Saturday, July 7, 2012

Impressions from the Parking Lot

Lately, matters of church hospitality have been on my mind.  My church is beginning to work through it's issues and a few weeks back I posted the plan we're working from here.  One of our biggest, and probably most overlooked problems with our church hospitality systems begins in the parking lot.  I do, however, think it's one of our greatest opportunities.  Afterall, the first brave step a guest takes is actually to load up the family, stick the keys in the ignition, and drive over to a new church experience.  How are we meeting them?

Have you ever  been in a Walmart parking lot on a Saturday?  I don't recommend it.  My wife and I do all we can to avoid going to Walmart on Saturday, because I'm convinced that Walmart, in general, brings out the worst in humanity.  Our pursuit of low-low prices turns us all into villains.

Finding a spot is usually the first adventure.  My favorite is the drive down the lane that's halted by the car in front of you waiting on the mom who's loading up the world and her five kids by herself.  The space is close to the entrance, so it's worth the wait - for the car in front of you.  Unfortunately, there's no room to go around this car because it's a one-way lane.  Sweet.  I'll just hang out with my own crying baby for a bit.  Greatness.

Then there's the awesome spot right near the front of the parking lot.  You drive up on it, thinking how lucky you are that this sweet spot is open - only to find it's reserved for the police.  Bummer. 

My personal strategy for parking at Walmart is to park in a lane that point out of the lot.  So I can make the quickest escape possible.  I don't mind parking a little further out and walking a little further.

Then I'm walking to the entrance, negotiating rude traffic along the way.  My favorite part is crossing that lane that runs in front of the store, in between the parking spaces and the store itself.  How many of you have nearly been run over crossing this river of chaos?  The people trying to run over you are looking for the perfect space themselves, and shoot, they don't have time to wait for pedestrians.  I mean, somebody might take the most amazing spot in the world before they get there!  Nevermind that in a few minutes they'll be in the same spot you are with the expectation that traffic will wait for them to cross.

Our Christian hospitality should start in the parking lot.  I've had some amazing greeting experiences in parking lots at larger churches, with attendants guiding me along in my car to the closest available space, to outside greeters ready to tell me where to go.  I've been treated as a beloved child of God from the moment I turned my car into the church driveway.  Especially when dealing with guests, our church parking lots make an important first impression.  It can set the tone for a the whole morning of worship for visitor and member alike.

It can be a really sensitive subject for more established churches, but we just love to designate parking spaces.  Maybe it's for an honored member of the community.  Maybe it's for the clergy.  Maybe we auctioned of a parking space at a youth fundraiser.  But we often put up signs in choice and wonderful places and label them for exclusive use.

And let's just get this out of the way ... The best spaces are handicap reserved.  And that's how it should be.  Texas law requires there to be at least 1 space for every 25 parking spaces to be reserved for handicap use, and they usually must be the closest spaces to any main entrance with plenty of space around those spaces for loading and unloading.  It's how it should be, but we need to acknowledge that right off the bat, front-row parking for guests is at a premium.

Churches with more seniors in attendance often have designated walking-impaired parking in spaces close to the entrance as well.  My current and previous churches have these special spaces.  The need can be understandable ... But it's not like they're a legally necessary thing.  Often if you stand at the door, you'll see people parking there that are perfectly able to run a marathon.  But they were late for worship, and it was the nearest space.

A little further out from the three previous categories of special parking spaces there are finally a few spaces reserved for our guests.  Sure, they're painted brightly, but in the zoo of other designated places, these few reserved spaces are hard to find.  Sometimes members park there too.  A guest doesn't know that ... But we members of the community do.  All a guest knows is that they need to drive on.

But maybe worse is when those special, designated, spaces are empty.  All they say to a guest is, "Sorry, these just aren't for you."

At the church I served in Louisiana, there were two designated parking spaces for clergy.  They were in front of the church office, not directly in front of the sanctuary entrance.  But they were in the main parking lot that wasn't very big.  Every Sunday morning, my pastors would arrive early and put bags over the signs for their spots and then park as far out in the lot as possible before our early service.  The team that came in after them pulled up the signs altogether and got rid of them.  They made me proud to serve with them and showed me an example of what a servant leader does for the flock.  It was a small showing of hospitality, but you never know who's going to show up on Sunday morning and first impressions always matter.

If we're thinking more like visitors, we'll think more about the impressions we're trying to make.  The signs we put up in our parking lots show preferences.  When my wife and I were expecting, we loved going to Babies"R"Us, because of their parking reserved for expectant moms.  We love going to Ikea because of the small parking lot set apart for families.

How has your church taken the steps to show Christ's love in the parking lot?  What does your parking lot say about your faith community?  How do we feel about designated parking spaces?  Leave a comment!