6 Challenges in Portable Church (Discovering Permanent Success in a Portable Church, Part 1)

AT A GLANCE…

Read this if…
You are a church leader or church attender in a portable church environment.

This post in one sentence…
Finding a sense of permanence in a portable church can be challenging, but not impossible.


As a church leader, I’ve spent the better part of my professional Christian life in portable church. I’ve learned a lot, made some mistakes, found some advantages, and experience success without a building. Over the next few posts, we will talk about portable church – the challenges, opportunities, and ways to succeed.


Let’s start with your challenges…

THE CHALLENGE OF PORTABLE CHURCH…

Do you LOVE leading a church in a temporary facility?

Actually, I’m sure there are some pastors who do, but even they would readily admit portable church provides many unique challenges.


MY PORTABLE CHURCH BACKGROUND

I’ve been a Lead Pastor for six years and prior served as a Family Ministry and Student Director for nearly four. That’s nearly a decade of professional Christianity, and most of these years have been spent in temporary facilities. Today, I lead a North Point Ministries campus location for Andy Stanley (Watermarke Church). We average roughly 5,000 people each week meeting in a school. We set up and tear down 40 classrooms, a gym, and a cafeteria every week.

All that to say, like many of you, I’m intimately familiar with portable church.

Before we consider the opportunities and paths to portable success, let’s identify some of the issues. Because leading in a portable facility presents many challenges.


PORTABLE CHALLENGES

1. Identity: A permanent church in a temporary home.

For some reason, most Christian assume a real church should have a real building. At Watermarke, we have been a portable church in leased facilities for ALL six of my leadership years. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they would like to try our church once we decide to build a building. I won’t tell you how I respond (because you might doubt my salvation)!

But it’s often the reality of portable church. It’s like the portable church is the Pinocchio of churches (can’t we just be a real church…). It can create an identity crisis. But, securing a permanent identity in a portable church is possible.

2. Ownership: Staff and volunteer leaders can struggle owning the mission without owning the facility.

It can be hard to convince people to volunteer in a portable church environment. Volunteers need to buy into the mission. And even though the mission is completely independent from a building, when you own a building people feel better owning the mission.

Also, people who give of their time and/or resources want to know they are making a good investment. A portable location can give the impression of a temporary church. For good reason people are adverse to poor perceived investment. This dynamic can create a leadership gap and financial instability for portable churches.

3. Environments: Creating excellence experiences in non-optimal spaces.

A school is designed to execute education. Theaters are designed for movies. Ballrooms are meant for… balls I guess. The point is executing ministry excellences in spaces not designed for ministry can be challenging. Some schools have great auditoriums, but still lack optimally designed children’s spaces. Theaters have great seating, but please don’t put my crawling baby on any of the floors! There is only so much a pipe-n-drape maze can cover! It’s a challenge.

4. People Resources: Expending volunteer resources in non-ministry facing areas.

This is one challenge that always frustrates me! It can take numerous (dozens and dozens) volunteers to set up and tear down a building. And every volunteer minute spent on transforming a building is a minute that COULD have been spent executing ministry. Of course the set up and tear down teams can enjoy serving and develop great relationships, but I’d still rather have volunteers leading a 3rd grade small group than setting up chairs. Odds are they can’t do both, because…

5. Exhaustion: Burning the midnight oil burns out volunteers.

Portable is exhausting! For everyone involved! By week two, it’s hard to get excited about pulling trailers from storage to a school at 5:00 a.m. Just thinking about it makes me too tired to write about it.

6. Availability vs. Expense: Your lease agreement can determine your ministry opportunities.

Not in every sense, but in many. If you want to offer a service on Wednesday night, you can’t unless you amend the lease (which is going to cost something). Need to get into the building a few hours early? That will cost you (if it’s possible). We are in a school, so working on our environments during school hours is not always an option. We struggle to prepare for our adult services, because during the week we have very limited access to the auditorium (it doubles as the school’s gym).

A portable church can feel trapped by their lease and building availability. And, every opportunity doesn’t just come with a cost; it comes with a cost and facility limitation. That’s a challenge!

How can we overcome these real challenges? We’ll tackle that in the next post, but for now, I’d love to know what I missed? What other challenges do portable churches face? Leave a comment and let me know so I can include them as we move forward.

Lastly, if this is helpful in any way, tell Brian Sippy thanks. He sparked the idea!

  4Comments

  1. Gavin Adams   •     Author

    Tabitha, first, I’m sorry you guys are facing these struggles. That stinks.

    Moving from a permanent church building to a portable situation will be tough. Mostly because your people be tempted to feel it is a step backward. In some ways, it is, but there are many advantages (as you probably read above).

    I would encourage you to really define the benefits and craft a vision for why this is the best move for your church. And the vision can’t be financial–it must be about reaching and growing people. You guys can make this work, but without a solid vision for what could be, it will be an uphill battle.

    Worship is definitely difficult in a portable facility, but depending on your style, there are solutions. In our facility, we have an agreement that our staging remains in place all week. This gives us a much better experience on Sunday AND allows the school to have a better state for their programming.

    I hope that helps. Just make sure you guys craft this as a better way to move forward. This may sound harsh, but take it as an encouragement–if you can’t move and grow, then maybe there is another solution, like merging with another congregation. It’s so hard to execute great ministry without resources, and resources typically come with people. My point is there may be other options to move forward beyond just moving to temporary facilities.

    Thanks for the comment!

  2. Tabitha   •  

    Hi Gavin,
    How do you know you’re church is ready or can sustain a “portable ministry”? Our church is in transition. We sold the church building we’ve owned and worshipped in for over 50 years to another congregation. The plan was to remain in that facility (rent-free) for a year but the congregation that bought our facility is not keeping up with clelanliness or honoring the schedule for services, meetings etc. we had agreed to. I’m a member of an ad hoc team to identify risks, potential solutions to this chanlle (up to and including renting a community center near where our new church will be located), along with best practices for successfull and effective “portable ministry”. Our church is small (less than 50 people on a good Sunday) and wonder if this transition to a different facility would be devestatating for the congregation. Also, while we are the church, what about worship in a facility that’s not dedicated to the purpose of whorship? I’ve worshipped in transitional facilities before and there is a distinct difference with the worship experience. Any light you can shed on this post woud be appreciated.

    Blessings!

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