It is an exciting time as many congregations make their best efforts to be warm and welcoming to infrequent or out-of-town guests. I am reminded of a quote by a well-known minister, Andy Stanley, who said,
"The sermon begins in the parking lot."
In other words, the power and the message of our hospitality reflects our beliefs as much or more than the sermon itself.
It may seem like an unrelated fact, but did you know that churches are large consumers of coal tar sealers? The stuff that the American Medical Association says should be banned and is a risk to children and the unborn?
Because of this, I would like to offer this friendly amendment:
"The sermon begins ON the parking lot."
Nothing says more about your what you believe than having a safe, non-toxic surface to cross on your way to worship. It is a form of hospitality. When you invite someone into your home, you should do what you can to make it clean and safe. It wouldn't be welcoming to have a party when your home was condemned or when someone was very sick in the home.
Here's what I mean. My daughter once went to play at a friends house. I stopped by to pick her up. I was immediately accosted by the smell of aging pet excrement. Then after observing trip hazards and a wobbly ceiling fan above her head, I was convinced that my baby girl was never going there again.
In the same way, inviting your visitors to cross a toxic surface,which is akin to be exposed to second-hand smoke, is unacceptable. It is like walking your children through a narrow corridor of cigarette smokers or across shards of glass. If your visitors knew about the science and the risks, as many do, and you asked them to cross that wretched landscape to learn about "loving your neighbor," how many do you think would return?
Jesus criticized the religious leaders for not offering him basic hospitality of the day like washing his feet, or giving him a kiss. They didn't care enough about his needs to meet them. I would also say that many churches don't care enough either to know about the harm caused by coal tar sealers or do anything about it.
Three kinds of churches
Experience has taught me that in general churches fall into three categories when dealing with coal tar sealers:
After the District of Columbia passed their ban of coal tar pavement sealers, the congregation of Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church resealed their parking lot. They took their choice of a non-toxic alternative to educate their congregation about the choices they were making and why a ban was taken up by the local government. They were informed and proactive...a model for others.
2. Intransigent (aka, "unchanging, stiff-necked")
A long time reader and a concerned educator recently went to her North Carolina church maintenance committee. She heard they were getting ready to decide what maintenance they were going to do for their church parking lot. The use of coal tar based sealers was the approach they were looking to use.
She presented a summary of the science on the problems with coal tar sealers. They were apparently as interested as the cast iron figure pictured here.
Having been around churches most of my life both as a member and consultant, I must say this is disappointing. The Christian church is built on the premise that what we were doing was wrong and we need to admit it and change our behavior. In theory it should set in motion an introspective attitude looking to constantly improve ones life.
But instead it somehow creates a mental cocoon that all past decisions are among the sacred from the carpet, to the pew to the parking lot. Lord help us.
The toxicity of coal tar pavement coatings has been covered in mainstream media, but for all the noise it has been lost on many in the nation. Yes it was covered by Readers Digest and Popular Mechanics, but I don't think a single faith publication has covered the topic. Perhaps with this post that might begin to change.
If you're among those that are seeking to learn more about this issue I would suggest watching this 2 minute video and reading this 6 page brochure from the USGS. Both are intended for the non-scientific consumer.
Addressing the coating on your parking lot isn't as simple as putting a smile on your face or being gracious, but perhaps as you look forward to serving your community this can be one of the changes ahead. And then you can be among those whose sermons truly being on the parking lot.
If you have questions or other experiences, then I would love to hear about them in the comment section below. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!