Church in a Box (Lessons for Meeting in a Rented Building)
Five practical issues for churches who meet in rented premises to grapple with.
Early on in the pandemic when churches were being asked to close, I asked the Minister for Faith about churches who ‘rented their meeting places’. He told me that churches could not – at the moment – rent out their buildings. “No,” I replied, “you’ve misunderstood. I mean churches that rent places for them to meet: schools, community buildings and so on.” “Do churches do this?” he asked.
The answer, of course, to anyone who knows something of evangelicals, is ‘of course they do’. In fact, many do.
I don’t think we have the exact information to hand, but there will be a significant minority of FIEC churches who meet in rented premises. I spent one Sunday earlier this month at two of them: Avenue Community Church in Leicester (in the morning) and my home church, Christchurch Harborough in Market Harborough (in the afternoon).
There are lots of arguments to be made for such neutral, rented locations – both positive and negative. But I thought it would be worth reflecting on some practical issues that church leaders need to find time and space to grapple with.
Bookings are always vulnerable
The ideal location would be available to you every week. But many churches who rent premises find that even the best venues don’t allow this continuity.
We meet in another church’s building, which is very kind and gracious of them, but there are some Sundays when the building is not available and we have to find another location. We could grumble about this but, as it is only occasional, we try to find the positive in the frustration. At the moment, we book a church lunch, service, and Lord’s Supper around tables at a local hotel. It feels like we gain, rather than lose.
Even when we rented a school, there was some vulnerability. For example, the school would not rent to us on Christmas Day. And churches who rent school halls discover that renting during exam periods can be particularly tricky.
Once you drop below say, 48 out of 52 Sundays, communicating venue changes to the church and the wider world becomes pretty complicated.
Your relationship with the venue owner is key.
If it's a relationship with a contracted agent, which is a little more tricky, it is still a relationship worth cultivating. But don't forget there is always an ultimate owner.
For example, let’s say you rent from a school through an agent. When did you last send a big box of chocolates for the staff room with a note to the head: "thanks for letting us rent the building, we’re really grateful"?
In the busyness of everything there is to organise, it’s easy to overlook such politeness. But churches often report that investment here pays dividends in other places - for example, invites to lead assemblies and so on.
This is also the way to attempt to manage challenging times, particularly with venue owners who take a dim view of some of our doctrinal or ethical positions. This is not the place to provide help and wisdom with that other than to say that when things get difficult (as they sometimes do), it will always help to have a good relationship to fall back on.
“You’re our favourite hirer”, I heard one venue owner say of a church, “always taking care of the building and leaving it in a good state.”
Setting up (and packing down) is onerous
You will already know that renting a building adds to the administrative burden, including the physical effort of setting up. Don’t underestimate this.
For us, this means getting an offsite trailer, unloading, setting out a PA, arranging the kitchen for refreshments, and setting out 120 chairs. And then all in reverse, with a bit of cleaning thrown in. Occasionally we have to clean up after a previous hire too.
It is often the smaller, newer churches that meet in rented premises and all this can add just another burden. We pay someone to do most of this work. It means there’s consistency, accountability, and others are freed up to serve in pastoral and other capacities.
Some compromises are necessary
When you’re working this way, you simply have to accept that not everything can be as you want it to be.
Take the PA. We get our building from 2pm for a 3pm service. You can’t set up and rehearse a music group in that time so we tend to end up playing as a ‘scratch band’. Fortunately, we have the musicians to allow us to do this but there’s little time for nice fancy balancing of sound.
There will be similar compromises in other areas of church life where we would do things a bit differently if we could be permanently set up. But some perspective is necessary here. We want to do things well within our limitations but we also know that church is not ultimately about professionalism.
Storage is key
If you’re fortunate enough to meet in rented premises with storage available, hoorah! But you still know that size matters.
Invest in standard boxes (with wheels) if you can. We have to store off-site and, as the picture below shows, that means every Sunday is a packing challenge. But there are ways to do this wisely. For years, we had a PA system designed for permanent installation. Madness. Now we’ve gone mobile, and things are much easier.
Investing at this point will often make your life easier week by week. We have an offsite container but rather than unload boxes into it every week we have a small trailer we park in it. Still a bit of work but considerably easier than a more manual approach.
I happen to think that meeting in a rented building confers lots of benefits - we especially enjoy being free of maintenance bills. But we also suffer from building envy. We needn’t.
'Church in a box' can work well – and needn’t be the headache that many assume it will be. Planning for it well means churches will be freed up to concentrate on what really matters.