(LONDON -- 25 Feb 05) -- MORE than 50 people have already signed up to spot check London churches on the first-ever Mystery Worshipper Sunday (Apr 24).

Based loosely on Mystery Shopper - where market researchers are sent out by corporates like Asda and Tesco to covertly check their own stores - Mystery Worshippers visit churches undercover. They file a report on, for example, the comfort of pews, warmth of welcome, length of sermon, style of music - and whether the after-service coffee has been fairly traded.

‘Our volunteers go to a church they have never been to before - and experience the service as an outsider,’ explains Simon Jenkins, editor of Christian webzine shipoffools.com, creators of the Mystery Worshipper. ‘For the church being visited, the only clue is the calling card dropped discreetly into the collection bag - bearing the picture of a masked man in Lone Ranger pose.’

The feature has proved so popular since its launch in April 1998, that the 1000th report will be published on Palm Sunday (20 March). Reviews have come in from places as far apart as Bethlehem and Bangkok, Kampala and Copenhagen.

‘Many churches have taken criticism well,’ adds Simon Jenkins. ‘One minister posted the review on a noticeboard with a “We must improve” note. Another read the full report from his pulpit. I also know of a church which took the review on a weekend retreat and the congregation mulled over how it could best answer the criticisms levelled.’

But the Mystery Worshipper enters a new, intriguing phase in April - with the first city-wide ‘mass’ event.

While London churches, with advance warning, will be on their toes on April 24th - ‘we're not going to reveal exactly which ones will be visited!’ advises Simon Jenkins.

‘Whether they’re happy-clappy, bells and smells or rock the flock, we’ll have a better picture of what neighbouring churches were like in one 24-hour period,’ explains Steve Goddard, co-editor of shipoffools.com. ‘With a General Election expected just a week or two after Mystery Worshipper Sunday, it will be interesting to see how different denominations relate to the political issues of the day - if at all.’

Mystery Worshipper Sunday reports will be published simultaneously, following a special presentation on the opening day (May 10) of the National Christian Resources Exhibition, leading sponsor of the event.

One first-time Mystery Worshipper on the day - pseudonym ‘Dunelm’ - says: ‘I'm sure it is going to be of most interest to “faith explorers” like me who are looking for somewhere they won't feel out of place.’



* For more information phone Simon Jenkins (editor, shipoffools.com) +44 (0) 208 9933936 / +44 (0)7808 297146. Or Stephen Goddard (co-editor, shipoffools.com) +44 (0)1744 733898 / +44 (0)7930 198209.

Published on: 12:00AM on 25th February 2005