When worship is portable: Trend allows churches to grow and adapt to changing congregations

EASTGATE, Oh. - A light fog still blanketed the Holiday Inn Eastgate parking lot when the first of two large trailers rolled in Sunday at 6:41 a.m.

Moments later, about a dozen volunteers arrived and began to move the large black cases and musical instruments from the vehicles into a hotel ballroom.

From outward appearances, the group seemed to be setting up for a wedding or party. In fact, the crew was unpacking and assembling a mobile church for its weekly Sunday service, an experience that can almost be described as God on the go.

"It's about bringing people to Christ and if can do that in a hotel, it's a little unorthodox, but God works in some unorthodox ways," said Pastor Mike Edmisten.

A new way to Connect

Connect Christian Church officially launched its services at the Holiday Inn Eastgate on May 12 (see video). Formerly known as the Amelia Church of Christ, the non-denominational Christian congregation chose to abandon its former brick and mortar location, to become a "portable church" able to locate at any venue. Each Sunday, a group of volunteers gathers to set up and tear down the church in order to hold services. 

The decision to become mobile took several years to reach fruition, explained Edmisten. He recalled that when he arrived at the Amelia Church of Christ seven years ago, a core group of people were interested in a change of perspective and vision. That vision included an edgier, more contemporary feel to services, complete with rock music, lights and digital images.

As the congregation began to grow, Edminsten said, it became apparent the actual size of the church and its traditional décor no longer fit the identity of the church. Because adding to the existing structure and building new were not options, church members began entertaining the idea of making the church portable.

A portable trend

While the notion of portable churches may seem foreign to some, the concept is gaining followers around the country.

"There's a whole lot of churches in our country who have made the same decisions who have said, it's not about a building, it's about building people," Edminsten said.

Church elder John Bach said while the Tri-state boasts a handful of portable churches, and the concept is catching on around the country. Connect Church bought its setup equipment from  Portable Church Industries (PCI), a national company whose website says it's gained more than 2,000 mobile church clients in the last ten years. A company called  Church In A Box provides similar products and services and lists about fifty clients on its website.

Bach explained a PCI consultant came to assess Connect's chosen location, existing equipment and specific needs. He said PCI designed wheeled and labeled cases which contain everything volunteers need for easy assembly.

Setting up for service

The church began holding services at the Holiday Inn in early April. Edminsten raved about members' willingness to help pay for the equipment and set up each week.

The Cothran Family volunteers as part of the setup team. Amy Cothran compared the adrenaline rush of assembling the church each week to riding a rollercoaster at Kings Island.

"You're really nervous and really tired, but you've had so much fun you can't wait to do it again," Cothran said.

Husband Mike echoed her sentiments.

"There's just a lot to do to keep it all going," he said. "It's fun once you sit back when church is going on and see how great it looks."

Once assembled, the transformed worship area includes a stage, lights, digital display screens and a concert quality sound system for the congregation's Christian rock band.

"From that time we roll up in our trailers to the time the band is ready to practice, it takes us a little over an hour," Bach said. "Tear down goes much faster - we can do that in about 45 minutes. We're still learning the ins and outs of it, but I would say we're getting pretty good at it."

The Connect band's lead guitar player and vocalist Josh Young said most of their musicians, including his wife Marie, previously belonged to bands or performed professionally, but got tired of playing out in clubs and bars. 

"I don't know what I would do if I wasn't doing this," Young said. "I sure wouldn't get up at 5 a.m. if I wasn't looking forward to this every week."

Checking in for church

While the idea of having church in a hotel may seem unusual, Holiday Inn Eastgate general manager Alex Blust explained the hotel has been hosting services with various churches for the past 30 years. In some cases churches use the hotel as swing space while another facility is being built, he said. Blust added, the hotel is always happy to serve the community, and having Connect occupy their space indefinitely is great for business.

"They've been very good clients and we're very excited to have them," he says.

In terms of occupying the venue long-term, Edmisten explained Connect will likely outgrow even the Holiday Inn. His said the church's mission is to reach people who have given up on church and encourage them to give it another go. He hopes the contemporary vibe, rocking music and a welcoming atmosphere strikes a chord in those who feel alienated from traditional worship.

"We're a church that is here for people who maybe have written off the church, and if we can be that one last chance for them to say, I want to give church one last shot," he said. "That's what we're all about, that's who we're here for."

Congregation member and volunteer Dawn Coppola said she's thrilled with the idea of being mobile. She said a church should be a live body, not a stagnant entity. She added even though Connect changed physically, their message remains the same.

"We're not a church like a lot of people may envision church," she says. "We're not your grandma's church or your parent's church. We're vibrant and we're full of energy and full of life."

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