6 Strategies to Succeed in Portable Church (Discovering Permanent Success in a Portable Church, Part 3)


Read this if…
You are a church leader or church attender in a portable church environment looking for ways to help ensure success.

This post in one sentence…
Six specific ways we have learned to succeed in a portable church environment.


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. In the previous two posts, we discussed portable church challenges and opportunities. Let’s close this conversation by looking at the best ways to succeed in a portable context.


Any opportunity, regardless of size or potential, is worthless when not leveraged. In the world of portable church, this is certainly true. So many church leaders (and attendees) allow the challenges of portable church to overwhelm the possibilities. In some cases, I’ve even seen pastors lose their passion for the church in the face of portable challenges.

But being a portable church does not have to be a necessary evil while waiting for your own building. There are ways to make the portable church succeed, and in doing so, possibly influence more people toward Jesus than you could if you owned a building.

Here are five specific ways we at Watermarke Church have found success in a temporary facility for over six years. Again, we have NOT cornered the market on portable church, but we’ve certainly learned a thing or two – especially considering the logistics required for us to house an average of 5,000 attendees in a school.

1. Improving the facility helps you AND them.

There are few places where your capital expenditures go further than in your portable facility. It’s a little counter-intuitive. Why invest money in a building that isn’t yours? But whether it’s improving the sound system, adding production lights, or painting the walls, your dollars gain good will with the leaseholder and help your environments in the process. It is almost a second mile moment for the church.

Watermarke Example: We have done a lot of leaseholder improvements over the years. In fact, when we moved into our current portable facility some 5 years ago, we spent time and money building a stage, installing a new sound system, painting the walls, and much more. These improvements certainly helped our church environments, but they equally helped our relationship with our building owner. The school is able to leverage our stage, use our sound system for school functions, and believe me; they now have the BEST production auditorium in the county!

The tertiary benefit is all the parents and friends of students who attend any function in the school see our production value and associate excellence with our church. Not too bad!

2. Love your literal neighbor as yourself.

Somebody important gave us that instruction. And nowhere is there a more omnipresent neighbor than in a shared space. It is easy to allow the business relationship forged in a lease to remain a business relationship thereafter. And while that can be successful, it does not necessarily need to remain all business.

Whether you lease from a school, theater, concert hall, or another type of venue, there are stakeholders using the building when you are not. In most cases, using it significantly more than you. And these people are as much a part of your community as anyone else. They need to be reached, loved, and shown grace just the same.

Think of the advantage this creates! In a church building, there are no unchurched stakeholders occupying the space during the week. But in basically every other portable venue, there are people who need to be reached walking the halls daily. What an opportunity!

Watermarke Example: Our church meets in a school. I can’t begin to count the number of teachers whose experience with Watermarke staff on Monday led them to attend our church the following Sunday. We do everything we can to be gracious and helpful to the teachers and administration at our school. For instance, we feed the teachers breakfast during planning week, we stock their break room with soda every week, and for the teachers with who we share rooms, we surprise them with gift cards and supplies frequently.

You get the point. Our goal is to love them and serve them. That’s how Jesus would treat people if he were leading a portable Temple.

3. Systems, systems, and more systems.

Portable church is complex. It’s full of logistical challenges. But great systems can make set up and tear down much less painful. There are a multitude of companies who specialize in providing road gear, cases, and portable church solutions. I’m sure each has their specialties. What’s important is that every portable church has a systematic way to succeed in creating the Sunday experience. Think systems.

Watermarke Example: Our entire set up and tear down process is systematized. We use nearly 40 classrooms in our school, and we have cheat sheets for every space, allowing our crews to easily transform a class to a church room and back into a classroom seamlessly by picture and diagram. We load our trailers specifically to make setting back up easier. We use pipe and drape liberally to cover what needs to be hidden. We consider what areas need to be set up or tore down first. We synchronize the process. It’s all systems, and systems make it successful.

4. Own the building when you’re in the building.

You don’t have to own the building to act like you do. Creating a church identity and brand in a leased space is a challenge, but it can be done successfully.

Use ample signage. And by ample, I mean AMPLE. Brand the space from the road into your auditorium. Hang way-finding signage inside the building. Like everywhere all over the building. Use roll-up banners. Flags. Fabric frames. Whatever it takes to make the building look like your space on Sunday.

And never apologize for being portable.

Watermarke Example: When you drive on our campus each Sunday, you can quickly forget we meet in a school. We have painted much of the shared classroom space bright colors for our children (see point # 1). We have placed flags and road/parking signs all over the place. We have more than 30 indoor signs (fabric frames and roll-up banners). Our branding is everywhere, because on Sunday, we act like we own the building.

5. Be creative in your lease, not just your programs.

There are many ways to create win-win opportunities in a lease. And there are just as many ways to build non-monetary exchanges as part of your agreement. You can offer to staff and run graduations, plays, and other production events. You can offer your band for concerts, dances, or movie premiers. The church should be the most creative and excellent organization in your community, so leverage what you do best to help your building owner.

Watermarke Example: When we first moved into our current facility, we negotiated to pre-pay 1.5 years of our lease to provide capital the school needed to finish some of their space. This pre-payment not only was used by the school to finish some space that we eventually would use, but we were able to pre-pay at a discount rate. A creative solution in our lease that helped our school and saved us thousands of dollars. Not to mentioned the prepayment allowed us to not feel the burden of a monthly lease payment for 1.5 years! We grew by over 1,200 people during this time, creating a much larger giving base when the monthly lease payments began.

6. Find cheap labor and let them do the labor.

I believe you can temporarily use volunteers to set up and tear down each week, but eventually they will burn out. Even worse, you will regret their volunteer hours not being used more directly for ministry. So consider contracting the set up and tear down labor to high school or college students. Sure, it’s more expensive than a volunteer team, but the sustainability is worth the price, and your volunteers can be on the front lines of ministry.

Watermarke Example: We used volunteers in the beginning, but as we financially could (I realize this is a process), we began outsourcing to students in need of weekend work. Today, we have one facilities director on staff who manages a large team of contractors each weekend. These students are mostly attendees at our church, so they are invested in the job and we are investing in them.

Nobody will dispute the challenges of portable church, but we should never allow the challenges to overshadow the advantages. Portable church provides unique opportunities to reach people and sustain health. When done well, a church can build a strong core, find financial stability, and grow big before even considering a building of their own.

If you are in a portable church, I challenge you to make it successful. Let’s never allow our building to dictate our mission or vision. And let’s certainly not allow it to become an excuse for mediocrity.

How else have you made portable church succeed?

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