This is my pre-published version of an article I wrote for Christianity Today International’s Resources department. It is part of a larger downloadable study exploring Church rental issues. Here, with the help of a few friends, I consider the advantages and disadvantages of renting worship space.
The urban landscape is becoming increasingly crowded — and expensive. While churches have been moving out of the city to the suburbs, the cites have been growing. The North American Misssion Board reports that nearly 6 out of 10 Americans live in the 50 largest cities. And while establishing a new congregation in a populous city context poses many challenges, the lack of affordable space for church property is one of the most daunting. Purchasing facilities for worship in most large cities, especially for a church plant, is often impossible. Thus, renting space is often the only tenable option. But which option do you choose?
Advantages to Renting
- Your ministry is “In the marketplace”
As former urban churches grew larger and financially successful, many moved into the suburbs, creating a trend that left many cities without a significant ministry presence. Renting space allows you to keep your gathering place close to where people live and work.
- Renting takes advantage of the familiar and comfortable
As Mark Batterson, pastor of a theater church in Washington, DC, notes, “Thousands of people already feel comfortable coming to National Community Church because they’ve been to the theaters before. We are familiar to them.”
- You avoid institutionalization
Batterson notes that meeting in a rented theater helps keep his church feeling like a “movement,” and serves as a constant reminder that “church is not a building.”
- You are mobile
As your church grows, you simply move to a larger facility. This, however, is largely dependant on the length of your rental contractâ€™s term.
- Utilties included
Depending on the lease, you donâ€™t always have to cover utility expenses. Additionally, snow removal may be included if you rent a facility thatâ€™s already in use over the weekends, such as a theater church rental. However, if you rent from a school you will need to cover this cost yourself.
- Setup and break-down builds teams
While the time needed to set up and break-down before and after the service can be a disadvantage, Jon Cawston, who currently pastors a theater church plant in Naperville, Illinois, reports that this can be a valuable team-building ministry for men. After moving to permanent facility from a high school rental, Cawston noted, “many of the 40-50 people who set up and tore down really struggled to find their place of ministry because their team had been disbanded.”
Disadvantages to Renting
- Thereâ€™s not much you can change
Your ability to permanently stage and modify your worship space can be severely dampened. You may not be able to stage productions and plays at all without using very minimal staging.
- Your community may perceive you as transitory
John Lindell, pastor of James River Assembly in Springfield, MO, has pastored in a variety of rental facilities and notes that Midwesterners, in particular, view churches in leased facilities as being temporary. However, this may not be as big an issue in larger metropolitan areas.
- An army of volunteers not included
Multi-use buildings, such as school auditoriums, require a lot of volunteers to setup and break-down before and after services. Lindell notes, if your church community includes a lot of children, providing facilities and equipment for early childhood and elementary school children can be difficult.
- No Equity
Whatâ€™s true for families is also true for churches: by renting youâ€™re not investing in your own properties equity. However, this can still work to your advantage if strike a least-to-own arrangement.
- Churches are multi-use, too
The cost of renting a church may be cheaper than most other forms of leasing and renting. You get the added benefits of low-overhead, multi-use facilities, classrooms, and facilities for childrenâ€™s ministries.
- Communicates youâ€™re here to stay
Renting space in a local church helps communicate that your minister is here for the long haul. If youâ€™re in a conservative community, this can be a positive sign. If youâ€™re in a more diverse and metropolitan community, it could also work against you.
- Church baggage included
One potential negative about renting space in a church is that members of your community may have emotional connections and associations with the church where youâ€™re meeting. While you may risk “guilt by association,” you may also benefit from the churchâ€™s positive local standing. It pays to know the local history of the church you plan to rent from.
- Time keeps slipping away
Jon Cawston, a theather-church pastor, notes that timelines can becaome a negative factor. Because his congregation meets in a theather, they have to be out by 11:15 — before the movies start. Whle this could pose problems for relationship-building, he notes: “On the other hand if you are totally dependent on your foyer to build relationships, you may be in trouble anyways.”
- Equipment issues
Renting from schools provides you built-in classroom space (if your lease allows it), which can be a boon for Christian education ministries. However, theaters wonâ€™t have facilities for these “extras.” Seating wonâ€™t be a problem if you rent from a theater or auditorium with built-in seating. But if you rent from a school or auditorium, youâ€™ll be stuck with foldable or stackable seating that must be set up and put away for each service. In most cases youâ€™ll need your own sound and projection system, and youâ€™ll need to choose rugged equipment since the constant setup and tear-down will wear your equipment out faster. Plus, in theater settings you may need to provide additional lighting, since theaters are designed to be dimly lit and have no windows.
- Property issues
School settings not only provide you additional classrooms and furnishings, but they also have custodial staff which keep the gounds clean, saving you a lot of money on janitorial and grounds maintenance. Note, however, that if you rent a school you have to provide snow removal because schools are under no obligation to be cleared on the weekends.
- Less fear, uncertainty, and doubt
Jon Cawston notes that not only are theaters and school auditoriums well known and easily found by your community, “People donâ€™t have to be afraid of going in because they already know what to expect. Theyâ€™ve been there before.” Church buildings, though, can be a little scary for the unchurched urbanites.
Retail / Commercial Space
- Lease to own
Unlike actively used theaters and already occupied churches, unused commercial and retail space may be available for lease-to-own arrangements. Mars Hill church had been in several locations and needed a permanent church home when a property advisor helped them find an unused hardware store they could move into. By structuring a lease-to-own contract, they were able to move into a permanent property much faster than normal. An additional benefit is that Mars Hill now has a valuable piece of property that can be re-converted into a retail facility very easily for the next buyer.
- Doesnâ€™t feel like church
The most common complaint about a storefront or retail space rental is that they are so non-traditional that churchgoers may not feel like they are “in church.” This could be positive or negative depending on the expectations of your community.
- Fewer accessability issues
Churches meeting in commercial and retail space (as well as public auditoriums and theaters) donâ€™t have to worry about providing handicapped-accessible access: the law already required the property owner to provide those features.
Renting property can be seen as an entirely pragmatic and cost-effective decision. But whether you rent or own should be primarily driven by the providence of God. As Jon Cawston notes:
“You can only step through doors God opens for you. Some churches rent, some buy, but whether renting is a pro or con is really only limited Godâ€™s direction. I have been in both scenarios: both rental properties and multimillion dollar facilities. All had their unique challenges but it was what God provided.”
(Note: This is the pre-edited article included in a pay-per-download article provided by Christianity Today International, available for purchase here ($12.95). The full download contains six other articles. Though I was once employed by Christianity Today, I do not personally benefit from any transactions through these sites.)
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