When Your Church Is Portable: 5 Ways to Create Effective Ministry Space
Churches are popping up in schools, community centers, and warehouses. They’re meeting in movie theaters, coffee shops, and even comedy clubs. While many churches plant roots in permanent facilities, churches often start out mobile and borrow or rent space that's primarily used for another purpose.
Derek DeGroot, vice president of design and integrated services at Aspen Group, said, “Times are changing, and the kinds of facilities churches use are changing, too.”
“We don’t have to worry about the responsibilities and costs of maintaining a building,” said Rachel Wassink, staff apprentice at City of Light Anglican Church, which meets in an elementary school gymnasium in Aurora, Illinois.
According to Currey Blandford, pastor of Life Church, which meets in a park district community center, church leaders with permanent buildings often say they’re jealous of his church, especially when they go through fundraising campaigns. Without the burden of building upkeep, churches like Blandford’s are able to focus on other aspects of ministry.
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But the advantage of rented space extends far beyond the financial benefits. Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago is proud to meet at Uplift High School, where their rent money supports the school’s students, 95 percent of whom live in low-income housing.
Stephanie O’Brien, pastor of Mill City Church, said, “Our mission field is our neighborhood.” For her congregation, this means meeting at a middle school in the heart of Minneapolis. “A school is still a sacred space. God is in that space, too,” she said. “A lot of churches are only in their temporary space until they can find a permanent one. We are where we are because we feel it’s where God is calling us.”
Of course, churches using borrowed or rented space have challenges to overcome. Seating and equipment must be mobile—able to assemble and disassemble quickly. D. J. Jenkins, lead pastor of Anthology Church of Studio City, California, said, “Setup and teardown every Sunday is an enormous and tiring endeavor.” And there are aesthetic issues to consider. Basketball hoops don’t exactly scream worship service. Here’s how these churches make the most of their adapted spaces.
1. Tell your story.
How can a mobile church express identity in a space that isn’t designed for them? Creativity and ingenuity are key. DeGroot believes the beauty of borrowed space is that it can adapt: “You’re not spending a lot of time and money designing spaces that may go out of style or become less relevant in five years.”
According to Wassink, “The physical space just needs to allow us to express our vision for welcoming others into the presence of the Lord.”
Lynn Pickard, senior interior designer at Aspen Group, advised using a backdrop behind the speaker. Something as simple as a black curtain will give the church space intentionality and intimacy. This curtain can be interchanged easily, depending on the sermon theme or liturgical season. It can be accented with simple props, like rugs, plants, candles, or lamps.
Every week, City of Light brings in a wooden cross and an altar draped with fabric. They use curtain backdrops to center the space and hang decorative banners over the top. For special seasons like Holy Week, they incorporate additional visual arts. These elements help express City of Light’s identity.
Gymnasium lighting isn’t exactly conducive to contemplative services, so for special gatherings, City of Light uses only floor lamps and candles, transforming the school gym into calm, ambient space. Similarly, Life Church uses low-level and colored lighting to make their community center more intimate.
2. Place signs along the way.
Invest in signage and wayfinding solutions. How else will people know who you are or where you meet? You may be surprised by the number of visitors who show up because they see the signage. If you partner with a school, ask to cover the school sign with your church banner or put your name on the marquee on Sundays. Place large A-frame signs at nearby intersections, and smaller directional signs along the road, on doors, in your parking lot, or in the hallways. No guest should get lost looking for you.
These pieces don’t have to be extravagant, according to Blandford. Signs will wear out. Life Church uses simple, plastic, white signs with the church’s name and logo, the service time, and an arrow pointing to the community center.
Pickard advises staging greeters in the parking lot and hallways to help people find where the church meets. Many recommend a welcome table with coffee, doughnuts, and space to mingle.
O’Brien sees connection and relationships being fostered another way: online and through a mobile app. A website is often the only place people can go throughout the week for service information. When thinking about hospitality, don’t neglect your true front door: the Google search bar.
Life Church recently launched a new website containing embedded videos of the church services. Now more people are interacting with the website, often the best place to keep people informed about the life of the church.
3. Admit what you lack and adapt.
“Being mobile means we are constantly problem solving to adapt our space,” Wassink said. Here are some common challenges you’ll likely encounter:
Chair setup. Turn this frustration into an advantage. Anthology Church experiments with various seating arrangements in their local recreation center. When chairs aren’t nailed down, you can set them up in creative ways. Arc the chairs in a semi-circle. Eliminate the center aisle to conserve space. Place chairs around tables, or if you’re really daring, in a complete circle around the speaker.
Navigation. Some spaces are difficult for elderly or handicapped people to navigate. Make sure a greeter is present to assist. Leave out chairs on the edge of aisles to accommodate wheelchairs.
Kids’ ministry. Discuss terms with the building manager to see what areas can be adapted for children’s ministry rooms. Keep mothers in mind with a “cry room” or nursing room. John Powell, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in New Caney, Texas, said, “We meet in a high school cafeteria, and every Sunday we turn one of the hallways into a children’s area. It still must function as a hallway to meet fire code, but we have created an adequate nursery using pipe, drape, and AstroTurf.” If extra rooms aren’t available, consider bringing in portable walls to transform part of the space into a nursery or to corral young children. Always make sure these areas are secure and monitored.
Programming. This can be difficult for mobile churches; many just leave programming out. But it’s not impossible. The church leaders I spoke with recommend partnering with other local churches for programs like student ministry.
4. Don't necessarily do it yourself.
Volunteer burnout is a concern for mobile churches. Options such as Portable Church, Church on Wheels, and Church in a Box can help churches maximize their space and mobility and make setup and teardown easier.
Not everyone needs an option like this. If you prefer to do things yourself, consider rotating setup and teardown shifts to give volunteers a break. Powell said, “Setup and teardown take a toll on people. But we’re investing sweat equity into the kingdom work we’re doing. For us, fellowship doesn’t just happen around a supper table. It happens in the 115-degree heat of a trailer full of chairs.”
5. Keep things tidy.
Temporary spaces can tempt churches to leave things cluttered or bare-bones. How can rented space stay organized and focused?
Trailers. Life Church hauls in a trailer each week containing everything they need for their church space: signage, a sound system, projectors, chairs, and toys and supplies for children. The system is efficient, so setup only takes an hour.
Storage. Ask the building manager if space is available to store your stuff. Mill City Church keeps their church materials in the school basement. Others spend a little more money to rent another room, but it saves transportation costs. If your volunteers are willing to transport materials, storage units can work, too.
Screens. Consider other creative options for tidiness and intimacy. Screenflex offers a wide range of portable room dividers, moveable partitions, and temporary walls. Accordion walls fold up quickly and can be rolled into storage.
Church Outside the Box
“As culture changes, we have to become creative in our approach,” said Blandford. “Churches are dying because of our lack of creativity. It has boxed us in, to the detriment of churches—they just can’t get out of that box.”
About Shannon Jirik
Shannon Jirik serves as assistant brand manager for Keyhole Marketing.