In many towns across the U.S., you can locate a number of well-established churches simply by looking for their steeples. But many church plants, including the one I serve, will meet in a variety of different (and usually not ideal) locations before they establish themselves in a building of their own.
Chris Priestley is the senior pastor of Crossroads Church, a church plant that meets in Westover, W. Va., just outside the college town of Morgantown. The church began five years ago while he was still living in Charleston, and every weekend he would drive two-and-a-half hours to be part of it. When it first began, their meeting location didn't even have walls.
"We started with 20 guys in a picnic shelter along the river, so you're dodging goose poop and all that kind of stuff. It was just nuts," he said laughing.
As the congregation grew, Crossroads was able to move into a storefront facility that was more central to the community they were trying to reach.
"My strategy in that is we just want to be as central in the location that we're a part of as possible, so that we can have the most impact there and really know that culture and be a part of it," he said.
Although a fully-enclosed building was probably better than a picnic shelter, it wasn't ideal by any means. The congregation would become distracted while trying to listen to sermons, Priestley said, because curious passersby would peer into the window during their services, and in the summer, birds would sit outside and chirp loudly within earshot of the service.
The storefront could only hold about 80 people, and two years ago, the church moved into an old church building that had a greater seating capacity.
"With a church planter there's got to be versatility in recognizing you're not going to be in your location long if you're anticipating growth," said Priestley. He later added, "Right now if you've got enough seating for 100, statistically you're only going to get about 80 people, and really probably about 60, before they feel uncomfortable."
Priestley became the senior pastor of Crossroads and essentially replanted the church shortly after it moved into the old church building two years ago. When he took over the congregation, however, he also assumed the problems associated with maintaining the worn-out building as well.
During the first summer there, a hole somehow opened up in the roof which allowed water to leak into the building when it rained. That same year the air conditioning and heating units both broke down. The summer was hot, and although the hole in the roof created extra ventilation, the church had to distribute bottled water and use portable fans during services to keep cool.
"It was pretty nutty. We thought about putting a Slip 'N Slide down the middle of the aisle in case anyone wanted to get baptized that way," Priestley said jokingly.
The building also had problems with its foundation, which caused water leaks and mold to grow in the basement-level nursery, and the church had to have experts come in to fix the problem.
Priestley's advice for the church planter who is looking to buy a building is pretty simple: don't do it until you're ready for a building that seats over 200 people, and make sure you're prepared to stay there for at least five years.
Jim Moon, Jr., is the lead pastor of Crosspoint Encuentro Church in Smyrna, Ga., and the coaching director for the North Georgia Church Planting Network. His congregation currently meets in another church's building, but at one time they gathered at a local Christian school and had to set up and tear down all of their equipment every Sunday.
"The thing that's hard about [being a portable church] is it never stops. You never get a break. The volunteers never get a break. It's a constant sacrifice and it's a constant use of human energy and motivation," he told me on Thursday.
Moon explained that setting up and tearing down equipment could take a total of two hours on a Sunday, when the service itself was only an hour-and-a-half long, at the most.
Church plants that utilize local schools for meetings don't have access to the school until the custodian lets them in, and they are restricted by how long they are allowed to stay. When they are on a time limit, Moon said, it can be difficult to build community and have fellowship time after the service ends. But there are also advantages to meeting in a facility, like a school, that isn't a church building.
"We noticed almost immediately when we started meeting at a church facility that there was a category of people that would not show up," said Moon. "When we were in a school...they would give it a try because it didn't feel too churchy."
Churches that meet in schools were the focus of some major media attention earlier this year when New York City's Board of Education decided to ban worship services in the city's public schools, a decision that affected over 60 congregations. The ban, however, was eventually overturned in court.
When it comes to finding a good facility, Moon said there are a number of factors that church planters should consider. First, it should be only "one turn off a major road" so that newcomers can find it easily. Church planters shouldn't spend "a boatload" of money on a facility they can only access a few hours a week, and they shouldn't have to spend too much on rent in the early stages of the church's life.
Cleanliness and sanitation is also important to many people, especially to those who have children, and making sure there is enough room for a nursery can be vital when considering a location. Lastly, church plants should be careful not to move into a place that is either too big or too small for them. A small facility leaves no room for growth, and one that is too large can rob a worship service of energy and excitement because the room looks empty.
Moon said many church plants begin in the church planter's home. His church began with "Sunday night prayer and launch team meetings" in his home before they eventually began having full worship services at an outside location.
The impact that a move has on a congregation depends on whether or not there is upward mobility, Moon said. For his congregation, which is now considering moving into a larger facility and even switching its service times, the idea of moving to a new facility has unified them, because they believe that a new location can help them to better accomplish their mission.