A Step Too Far? Church’s Visitor Program Draws Fire

A Step Too Far? Church's Visitor Program Draws Fire

Baltic, OH – “There they are again!” exclaims Elmer Hamilton, gesturing wildly as the blue sedan weaves in and out of traffic. “Keep on following, but don’t get too close. We can’t let them see us.”

What sounds like a scene from an action movie or a real-life police drama is just another day for the greeters of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church. After countless visitors slipped through the cracks, either by never signing the guestbook or failing to provide accurate contact info, church leadership decided radical changes had to be made.

“I was watching the Bourne Ultimatum with my wife when the idea hit me,” said Elder Jason Graham. “Why not just follow visitors around until we can convert them? Half the people in the congregation are retired anyway. It’s not like they have anything going on during the week.”

Here’s how it works: visitors to St. Stephen’s receive what appears to be the typical Lutheran worship experience. As they walk into church, a designated usher hands them a bulletin and says hello. They are then completely ignored by the rest of the congregation, unless of course they happen to sit in someone’s pew, in which case they will attract angry sidelong glances. They then proceed to be incredibly confused the entire service as people randomly stand up and sit down with no direction and sing a dizzying array of melodies called a ‘liturgy.’ Then, as the service ends, the Pastor makes a pointed comment about visitors signing the guestbook, which is hidden in the darkest corner of the narthex. After leaving church in a haze of disorientation, the visitors just decide to head down to the non-denominational church that looks like a coffee shop down the street.

Here’s how St. Stephen’s differs: that same usher who greeted them gave a secret signal to a man lounging in the corner of the narthex. As the visitors drive away after the service, a convoy of three vehicles quickly fall in line, rotating lead position as to not give away their intention: following the visitors home in order to find out everything about them.

“We try to obtain 72 hours of constant surveillance on all visitors,” said Jason. “Once we know where they live, work, shop, and play, then we can arrange ‘chance’ meetings with outreach members who try and get them back inside the door.”

Does the plan work? Absolutely. St. Stephen’s recently reported a 200% increase in membership. After two straight weeks of ‘random’ interactions with friendly Lutherans, prospects are practically convinced that God is calling them to join the congregation.

But controversy has surrounded this new method. Synod officials have expressed hesitation at the aggressive and clandestine methods. Prospects have fled after finding out they were intentionally stalked for weeks by random Lutherans. And in one case, police were called after Delores Davis got too close and was spotted tailing a prospective member as she went grocery shopping.

But controversy aside, the results cannot be ignored. St. Stephen’s reports that twelve churches have already asked for their Visitor Surveillance Plan. Like it or not, these aggressive tactics are here to stay.

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