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Church on the Fly?

Church on the Fly?

A look at the pros and cons of portable church

The Meeting House in Toronto, Canada, is one example of a portable church. Portable church proponents report that the approach can save untold dollars, helping a church give back in the form of its missions work and community service.

Portable church leaders and veterans report that there are a host of practical issues to confront when a congregation opts for a portable church. Arranging for storage, organizing volunteer setup teams—for wayfinding signage, as shown here, AVL equipment, and everything from A-Z—as well as communicating with the community are all crucial considerations.

Nearly every Saturday night, Pastor Jeff Fuchs of Blount Community Church in Alcoa, Tenn., heads to the local high school to set up the gym for Sunday services. His team of experienced volunteers uses a streamlined setup procedure to support the thriving ministry, now worshipping at the same site for four years.

Pastor Fuchs has a “portable church,” a term that usually refers to congregations that hold worship services in a space that has other uses. In some cases, portable churches are sole congregations, but the model is also used extensively to plant new churches.

“Typically a church is going portable because the financial commitment up front is far less and is within reach,” says Bruce Smith, lead and founder of Church Solutions Group in Barrington, Ill. “Sometimes, these churches stay portable, embrace this as part of their DNA, and have no plans [for] permanent facilities. But, that’s rare.”

Portable is as portable does

Portable church members say there are pluses and minuses to the impermanence of their home. Because they are usually renting space, their overhead costs are low and many feel that they are now bringing their ministry directly into the community. On the flip side, it can become wearing to set up and tear down each weekend.

Still, says Fuchs, “It is a real special time in the life of the church.” Portable church members say the process of preparing a place for worship each week creates and sustains a heightened sense of mission.

Rev. Margaret Hawk, whose New Creation Metropolitan Community Church in Columbus, Ohio, was portable for several years, believes that being mobile keeps the worship experience fresh for church members. “I think we were more creative in some ways. You can get in a bit of a rut when you have a permanent church.”

The low overhead costs of a portable church can be particularly attractive to congregations with a strong outreach mission. Fuchs says that being portable “has freed up hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’re a giving church and one of the reasons is that we have it to give.” Even though the current economic downturn has left many churches struggling, Fuchs says, “I’ve never had to worry about finances.”

While startup costs may be a factor for many congregations, the multi-site Liquid Church in New Jersey’s Morristown is portable by strategy rather than default, reports Operations Pastor Rich Birch. The church, now in the process of opening its fourth site, believes it is bringing its ministry to the people. “It also allows us to quickly change our facilities by simply renting different parts of the convention center or school as we grow and our needs change,” he says.

Special considerations

There are a host of practical issues that need to be confronted when a congregation considers establishing a portable church. Among them are arranging for storage, organizing volunteer setup teams, communicating with the community, and finding appropriate venues.

“Each church is unique,” says Kevin Jones, sales director of Portable Church Industries, a Troy, Mich., firm that specializes in helping portable churches. Different churches have different visions that they want to implement in existing spaces, which sometimes require a creative approach to establish a sense of the sacred.

Kendra Malloy, creative director of Portable Church Industries, says that mobile congregations “need systems and processes in place to meet the needs of the church. Then, they’ll be able to concentrate more on ministry.”

While schools and theaters are often the first choices for a portable congregation, churches have set up temporary shop in pizza parlors, convention and community centers, and bars.

Hawk believes that rented space can present unique opportunities to create a solid worship experience. “Are the ceilings high? Create vertical focal points that inspire a sense of connection to something ‘higher.’ Is the room larger than necessary for seating? Create a quiet prayer space to the side or rear of the room.”

Portable Church Industries takes a systematic approach to helping mobile congregations pick an appropriate site with adequate space and parking, establish a realistic budget and income projections, and provides systems and supplies to assist in setup and storage.

Speaking from personal experience, Jones of Portable Church emphasizes the importance of organization in the setup experience. “It needs to be super simple for the volunteers,” he says. “The biggest thing is that you don’t want the team too tired to enjoy the service or meet with other members afterward.”

Communicating with the surrounding community also can be a hurdle when there is no permanent signage announcing the church. While some churches use emails and advertising, many use sandwich board and portable stick-in-the-ground signs during Sunday services.

Storage is an issue, too. While some shared sites might have storage on hand for ministry supplies, churches often cart their equipment in for setup each week. “Staff’s homes become storage facilities,” says Fuchs. Much of the equipment, including audio systems and other electronics, are stored in trailers on property owned by staff or members.

Fuchs initially put together a patchwork system that he later replaced with a storage system designed for portable churches, with specific containers for pre-school rooms, teaching rooms, electronics and other equipment. “It was a little more expensive than piecemealing it, but it is so much more efficient,” he says.

Some alternatives

For some rapidly growing congregations, it makes sense to consider alternate building methods, including steel structures and other building solutions, like those offered by Canadian-based Sprung and Proteus on Demand of Austell, Ga.

Jim Avery, vice president of Sprung, says that his company’s structures are designed as a lifetime building, but they still can be relocated to meet the needs of growing churches. They also cost about one-third less than a conventional structure and can oftentimes be put up in less than half the time, he reports.

“They are also very modern-looking, with a high-tech feel to them,” says Avery. “They can help a congregation connect with a younger audience.”

Looking ahead

While some congregations are content with their mobility, for others it is a transitional step. Smith says some congregations report that their communities viewed them as more substantial when they acquired a permanent facility. “Were they actually more legit? Of course not, but their community viewed them that way,” he says.

Even for those who have prospered as mobile, the issue of a possible transition is often considered. Fuchs, for example, recently bought a piece of property—with cash—as his church considers its future. While his congregation is not rushing it, he says, “There will be a point where we can more effectively do ministry with our own building.”

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