Much of what is wrong with the Church in North America can be found in the parking lot. Does anything proclaim more loudly or clearly, “We do not belong to this neighbourhood” than a lonely church building, locked up for much of the week and surrounded by an acres-wide empty parking lot?
Thirty-odd years ago I was “sent out” by a typical American evangelical mega-church to be a missionary in Europe (I know!). The last event I ever participated in at that church, as a regular attender, was held in the – I’m not kidding you – seven acre parking lot. It was a warm Sunday evening in late September and we held a “Welcome to Church” hotdog & ice cream social in the parking lot, assuming wrongly that we would engage the neighbourhood by moving out of doors. At the time I thought it was a cool idea.
Coming back to Canada a few years ago, now as an Anglican parish priest (there is a God), I was struck time and again by the ubiquitous empty church parking lot. Nothing symbolizes in quite the same way the church’s acquiescence to its marginalization and increasing insignificance in society. Do you regularly pass by businesses with large parking lots that are consistently empty? Yes, you do; and like me you think “gosh, they’re not doing too well are they?”
Lately I’ve been walking more. For most of my thirty years in Europe, raising a family of four children, I didn’t own a car. We cycled, we walked, we took the bus. I tried hard to bring these good habits with me to Canada, in my first year here cycling more than 2000 kilometres on parish business. Nearly every time I made a hospital visit I would receive astonished remarks, most of my parishioners knowing that I lived more than 15 kilometres from the hospital. Now, having moved to Abbotsford, where things are considerably more compact than the rural Nanaimo area I was in before, I find that I can do much more on foot.
One thing I’ve discovered by walking: in Canada, it’s the poor who walk. Oh sure, one sees the odd middle-class exercise enthusiast who is out for a stroll, but mostly the people who are walking from point A to point B in all weather are the ones who can’t afford a bus fare that day, let alone the privilege of owning a car. Yesterday, on my way to and from the grocery store, I was greeted brightly by a few of these toothless types (another personal socio-economic indicator in Canada). There is a certain camaraderie among poor sods in the drizzle.
Most of the churches I pass as I walk are completely out of touch with these people, or anyone else whose life is rooted in the neighbourhood. The empty parking lot says so. It tells a tale of disengagement, it exposes the truth that our real lives are lived elsewhere. It says, we don’t really belong here, we just drive through on Sunday morning, picking up a spiritual latte on our way.
A question I’ve asked my congregations to consider is this: “If this parish had to close up shop, would anyone other than the current parishioners and the diocese be upset?” If those are the only stakeholders we have, the only parties interested in our well-being and continuance, then we’ve truly missed our calling in life.
The silent witness: the parking lot.