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!

The Treasure Map in Navigating Business Cultures


How many times have you wondered whether the person you were talking with really grasped the meaning of your message as well as its intent?  What was your response?  Did you summarize your point again with the hope that this time they would get your message? Do you look for validation that you have been heard correctly? What does it mean when people just politely listen, say nothing, and gently nod their heads while you speak?  The answer?  It depends on the environment in which the person was culturized.

In this globally-based workforce with intertwined business relationships, the most effective and successful leaders will be culturally savvy.  They will first understand their culture, the culture of those with whom they work, and adjust their style with specific strategies to bridge these cultural gaps.  Although technology will continue to be an important element shaping the business landscape, those who understand how to successfully influence people across cultures will be valued and highly sought after by companies.

Early in my career, I experienced firsthand being part of American business teams who left negotiations with Asian companies, either questioning how well the meeting went or being overly confident in the outcome based on their own cultural lenses.  Only when we returned home to the United States did we learn that we had not made as much progress as thought.  How can a team or even an experienced and talented business person successfully navigate these international waters?

culture-map-book-coverThe answer lies in reading the treasure map of cultural behaviors, which Erin Meyer spoke about at the 2016 Global Leadership Summit (GLS) at Willow Creek Church.  Meyer (2014) has studied business cultures and seen “the sad truth…that the vast majority of managers who conduct business internationally have little understanding about how culture is impacting their work” (Meyer, 2014, p. 10).   Meyer (2014) concludes that without cultural literacy your default position will be to judge or misjudge others through your own cultural lens and assume that differences, controversy, and misunderstandings are rooted in individual personalities.   The truth?  Cultural patterns of belief and behavior frequently impact our perceptions, cognitions, and actions (Meyer, 2014).   In her book The Culture Map, Meyer defines the eight scales that map the world’s cultures and their location on the continuum.

  • Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: principles-first vs. application-first
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
  • Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
  • Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible time

Today we no longer fly to another country to experience different cultures, because diversity sits in the office right next door.   You may be an American supervisor of an ethnically diverse group whose style reflects the United States Culture Map.  Believing in treating everyone equally, you may be left confused when trying to coach each of your team members who come from China, Japan, Asia, and Eurograph-us-culture-mappe.   You may wonder whether your coaching is making any impact outside of your circle of American colleagues.  Your coaching style is likely straightforward with specific concrete examples (low-context) to back up your feedback couched with soft qualifiers (slightly indirect feedback).  You probably sandwich negative feedback between two positives.  Your Dutch subordinate expects direct feedback, so he may likely misinterpret the degree and importance of your message as he expects you to be straight forward with any negative criticism.   You may feel frustrated at his lack of effort and progress in affecting change.  Perhaps, you may even start to stereotype Dutch behaviors based on repeated experiences with that ethnic culture.   It is not uncommon for people to routinely experience a clash or misunderstanding of cultures.  If we learn about culture, suspend judgment, and build bridges between these cultures to facilitate trust, communication, and ideas, we would harness the potential of every team member.

Giving and receiving negative feedback is a necessary component of business but sometimes riddled with insecurity for both the giver and receiver.  How should constructive criticism be given and taken?  How should feedback be delivered to get the best result?  How much feedback is lost in translation?  How do the words absolutely, strongly, kind of, and sort of play out when delivering criticism?  The answer depends on the culturalization of the giver and receiver.   Certain phrases and qualifiers have different meanings.  Take for example a British colleague providing feedback to his Dutch counterpart.  He says, “Please think about that some more,” implying “That’s a bad idea.”  A Dutch or German colleague, who expects and is comfortable with direct negative feedback, would likely interpret that as “It’s a good idea.  Keep developing it.”

culture-map-tableIn business etiquette classes, we are instructed on the ceremonies which demonstrate respect.  In Japanese business culture, it is customary to exchange small gifts with visitors and present a business card with both hands towards the receiver who respectfully reads it upon presentation versus immediately putting it into his portfolio. Americans easily embrace these cultural mannerisms but fail to realize how communication and language may be used differently.

Frequently in my coaching practice, I reference scales ranging from 1 to 10.  Regardless of the attribute measured, I find when an issue between two people is greater than 2 units apart anywhere on a 1-10 scale, the two parties will need concentrated effort to resolve their differences.  Meyer (2014) confirms my informal conclusion when she states that “what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures” (p. 22).  Relative positioning determines how people will view each other.

Meyer’s (2014) first piece of advice when interacting with someone from another culture is to “listen before you speak and learn before you act” (p. 27).   Understand how culture will impact the conversation.  For example, the United States is the lowest context culture with Japan having the highest context in its communication.  In simplest terms, the people culturized in America tend to communicate literally and explicitly.  They value clarity and place accountability of the intended message on the communicator to accurately convey the meaning of the message (Meyer, 2014).   On the other extreme, Asian cultures often convey messages implicitly which requires the listener to read between the lines.  Good communication is layered and subtle, and the responsibility of its accurate transmission is shared between the sender and receiver.  The Japanese have been culturalized over many generations to become skilled at “reading the atmosphere.”

I find it humorous that education can further exacerbate the cultural divide, by moving people more towards the extreme version of their dominant culture.  Highly educated Americans are taught and encouraged to communicate more effectively in writing and orally and to take more responsibility for the messages they send.   American leaders are typically rewarded for having and implementing the answers within their organizations. On the other hand, Japanese leaders are listening more to what is meant as opposed to what is said.  In my informal survey of American and Japanese business people attending a meeting, I find that at least 75% of the words spoken are by the Americans and 25% by the Japanese.   The Japanese typically spend more time reflecting and reading body language and other non-verbal clues.  When they do speak it typically includes more clarifying questions.  Many times, my American colleagues have misinterpreted the meaning of a nod, assuming their Japanese counterparts are in agreement.  In truth, head nodding is more confirmation of being heard.

In decades past, businesses have been helped by having teams take the Myers Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI) (www.myersbriggs.org) and participate in team-building exercises to understand how team members prefer to communicate, process ideas, handle data, and make decisions.  These business teams were more homogenized in culture, but today’s global business environment demands everyone to be equipped with a new set of skills that embrace diversity in the workplace.  Meyer (2014) delves deeper into communication and evaluating than what I can do justice and also takes the reader through a journey to explore other important cultural attributes.  Understanding, respecting, and working with the deep roots of various cultures will forge and strengthen relationships and performance.   Culturally diverse teams will continue to populate the business landscape and every leader would benefit from learning more about cultural diversity and its impact on business success.

Reference

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business.   New York, NY: Published Affairs. ISBN: 978-1-61039-250-1.


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business and life coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She partners with clients to help them develop and grow successful businesses.  She also works with individuals to create their life plans and build better relationships by identifying and living out their personal values, enhancing their skills and competencies, and holding them accountable to execute their defined goals.   Sandra welcomes comments, questions, and feedback at sandra.s.dillon@hotmail.com.