What can you can learn about church in a parking lot?


Excerpt from Sandra Dillon’s 2017 El Salvador Mission Journal


March 6, 2017

How many of you have hung out with the homeless?  Serving and eating a meal with them?  Fellowshipping and praising God with them?  Well, Kate and Nate Stal gave Darin and me the opportunity to walk into their ministry by helping set up Motel Church this Sunday in the parking lot of an old strip mall on FM 1960.  Many homeless live next to the “Motel” or the old Century 21 building nearby.  Because Motel Church has had to flex where they set up on the first Sunday of the month, they have kiddingly dubbed this church the Parking Lot Church.

So how does Motel Church have any connection with our upcoming mission trip to El Salvador?  God is always creative in how he speaks into my life.  As I wrote in the last journal entry, God wrote the first book that culminated with the design and launch of World Changers on Mission (WCoM).  I wrestled with whether God would start a second book in the series, and if so, I questioned how a repeat mission trip to El Salvador with LWI would begin the first chapter.  I believe I have an inkling on what God might be scripting based on what He showed me during our two hours in church.  Before I unpack His message, I want to share with you my experience as contextual background.

Motel Church entered my personal world when Matt and Holly Smith invited Kate and Nate Stal to a World Changers on Mission meeting.  Darin and I specifically wanted to hear more about the call that God had put on Kate’s heart—bringing church to the homeless.  After hearing her stories over dinner, we decided to step into Kate’s world.  Kate’s passion was contagious, and we wanted to provide support to someone who was making personal sacrifices to follow God’s call.  Rain or shine, Motel Church was holding service.

Motel Church 1We met in the parking lot of a dilapidated but functioning strip mall which sat next to the motel where some of the homeless were staying.  You might call this motel a flophouse.  Other homeless church members had been living at an abandoned Century 21 building, but recently a fence had been installed around the property to prevent squatters.  When we arrived at the strip mall, the parking lot was sporadically full with parked cars owned by those who were attending either one of two small churches located inside.  The only sufficient parking area to set up tables was near the dumpster, which adjoined another building open for business.  Kate was nervous to set up the church so close to the business in the event the owners decided to call the cops. What an awful feeling to think we could not hold church because of the fear of prosecution.

After the business owner gave us his blessing, we waited for Nate to arrive with supplies and food, so we could set up church.  Kate knew many of the homeless members, so we engaged in conversation.  Darin and I offered them drinks from our cooler, and we arranged tables, chairs, and placed Biblical resources on the tables.  What I loved was how some of the homeless men helped.  Kate did not know how many members would come to church because of the looming threat of rain and the fact that some had dispersed when the fence went up around the Century 21 building.   Previously, they had as many as 30 attend this small Parking Lot Church.  From my perspective, the numbers did not matter!  God would bring the perfect number!  As several more church members arrived, the volunteers started to serve plates of home-cooked food.

Motel Church 2As we broke bread together, I was intrigued by the stories shared by James and Amy, a husband and wife, who lived in the woods behind the motel in a 3-bedroom tent.  They had previously owned a much larger tent but had to downsize to a smaller one for some undisclosed reason.  Before they could share more, dark clouds opened their flood gates, so we picked up the tables, chairs, and food and moved them under the shallow protective overhang that provided a sheltered walkway for the storefronts.  We traded in our chairs and tables to sit on concrete planter boxes with plates on our laps.  A few more folks arrived.  Darin and I happened to strike up a conversation with Miss Karen, a woman in her 60’s, who had on a McDonald’s employee uniform.  She lived in Greenspoint and took a bus to the stop in front of the strip mall, so she could then walk across the street to the McDonald’s where she worked.  When she got off the bus, Miss Karen saw our church, was intrigued, and eventually came over to find out more.  I asked her if she lived in Houston all her life, and after saying she was originally from Louisiana, she started to pull out old photos from a Ziploc bag.  Some photos were over 50 years old and showed herself and her twin sister when they were young.  She and her twin were separated at 9 years, when they went into the foster care system.  She never saw her sister until she decided to search for her as an adult.  This search brought her to Houston many years before.  Miss Karen’s story was painful to hear, yet she spoke of it as if she expected nothing less of life.  What was amazing is how she carried her most prized positions with her—these photo memories.

Jason started our church service with the third chapter in the book of James.  What I loved was how everyone participated.  Chris, one of the homeless church members who would not partake of any of the food, read some of the verses.  Although Jason led the sermon, many people participated in the Scriptural discussion, vulnerably sharing their own testimonies.  A youth worship team, who cancelled a few days before, left us without a praise and worship agenda.  However, that did not stop one of the homeless men, who was enthralled with the message of James 3, to put his plate aside, rise, take the mic, and sing A Cappella about how God’s not dead.  These few stories provide just a flavoring of what it was like to worship with Motel Church.  God kept nudging me with thoughts of Motel Church and El Salvador.  What do you want me to see, God?

God whispered that this is how he meant us to church.  I like to refer to it as a virtual church.  Matthew 18:20 describes church in its simplest version “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (ESV).  Motel Church was beautiful, because it reflected church in its simplest design.  A church is not a building but the gathering of those who are united in belief.  Recently, God has been tugging on my heart to re-read the Book of Acts, which describes the formation of the early church after Jesus ascended into heaven to be with the Father.  As described in Acts 2:46-47, “…breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people…” (NASB).

I have walked in severe material poverty in third world countries, but surprisingly not spent the same amount of time in similar poverty situations in my own country. On a relative scale, you might consider the American homeless as one of our more extreme poverty populations.  I found it strange how two active churches in the same strip mall were holding services, yet the homeless were not or did not feel welcome.  Walls can create boundaries that separate and protect those who are behind closed doors.  Are our church walls creating boundaries that separate the body of Christ?  On the other hand, does the concept of a virtual church help prevent the slow and insidious behaviors of putting up walls of exclusion?  What resonated with me was how active and participatory church could be in the virtual.  Everyone was free to contribute and participate.  In comparison, a church with four walls tends toward passive participation where the congregation sits and is fed from a pastor.

On our last trip to El Salvador, God told me that every one of us is equipped in some way where we stand, regardless of the newness of our faith.  Jason was equipped to lead the sermon, and many of the homeless felt equipped to read from the Bible and contribute their testimonies and views.  WCoM speaks to how church, business, and mission are integrated with connectivity, dignity, and the knowledge and faith that one is equipped.  I have a feeling that God wants to show me a vision of church and has tied an element of this message with our mission trip to El Salvador.  Perhaps the next book will speak to what the church should look like, how it should operate, and what it was intended to achieve.  I am reminded of the Book of Revelation, where a unique message was delivered to each of the seven early churches.  Each letter defined for the church how it was viewed through God’s eyes, a challenge or reproach, and a promise.  In today’s climate of conflict and judgment, providing an environment where people from all walks of life can come together to share in the common bond of the love of Christ is one of the best strategies that I know of to grow the church.  Only seven short months before mission departure!  A lot can happen in seven months!