We finished setting up our tents just as the rain blew sideways. It was my first trek through the countryside as a church planter in East Africa, and the day was ending with a splash. My teammate and I darted to the nearest hut, desperate for a little shelter and a little food. A woman greeted us at the door and immediately apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said, “this is not my house.” Too dejected to hide our dejection, we slumped in the doorway. But then she continued, “This is God’s house. And it is open to whoever needs it.” We gawked at each other. And then gladly entered the unimpressive little space. Unimpressive—and yet glorious.
When you’re looking to find a meeting space for a church plant, it can feel like an African monsoon gone sideways. It’s no doubt an invigorating moment in the journey, but it’s also overwhelming. “This was so much easier when I was just pastoring people in my living room,” you might say. “Now I have to do that in addition to finding and managing a venue?!” When we dream about launching a public gathering, it usually doesn’t include the raptures of reading the fine print on a lease agreement. But the surprising turns of God’s guidance here can be just as glorious.
Although the New Testament gives legitimacy to churches meeting in homes, it also clearly notes that they also met in public spaces, especially as they grew. In Acts 2:46 we read that the Jerusalem church established at Pentecost both broke bread with one another in their homes and attended the temple together. Later in Acts 19:9-10 we see that Paul moved to daily public gatherings in the hall of Tyrannus, which ultimately led to the gospel’s proclamation throughout all of Asia. Yes, the intimacy of a house church is sweet, but there’s still much work to be done in the public square.
The question is, how do you get there? Well, here are three practical suggestions, ironically in the form of reading a lease agreement: consider the bold headings (a few basic principles), scan the bullet points (a few venue options), and read the fine print (a few tiny details).
Consider the Bold Headings
What basic principles should characterize your approach to finding a meeting space? I’ll keep them to three. First:
Walk in dependence. The most important step—like so many things in church planting—is to pray. Along with core team members and supporters, ask God specifically to lead you to the right place and connect you with the right people. You could probably just make this happen, but choose to “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14). The process of searching and discerning is itself an experience meant to be spiritually formative. Draw a circle around your ideal location in the neighborhood and prayer-walk it with attentive eyes and hearts. Sure, search online and consult with a real estate agent, but also lean into networking. Ask the Lord to lead you through relationships.
Walk in expectancy. As you do the above, maintain a heart of expectancy. But note, expectancy is different from expectations. Expectations place certain demands on God, whereas expectancy gives you an open-handed posture. He will likely surprise you with the doors he opens and closes. Seeking favor is an important skill when seeking a place to “house” the gospel. When sending his disciples in Luke 10:5-6 Jesus tells them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you.” My application here is not that you blurt something about peace every time you enter a potential meeting space, but that you give keen attention to whether or not God is giving you favor among the keepers of the “house”.
Walk in wisdom. Not that walking in dependence and expectancy are exclusive from walking in wisdom, but there are some parts of this that require just downright good judgment. For example, don’t obsess over the location to the point that you disregard the cost. Know your budget well and don’t take a leap of faith that will send you packing unless 100 new people immediately start attending and giving. If numbers aren’t your thing, pull in someone from the core team to help. Also, whether the option is to rent, lease, or purchase, make sure you are thoroughly familiar with the agreement. If someone is offering the space for free, make sure you write an agreement to define the relationship. And if by the end of this process the best option is still less than ideal, remember that you will likely only be there temporarily. Or, it may even be a sign that you're not quite ready to launch yet.
Scan the Bullet Points
With those basic principles in place, now you’re ready to scan and narrow down the options. Creativity is always welcome at the table of church plant venue-searching. But what are some of the common places to keep an eye out for? They include:
Schools. This can mean public, private, colleges, and universities. In light of budgetary constraints, such entities might be more open than you think.
Movie theaters. Theaters have been actively seeking to lease their spaces, even to religious groups. More and more church plants are taking advantage of this.
Community centers. By this I mean health clubs, public government buildings, libraries, and gymnasiums. If they’re open to it, these can be excellent venues since they usually include a large meeting space and adjacent rooms.
Hotels. Many hotels offer conference rooms of varying sizes, which not only allows you room to grow, but also provides necessities such as chairs and bathrooms.
Clubs. Yes, this means dance clubs, but also clubs for things like karate and yoga. Obviously, this may be an issue of conscience or distraction, but clubs are natural spaces for gathering and even provide the opportunity for redemptive witness.
Private businesses. When you see a private business in an ideal location with reasonable gathering space, it doesn’t hurt to ask. This can include warehouses.
Healthy churches. Of course there is the stereotype about existing churches disliking church plants, but a healthy church is eager for the kingdom to grow. Although it probably isn’t a permanent solution, it could be enough to get you established.
Dying churches. Dying churches often have facilities that are no longer being fully utilized. Sometimes they are even looking to rent space to Christian entities in order to pay the bills. And even occasionally, some of them are still kingdom-minded enough to want to hand their assets off to a young, like-minded church.
Read the Fine Print
Although the bold headings and bullet points do deserve your attention, it’s often the fine print that can send the whole thing sideways. What are some of the tiny details to consider as you sift through possible venues? Here are a few:
Capacity constraints. Will the space—no matter how ideally located or flashy or affordable—actually accommodate your needs? Does it give you a reasonable margin for growth so that you’re not moving again next month? Will you be violating a fire code?
Atmosphere. Does it provide the kind of setting (internally and externally) that doesn’t completely distract people from worship? How would a visitor feel as they walk in?
Kids space. Is there an adjacent room (or rooms) to facilitate children’s ministry? If so, is it easily secured and child-proof? Are the owners open to the space being used by a growing number of children?
Storage space. Does the venue allow for you to store things for setup and teardown each week? Or will you have to continually pack your necessities in and out? Is this an extra charge?
Cleanliness. Is the space reasonably clean? Will you have to clean before or after your meetings? Is there an extra cleaning fee or is that included in the cost?
Safety. Does the entrance have public visibility? Is the parking lot well-lit for evening meetings? Is it possible for you to secure the building or the room if needed?
Perception in the community. It may look great to you, but how is it perceived in the eyes of the people to whom you’re seeking to minister? Does it have a reputation? Is that why it’s available?
Accessibility. Is there sufficient free parking? Can you easily enter the space or does it require tedious security or multiple doors and corridors?
Signage. Will people be able to find it? Is there appropriate signage, address numbers, and directions? Is it accurate in navigation apps?
Availability. Will it be open at a reasonable time? Is it a block large enough to accommodate setup and teardown without rush? Can you utilize it only on Sundays or is it available during the week if needed?
Electrical capacity. Does it have the grid and outlets you need to run sound equipment and other necessities? Are they ok with the amount of electricity you will be pulling?
Acoustics. Since you’ll be projecting both speech and music, have you tested the quality of the sound? Does it transmit in a way that is pleasant to the ear or does it echo and reverberate?
Restrooms. Does it have men’s and women’s restrooms nearby? Are they large enough to accommodate? Are they clean and supplied? Is there handicap access?
Provided equipment. Do they supply any of the materials you need, such as sound equipment? If so, is it an extra fee? Is the equipment actually functional for your needs?
Relational vibe. Are the owners reasonably friendly toward the idea of a church plant? What is their history of working with renters? Do they communicate well? Do you get the sense that there’s no room for error?
Ok, fight the urge to be overwhelmed. Or to just keep stuffing people into your living room. This will surely be an adventure with unexpected turns. When God finally leads you to your first public meeting space, it might be small, temporary, and unimpressive. That’s ok. Let it be unimpressive—and yet glorious.