Secret Shoppers and Christianity

So I know that what I’m about to say is going to date me, but I’ll just deal with those ramifications. A few weeks ago I was listening to my Pandora station when an ad came on that really caused me to think. Yes, Pandora, and, double yes; the free version – with ads. While my children have found the wherewithal to pay for their own Spotify subscriptions, all of the other subscriptions that they find necessary, are being paid for by myself – and I have a problem paying to listen to music.

Back to the ad. It caught my attention because it mentioned two things that I encounter on a very regular basis; Kroger, and very specifically, Kroger’s produce section. In the ad Kroger touted their solution to ensuring that their produce section stayed fully stocked with fresh produce – secret shoppers.

Now, we certainly all have opinions on Kroger and produce, but let’s just set that to the side for a few minutes because I want to talk about secret shoppers. Secret shoppers are hired by companies to covertly shop the companies they are hired by to determine whether or not employees are following the procedures that they have been presumably instructed to follow. As someone with a background in retail I know that there is definitely some value in utilizing secret shoppers. The responsibility of a secret shopper is to give the company they have purchased from feedback on the encounters they have been instructed to check in the store they are shopping. Presumably this is to keep employees on their toes and always following procedures because there are usually harsh ramifications for employees if a secret shopper ‘catches’ certain violations or lapses.

But let’s think about this for a minute. A major grocery retailer advertised that they knew that their produce was fresh because they were using secret shoppers to check their stores. Now you might think that’s a great idea but let’s think of some alternatives for a moment. They didn’t advertise that they had their employees performing regular checks. They didn’t advertise that their coolers were kept at appropriate temperatures. They didn’t advertise how they might ship or package their product. They advertised that they were employing people to go behind their employees to make sure standards are being followed.

The implication in the ad was clear – if our employees are not fulfilling their standards; we’ll catch them. For someone who has worked in retail there is also a secondary implication – those bad employees are going to pay! What a way to encourage people to shop in their store!?

I’m afraid that Kroger has learned something from our evangelical churches. There is some idea of value in assuring people that we’ll catch and expose your faults. The goal of the secret shopper is to make sure that your employees are always on their toes. For a company that advertises that their items are kept fresh by employing secret shoppers I can only imagine the pressure that those employees feel.

In the church this is an enterprise with which we are intimately familiar. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we are the great secret shoppers which will determine whether or not those who attend church with us, profess some love for Jesus, or in some way are identified with the church as a whole, or are even just folks we pass in the street; are true Christians.

We have forgotten the purpose of encouraging others, of bearing others burdens. Instead, we spend our time peeking into their grocery carts, tsking over their Instagram, and wondering what’s in their glass at the restaurant table. We judge each other for the videos we’ve seen, the amount of church services we’ve missed, the podcasts they do or do not listen to, and whether or not we use the right ‘religious lingo’ in conversations. And all of this is before we even begin talk about politics.

We should be affirming others. Blessing others. Seeking others out to simply bring hope and encouragement to them – not to make them feel shamed and exploited.

A few days after hearing Kroger’s ad I was confronted with the by-product of this type of manipulation and the type of damage it brings about. In another retail establishment in our town I came across a cashier hopelessly overworked. By herself, she was working a line that had almost 15 customers with various amounts of items standing frustrated in queue.

When I reached her I was hoping that I could relieve her of some stress but I was struck by how robotic she had become. She gave me the company approved greeting, asked the appropriate question about signing up for rewards programs and all the way through until I left the store. This cashier, this hopelessly overworked lady; dealing with frustrated and angry customers was so locked in that it seemed she had lost all feeling. Had there been a secret shopper in her line – she would have passed with flying colors. But she was losing herself and the store as a whole would have been considered a failure in my book for even putting her in that position.

Some of us have been there. We’ve made sure that we’ve checked every box to ensure our Christianity and we’ve lost our joy. We lose our hope in Jesus. We begin to depend upon our ability to perform and forget that our hope is in the person of Jesus. We forget that our ability to perform the tasks that consume us become secondary as we focus on Jesus.

Yes, we have responsibilities, but our primary responsibility is knowing and participating in the life of God’s kingdom. When his kingdom becomes our focus, our ‘secret-shopping’ of others will fade and we will find ourselves looking for opportunities to bless and encourage and forget about the temporary thrill of ‘catching’ someone not performing up to our expectations and limitations.

We should want our grocery stores to rely on training and promotion from within to ensure that we have fresh produce. We should rely on the person of Jesus and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of ourselves and others. Let’s guard against becoming robotic in our performance as a Christian by simply following reciting the phrases given to us by others. Discover Jesus. Read the Gospels. Allow his mercy to find root in our hearts and continue to transform us into his image.

Published by Daniel M Harding

Husband, father, associate pastor.

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