One of the challenges of launching a church or multisite campus in a rented space is finding an excellent location where you can maximize the worship, children’s, and first impressions experiences. Schools seem to be the most popular rental options in most parts of the country, but what do you look for when you are evaluating a potential portable church location? Good sites are easily identifiable, safe, have plenty of parking, have a good-sized auditorium, and will be flexible with your Sunday schedule. A common challenge is turning the secular space into a worship space each week. The auditorium (gym, cafeteria, or theater) is where this typically takes place.

When considering portable worship spaces, what should you look for when surveying a potential auditorium for worship? Below, I’ll share some examples from the portable church that I served with when I was an Executive Pastor.

1. Seats

How many seats?

The obvious starting point is how many seats are in the auditorium knowing that seventy percent of that number would be the practical capacity. In my past church, our DNA included active ushering which assisted each person to their seat, ensuring that we filled from the front and the middle. Even with active ushering, the auditorium felt uncomfortably full at eighty percent.

What is the condition of the seats?

How many are broken? Seats became an important discussion to have early with the school because, invariably, a few were broken to begin with and more would break during the school year. One site we used would X-out each broken seat with bright blue tape. It was ugly. But, they didn’t care—it served their purposes. It turned out that the seats were not manufactured anymore and the school had to special order parts from some antique dealer in another state, resulting in it taking a month to repair.

How wide are the seats? How badly do they creak?

Squeaky seats are a huge distraction during a sermon. At one site it was so bad that it was almost comical when someone had to get up to leave the auditorium.

How much room between the rows?

One of our parishioners was a former NBA player and Olympic volleyball medalist. In our middle school auditorium, he couldn’t fit in the seats because the space between the rows was too narrow. We ended up reserving a seat for him each week which had a wheelchair cutout in front of it.

How many aisles?

The number and layout of the aisles were important to us; communion was a focal point of our worship service and our lead pastor had a strong preference of an organized procession.

2. Stage

What is the size of the stage?

Our DNA was one in which we wrote much of our own worship songs and music. We had a full band of professional musicians and leaned more toward classical than modern in style. Each week we wanted enough space for our full worship band which included two keyboards, four singers, drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, violinist, cellist, and other instruments as led.

Does the venue have an active theatre program?

If so, what do they do with the sets on stage during a production? Do any of those productions have Sunday events?

  • These questions became the most difficult to work through. In our city, the better the facility, the more it was used—which meant conflicts.
  • One space that I looked at downtown was beautiful but they had an active, “progressive” theater program which often included nude and suggestive stage decorations.
  • One site had a rudimentary theater program at their school. They were not sophisticated enough to remove sets between performance seasons, which could impact our stage size by fifty percent.
  • One site could move their sets, but wanted Sunday matinee performances for their shows.
  • One site already had contracted with the symphony to have four concerts a year on early Sunday afternoons.

What are the audio visual built-ins? Power? Sound system and speakers? Staging?

  • The middle school auditorium had no built-ins and we had to bring in (and take out) everything each week. This fact would mean increased cost of equipment and weekly setup and tear down time.
  • The high school auditorium had a complete sound, speaker, lighting, and board system that we could use for $50 a week. It was a Rider to the main agreement and a very normal part of their world. However, if you used their stuff, you had to hire one of their AV Techs to be onsite the whole time to run the equipment, at approximately $50 per hour.
  • Power is a key component to observe, especially in your worship area. The gothic cathedral we rented in the evenings had old power (non-grounded) that generated a buzz in our speakers. We needed to purchase special (expensive) conditioning filters for the power.

Acoustics: Do the floors creek? Is everything handicap accessible? How can you access?

The middle school auditorium was designed for the spoken theater before audio amplification became normal. The wood stage floor creaked. If it was silent when the teaching pastor came on stage, you could hear every step. The music reverberated off all the walls simultaneously, creating an unpleasant experience. One of our pastors was wheelchair bound. How would he be able to get on/off stage each week with minimum attention and disruption? These were the types of questions we asked ourselves as we surveyed each facility we visited.

3. Lobby and General

Food allowed in the auditorium? Drinks allowed?

For us, each of our sites did not allow food or drink (except water) in the auditorium and it was a key component of the Facility Use Agreement. Violation of this could negatively impact our continued use of the site. For others, this is not the case. Be sure to ask. For us, this meant that our “active ushers” got to be Starbucks police as well—not ideal. For communion, the school gave us special permission to serve communion in the auditorium (via procession up to the front) with agreement that we would remedy any grape juice stains.

Is there a spacious lobby? Will the lobby support hospitality, greeting, welcome tables and signage?

In our middle school auditorium, there was a lobby which had a fifteen-foot gold and blue mosaic tile Viking warrior (school mascot) as the focal point upon entry. Therefore, we had to create a welcoming space using drapes and signs to soften the mood a bit.

What time can you get in to setup? What time do you have to be out by?

Because we didn’t really understand the concepts of a balanced system and were not aware of companies like Portable Church® Industries that help design balanced systems, our setup and tear down was quite involved and time consuming. We had to contract with the school to get in early (5:30 am) and stay until 2:00 pm to get out.

The early arrival was only a problem when the custodian did not show up to open the gates. In that case, it is good to know what the phone tree is for getting someone else there.

The late tear down became an issue at times when the school had Sunday afternoon events. Had we done a better job designing our systems, we could have reduced our costs each week and minimized conflicts with the school’s afternoon programming.

Knowing what I know now, it should have only taken an hour to setup and an hour to tear down, given our size and site specifics. We took double that with a paid team of 15+.

Can it be used mid-week or on special occasions?

There were times we wanted special mid-week evening worship events. There were times people wanted a Saturday wedding. Even in our young community, we had deaths each year.

Of course, once you work through all these details internally and with your facility, it is important to get them included in your Lease or Use Agreement—even if you have to add them as a Memorandum of Understanding. Memories have a way of changing (both for the church and the site leaders) and the points of contact often move on. Writing down everyone’s understanding from the beginning helps reduce problems going forward.

While there are many challenges in using a rented space for your worship services, I believe all those challenges can be turned into opportunities to positively impact the community as you go out and build strong relationships with the school, teachers, maintenance staff, and families you interact with each week.

For a broader look at this topic, I invite you to check out a free E-Book on the Portable Church website entitled, How to Choose the Right Facility or contact me directly.