A Look at the Venue: Where do congregations hold their religious services?

At least nine out of ten congregations answer this question with “a church building owned by the congregation.” However, other congregations gather for worship in a variety of venues—schools, public libraries, movie theaters, retail spaces or store fronts, hotels, restaurants, and private homes.[1] In national studies dating back to 2000, researchers find the percentage of congregations meeting in non-traditional settings ranges from 4% to 10%.[2]

While congregations that meet in places other than a traditional church, mosque, or temple are clearly in the minority, their numbers are not insignificant. If 10% of the 350,000 U.S. congregations meet in non-traditional settings, that translates into 35,000 congregations nationally. And that means an average of 700 alternative worshiping sites in each state (if they were evenly distributed).[3]

A recent article in The New York Times about the use of schools for religious services estimates that some 160 congregations in New York City use school buildings for worship services in this school year alone.

The positives of meeting in non-traditional venues

Cost savings. In addition to no mortgage payment, these congregations do not have to worry about the costs of building maintenance, security, or capital improvements. They can spend more on church ministries. The FACT 2010 report revealed that congregations spend on average 20% of their budget on building and operation expenses. (This percentage represents a drop from 27% reported by congregations in the FACT 2008 report.) Congregations without their own facilities can use these funds for their ministries instead.

Quick start for new churches. “Instant” or “pop-up churches” enable a small group of people to start a new congregation without their own building or meeting space. Acquiring land and building on any site can take several years. Without the commitment of a mortgage, new churches can throw more funds toward developing programs and hiring staff for the new ministry.

A job for every volunteer. Using a public school or other venue involves transforming the space into a place of worship every week. Sometimes called “church in a box,” this strategy requires many people to move and set up chairs, tables, sound and projection equipment, and other items to accommodate the worship service. And, then, take it down again after the service. Some leaders describe this experience as an opportunity to involve a larger group of volunteers and to build community as many pitch in week after week.

The negatives of meeting in non-traditional venues

An obstacle for some visitors. Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research, examined whether people prefer attending worship services in a traditional church building.[4] One-quarter would avoid non-traditional venues. But the majority (three out of four people) say it does not make any difference to them. This is a surprising finding because church growth advisors long believed that you could not grow a church without a building. More recently, some experts suggest that growing a new church would be easier if visitors could come to neutral territory—in other words, not a traditional church building. The research does not support either theory.

However, Stetzer’s research revealed that holiday churchgoers (those who attend on Easter and Christmas only) strongly prefer traditional locations to non-traditional ones. Catholics, more than other worshipers, also express a preference for church settings. Other national research supports his finding by documenting that non-traditional locations are more common among theologically conservative churches and non-Christian congregations.[5]

Legal battles. Congregations worshiping in schools or other publicly funded locations (for example, libraries) may face legal complications. In many school districts, religious organizations are permitted to use public schools for worship services. However, a New York City regulation bans the practice. After a lengthy legal battle, a Bronx evangelical church eventually lost when the Supreme Court refused to review a lower-court decision that supported the city ordinance prohibiting use of public schools for worship. Some church lawyers were surprised by this decision, given that the court has ruled multiple times to protect religious worship the same as secular speech. The contradictory arguments for separation of church and state and those honoring worshipers’ First Amendment rights are unlikely to be resolved soon.

Making a space sacred

Rising costs and shrinking budgets suggest more congregations in the future may consider non-traditional worship locations. More congregations are meeting in multiple locations than in the past, which sometimes necessitates using secular places for worship.[6] With planning and consideration for all parties involved, a renting congregation can be a blessing for its host site. Ron Edmondson (www.churchleaders.com) gives the following advice for churches meeting in a school: (1) grow volunteers; (2) love the school; (3) realize it’s not a rental situation; (4) be a blessing; (5) don’t interrupt school; (6) view your rent as a contribution; and (7) acknowledge critical players.[7] Good advice for all congregations making a space sacred.



[1] Less than 1% rent space from another church.

[2] See the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 2001 and 2008/2009 (www.USCongregations.org); National Congregations Study (archived on the ARDA website); Faith Communities Today: FACT 2008 and FACT 2010.

[3] The National Congregation Study found that non-traditional locations were least common in the Northeast.

[5] National Congregations Study (ARDA).