Why Portable Church Should Be a Permanent Part of the Future

Portable church Permanent part of future

Chances are, the biggest and most memorable events you’ve been to in your life have happened in a set up/tear down venue:

Concerts

Conferences

Weddings

Parties

Graduations

The majority of these events now happen in rented facilities…stadiums, arenas, tents, convention centers or a beach, park or field in the case of many weddings today.

Virtually no artist owns their own concert facility and makes fans fly to their venue to watch them play.

Imagine having to fly to the “Coldplay facility” in England to watch them play.

No, the bands you love most come to you, rent a facility, set up the show and then move to the next town.

It’s also quite amazing to see what can be done in a portable environment.

One of the biggest shows in history was the last U2 tour – the 360˚tour was an unbelievably elaborate set that is hard to believe could be done on the road. The blog photo above is a shot I took a few years ago at the Toronto stop of  their 360˚ Tour. (For more: here’s a 3:00 time lapse video of the 9 day set up/tear down of the set. To see another view including concert footage, click here.)

On a more personal scale, chances are you will attend a college graduation in a tent or a wedding of someone you love deeply on a beach, in a garden or field, in a restaurant or on a farm. 

So here’s the question:

If the biggest and most meaningful gatherings on the planet are portable, why doesn’t the church make portable church a permanent part of the future?

Almost every church starts portable.  But few want to stay there.

Why?

Because there’s a stigma attached to being portable.

People think you’re not a ‘real church’.

Set up and tear down is hard work.

It feels temporary, not permanent.

Can we rethink that?

It’s not that people think you’re not a real church; some Christians think you’re not a real church.

Set up and tear down is hard work when you’re not organized or don’t have bought-in-volunteers; when you do, it’s sustainable.

Maybe it only feels temporary because the idea is fairly new to church world.

At Connexus, we’ve been doing set up and tear down for over 5 years and have discovered to our surprise that it’s a great way to do church for unchurched people.

In fact, last year, we decided that portable church would be a permanent part of our future. 

While we are looking to find a larger facility that would function as a hub to which we have 24/7 access, weekend venues that are portable make sense for us for numerous reasons.

Here are 7 reasons portable church might make sense as a permanent part of the future:

1. The stigma doesn’t exist with unchurched people. I never expected that to be true, but we’ve heard that story many times. Christians who stay away from portable church will always have another building they can go to for church. 60% of our growth at Connexus is from self-identified unchurched people. Many of them tell us they love our venue because it’s not a ‘church’. I’ve never had an unchurched person say “I will come when you have a real building”.

2. Larger churches are finding portable church works.  Read through some of the stories Portable Church Industries outlines and you’ll see portable church isn’t just for small start-ups. Churches of 1000+ are fully portable.

3. Building costs are disproportionately high. Where I live, 30,000 square feet of new construction permanent space will cost you over 8 million dollars. Even with our $1.3 million dollar budget and a $1.25 million dollar capital campaign last year, building a full scale facility from scratch would be a financially oppressive  move.

4. It allows you to pour more money into ministry. As a 5 year old church, we are debt free with money in the bank and margin for the future. Last weekend we were able to spontaneously give a $5000 donation to aid flood relief in Calgary. That would not have happened if we had a $6 million dollar mortgage.

5. New buildings don’t grow your church. I know more than a few church leaders who have poured millions into new venues only to discover they didn’t grow once they opened. Effective ministry will grow a church. A building won’t (for more on that, read this post on three things that won’t grow your church).

6. Portable is flexible. Flexible, agile churches will make a big impact in the future. You can upsize or downsize your venues based on current momentum. Once you’re in a building, you’re committed to or constrained by the size of footprint you created until money is available to change that. Portable is more more flexible.

7. Buildings eventually become mausoleums. Almost every church leader has heard of Charles Spurgeon. But who can name his church? It still exists, but almost died for lack of attenders in the 1970s. The point is this: God uses people to lead ministries, not buildings. Facilities are a means to an end.

I’m not saying churches shouldn’t have buildings. There are times where churches need them and ought to have them.

But there are lots of dying churches sitting on real estate. And lots of growing churches with none. (I also think dying churches should flip the keys to growing churches…but that’s another post).

Has the time come for us to push past the point where we believe that every growing church should have a building?

The time has come for us to give portable church a permanent place in the future of the church.

And get on with building a movement.

Note: I wrote this post in 2013 when it looked like we would not be able to secure a permanent facility. In the end, Connexus Church managed to secure a permanent facility designed to serve as a hub for all future activities and home to one of our campuses. We will continue to have a portable location and will seek to add more portable locations as we move forward. Portable will continue to be a permanent part of our future. – Carey

14 Comments

  1. Jason Bohac on June 5, 2016 at 12:22 am

    We’ve been portable for going on 10 years now. At year 5 I would have agreed with this, at year 10, well, I’m ready to not be portable anymore. And I’m just the associate.

