, we’re living in it all the time, we kinda don’t notice it as much, especially when it becomes dated. My other theory, though, is many times for churches, it’s been building committees that have done the interior design. And if there are too many men on that committee, they go as neutral as they can because they think that’s gonna work. If there are too many women, it can have more feminine overtones in the facility, in the design. And the challenge, of course, is we’re going to be reaching both men and women. But are building committees really the right people to be doing interior design, Amy?

Amy (18:12): No, if you could hear my head shake. No, they are not. I think it’s great to bring in, again, some outside help or someone with that gifting, that profession to help us out because us normal folk, we probably aren’t gonna do the best job. I remember when we opened up one of our new campuses, it was a church that was declining, and they became a campus of ours. And you know, sometimes I speak and then I think, which isn’t good. And I had been going over there just to look at the facility, and I kind of declared the feather painting in the bathroom had to go. And of course, the person who painted it was the one giving me the tour of the building. So, I’ve tried to be more delicate on my feedback, but feather painting isn’t in anymore. And it was probably lovely 30 years ago, but we’ve got to get those things updated.

Tony (18:59): Certainly. All right, Amy, this last question is for you, again, very practical. But one of the challenges we often hear about and then actually experience is the dreaded announcement portion of the worship service. There are too many specific insider-focused announcements in the service that really don’t apply to many people in the room. Announcements are normally a sensitive subject in churches. So can you offer some advice when it comes to this? How can we eliminate some of those announcements or are they really helpful?

Amy (19:33): Yeah. Hey, I’ll just give kudos to the churches I’ve been at lately. Churches are getting better at this, so they’re getting better at communicating the why versus the what and the how. And that’s really, again, you’ve got to know what is the win for this announcement spot? Is it that we’re going to just communicate everything that’s going on or is there, again, maybe one thing we really want our congregation, our attenders, those who are there, to take a next step in? So when we do that really well, a couple things that I see. Number one, they focus on the why, not the what, how, where, etc. We can find those things. And you’ve got disciplined people who are recognizing it’s actually harder to create a compelling message in three minutes than it is to create one for 35 minutes cause you don’t have all that time to tell stories and build it up. So they’re disciplined and put some craft into how they’re going to be communicating for those three minutes, three or four minutes. How to tell a story, how to be normal, how to connect, how to be clear on what the next step is. And so again, I challenge churches all the time. You know, we have to limit these things. We have a message coming up already, and I can read and I can go to the website, but what is that one thing that you really want me to do? And give some and energy to crafting a great story there. And the other thing I would say is sometimes these announcements need to be preached. I heard that from TD Jakes years ago. You got to preach the announcement. And what I mean by that is if you really want people to take a next step to get involved in a small group, if you really want people to discover their gifts and serve in the church, sometimes that has to be a message, not a three-minute announcement. That overwhelming message needs to be compellingly put out there, and it can be nurtured through opportunities in that announcement spot. But don’t overload announcements and expect people are going to take 10 or 12 next steps.

Tony (21:26): I love that, the why and not the details. At my church this past week, we’re about ready to have a food drive to support one of the local charities, and a senior pastor got up and explained the why. If we all participate, this is how much food that we’ll be able to donate to this local charity, and this is the impact it’s going to have on the people that will be receiving that food. And he didn’t tell us what to bring or where to bring it. He explained where you could find that information, but all he was trying to do was encourage everyone to participate. And explain why that was going to have a significant impact.

Amy (22:00): That’s right. All right, well Tony, we’ve covered a lot of the misses that we see in our secret shopper area as we experience the weekend service. But any final thoughts as we wrap up our series on creating compelling weekend services?

Tony (22:13): Yeah, let me just start by saying, and this is probably one of the most obvious statements you’ll hear on our podcast, but the days are behind us that we can take it for granted that people are just going to show up to church every Sunday. I hope you and your team really wrestle with the principles we’ve been talking about the last few weeks because we need to be more intentional about who we’re trying to reach and how we’re trying to reach them. And part of that intentional strategy must include creating compelling weekend services to connect people to the church. And then more importantly, help those people take their next steps toward Christ.

Sean (22:51): Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to take advantage of the open enrollment period for the “Leading an Unstuck Church” online course that will help you tackle 13 of the most common core issues churches face. Visit theunstuck for more information. And if you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, we’d love your help in getting the content out. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review there and telling your friends about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, we hope you have a great week.

One Comment

  • This was great stuff! Bringing our attention to blind spots and then practical help to open our eyes to solutions and their potential impact for Christ.


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