Get paid to go to church? I knew people get paid for singing in church, but my voice wouldn’t qualify me for that gig. On the other hand, this opportunity involved just attending church and filling out a survey. For $45, I could do that.
I entered my name and address on Faith Perceptions’ Mystery Guest Program signup page. I checked a dozen or so boxes, including, “I do not attend church regularly,” and clicked “submit.” I received an email that said, “We will notify you within two business days concerning approval of your application.”
I waited. Two business days came and went. I was starting to wonder if the part where I admitted to not believing in God disqualified me.
The following week, I spoke to Melanie Smollen, the president of Faith Perceptions, who said being a non-believer isn’t an issue. “Our ideal candidate is someone who doesn’t have a church home,” she told me. Well, that certainly includes us atheists.
Later, I learned that my application had been neither approved nor denied, but lost in some sort of techno-purgatory. Smollen fixed the problem and I was approved just after we spoke. Sadly, there were no assignments near me in southern Florida.
But there may be plenty of work where you are, so read on to learn how to make $45 for going to church.
Mystery Worship and Church Marketing
Smollen launched Faith Perceptions in 2008, as part of Hendrickson Business Advisors. “We adapted our mystery shopping program for businesses to the church environment using unchurched mystery guests (sometimes called mystery worshippers), multiple visits and a consistent scorecard,” the company says on their About page. They’ve evaluated 4,300 worship services so far.
Of course, some people think churches should stop marketing altogether. I asked Smollen about that, and she explained that it really isn’t the same as marketing a business:
“Some people are offended by the idea. I totally understand how they can feel that way. But churches are not changing their message based on the data we provide. They just need somebody from outside to tell them if they’re doing what they want to do, which is to provide a welcoming experience.”
She added that “we’re focused on hospitality,” and explained that while mystery shoppers are asked about the message, they’re not asked if they agree, only if they understood it. One of the most important things churches want to know is simply whether new visitors feel welcome, she explained. In fact, when you sign up for the Mystery Guest Program, you agree that:
“The goal of my survey is to help Faith Perceptions evaluate the church in terms of hospitality. The church’s individual beliefs and doctrine are not being evaluated.”
Faith Perceptions is not the first to offer a mystery shopper service to churches. For example, former pastor Thomas Harrison started his service in 2006. His fee is “about $1,500 plus travel expenses for a site inspection, worship-service evaluation and detailed report,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
But Harrison’s business and others, like WorshipImpressions.com, for example, are one-man operations. Faith Perceptions, on the other hand, can provide data to a church from a dozen mystery guests who attend services at different times. That’s good news if you want this gig, because it means they need many secret shoppers in each area.
Working as a Mystery Worshipper
After you attend a church service ,you fill out a survey. “The total time, if you include the service and filling out the survey, is about two hours,” Smollen told me. She added that there can also be driving time, but you are free to accept or decline assignments outside your neighborhood or city.
I asked Sitaram, who lives in Texas (last name and exact location withheld to maintain his anonymity as a mystery guest), about his experience. He signed up with Faith Perceptions 18 months ago and has visited 22 churches. “It’s basically for the $45,” he said. “However, it’s not boring.”
The process typically takes Sitaram four hours or more, because he accepts assignments that require an hour of driving time and spends a couple hours filling out the survey. I asked him about taking notes, which secret shoppers have to do carefully, so they don’t reveal their purpose. He said he used to take notes, but “Nowadays, I am able to memorize everything.”
Sitaram said his experiences haven’t led to him joining a church, adding, “Very few churches have impressed me to this level.”
I contacted another mystery worshipper, Rebecca, from Pennsylvania. She has worked for Faith Perceptions for about eight months and has had eight assignments. She says:
“I wouldn’t do it just for the money if I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t look at it as getting paid to go to church. I look at it as an opportunity to learn about different churches, while being paid to provide feedback that, hopefully, is helpful to the churches. I figure that if a business is doing something that customers don’t like, they’re going to hear about it, but churches may not get that much feedback.”
Rebecca says travel time varies, church services are usually about 90 minutes and it takes her an hour to fill out the survey afterward. If she’s not going to do the survey immediately, she takes a few notes, but only after she leaves the church.
As a mystery guest, you rank a variety of things and provide reasons for your rankings. You evaluate even mundane things like parking availability and cleanliness of bathrooms. Of course, this “investigation” may involve misrepresenting yourself, which brings us to the question…
Will You Feel Good About Mystery Worshipping?
You may have to misrepresent why you’re at the church. When you accept Faith Perceptions’ terms and conditions, you agree, “I will not contact clients or churches to reveal to them my affiliation with Faith Perceptions before, during, or after my visit.”
Mystery worshipper Jeff Winkler says he had to evaluate the children’s services, which required pretending to have children. “I was filled with unholy guilt,” he says in an article about his experience, and explains:
“…I’d never lied in church before. I even abstain from the devotional declarations and Eucharist. So I rubbed my head again and asked for forgiveness. Because later, I’d be asking for a check.”
You could argue that misrepresenting why you’re there doesn’t hurt anyone, and that church officials are giving you permission to deceive them when they buy this service. “I have never felt uncomfortable about this issue,” mystery guest Sitaram told me.
Rebecca, from Pennsylvania, also feels okay about this. She explains:
“I haven’t felt uncomfortable about hiding the reason for my visits. I visit the churches by myself, so that can be a bit uncomfortable when I first go into a church, but most of the churches have been very welcoming. In most cases, one or two members, and sometimes the pastor, come over to welcome me before the service starts. Sometimes people ask if I’m new to the area. I reply that I’m just visiting, and it’s never been an issue.”
And whether or not you like the idea of churches marketing themselves, it’s now an accepted part of building a congregation. Consider that…
- Any pastor can buy books like Church Marketing 101 on Amazon
- Ministry Today magazine does articles on “Marketing Your Church“
- Digital products make promises like, “Double Your Church Attendance in 90 Days“
- The United Methodist Church has an online “Church Marketing Plan Tool,” complete with pop-up ads and specific advice on doing surveys, analyzing website traffic and using social media
The bottom line is, churches spend money to grow their congregations. Even a sign out front is a form of marketing. And if they’re spending money on marketing anyhow, maybe you should take a little piece of that action for yourself. Who knows — if you sign up today you might be able to start your mystery worshipping side hustle by this weekend.
Your Turn: Would you like to make money to go to church? If you’ve been a mystery worshipper, let us hear about it.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. We would have shared them with you anyway, but a true “penny hoarder” would be a fool not to take Amazon’s money.
Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. He’s been a repo-man, walking stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror, and roulette croupier, but of more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).