  2. Nate Ragan on July 10, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    Great thoughts! Continuing down that road, I wonder if the most memorable events would be as memorable if they happened every 7 days, rather than a few times each year.

    I know this completely flies in the face of the modern evangelical church, but maybe there is something to the crazy (first century) idea of church happening around the Table in smaller groups. There’s plenty of communication tools available to share teaching content and help with discipleship & growth. Coming together every once in a while for larger gatherings would then make it seem more special.

    • cnieuwhof on July 11, 2013 at 7:05 am

      I’ve been in on discussions where the idea of quarterly gatherings has come up the challenge with most alternative models I’ve seen so far is that despite the hype, they tend to be steps into less devotion and faithfulness, not steps into greater devotion and faithfulness. Another key would be that alternative venues and gatherings would have to involve more outsiders, not fewer, for the church to thrive. I think if we can crack that code we might on to something that could help many.

    • John M. Harris on January 21, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      Where does the Bible indicate that churches skipped weekly meetings? Careful not to assume something and read it back into the Bible.

      It seems the Corinthians certainly met on the first day of the week, and they all “came together” for the meal, and not in small groups. As an example.

  3. Leadership in 140 Characters | Eric Echols on June 29, 2013 at 7:31 am

    […] Why Portable Church Should Be a Permanent Part of the Future by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  4. Lawrence W. Wilson on June 25, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Carey, these are great insights … so long as we have a worship-as-an-event theology, which most protestants do. There is something about human beings (many of them, anyway) that longs for a sense of place or rootedness, and space as sacred. We always want to move God from a tabernacle to a temple sooner or later. And God seems OK with that much of the time. Portable makes good sense in some contexts. Can permanent also make sense in others?

    • cnieuwhof on June 26, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Lawrence. Interesting point. In a strange way portable church might create a greater emphasis on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit dwelling within believers rather than within physical space. As a protestant, I think it takes us back a little closer to our 16th century roots. Although for sure, worship-as-a-spectacle (lights, cameras, rock band – which we do) does create a sense of occasion even if it is not a sense of space. It’s an interesting discussion.

      • Lawrence W. Wilson on June 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

        I agree with your comment on the emphasis on the Spirit. In my (Wesleyan) tradition, that’s very prominent, which is one reason our buildings traditionally were rather spare. I’m noticing that while the worship-as-event approach, which many of us are doing to some degree, de-emphasizes the physical space but requires more equipment, expertise, and preparation. It seems that we all make some investment in the experience–whether it’s real estate, production, or what have you.

  5. Rick Seidel on June 24, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Thanks Carey for the excellent insights. As one of several campuses of a large multi-site church, we are at that point of wrestling through these issues. (of the 8 campuses, only two of us are in rented facilities) Like all of such discussions, there isn’t one single right or wrong answer. In our area, the downturn in the economy has made purchasing land or a building actually a very viable option and likely better stewardship than renting. I agree with Malcolm’s point of the challenge being more than just the weekend services, but being able to create environments for relationships to deepen. And like you, we have made missional communities (we call them Neighborhood Groups) central to our mission..for all the campuses. I really like your point of the lack-of-permanency perception being more of an issue with the churched than non-churched. I find that to be very true. Personally, my family and I haven’t worshipped in a permanent building since 1998. For us, it would really be an adjustment. Although, I’m sure I could get used to not moving carts and stacks of chairs on Friday nights. 🙂 Oh, that made me think of something…we have seen the portable team serve as a natural way for people to get involved, serve and become an integral part of our church family early on, regardless of where they are spiritually. And, our ministry to the school custodians has been so cool to watch. So God definitely uses these challenges for His glory!

    • cnieuwhof on June 26, 2013 at 12:32 pm

      Rick…great to hear from you! You are right in terms of portable church giving people who would probably never serve a chance to serve. We see that too. And there is a generation growing up to whom portable church is ‘normal’. Great points.

  6. Malcolm Tyree on June 24, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I think events are great in portable locations. The challenge for the church is finding ways to be more than an event. Often times a facility can serve as the space needed to nurture relationships. I’m not suggesting the space should be principally a worship auditorium. In our seven years being portable, we’ve struggled to have space for relationships. As we look into facilities, we want to create a space for relationships, not just for a concert/event.

    • cnieuwhof on June 24, 2013 at 9:52 am

      Hi Malcolm. Great point. We’ve solved that in two ways. We drive everyone to community groups which meet in homes. It’s free and far more effective than a building for us. And second, we’re creating a central hub we have access to (in our case a 5000 square foot office space with a large meeting room) that we can rent and customize at 10 cents on the dollar compared to building. We plan on growing that space over the next few years, again, inexpensively.

      • John M. Harris on January 21, 2015 at 10:49 pm

        How do you keep a greater than 80% ratio of small group to worship attendance?

        • Carey Nieuwhof on January 22, 2015 at 7:30 am

          John…appreciate the question. Not 100% sure of the context. Can you help me out?

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