The blessings of a portable church

By Lori McDaniel

As I drove by the school our church met in, my son said to his friend, “That’s where our church meets. In protest, the boy next to him said, “That’s not a church, that’s a school.”

Technically he was right. I glanced in the rearview mirror as my son explained in his 9-year-old way, “I know it’s a school, but we use the building for our church to meet in.” My son understood a simple truth that many adults forget: The building isn’t the church; the people are. That truth is so real when you are a portable church.

Every Sunday for five years, as the sun came up, we “set up church.” And as most people were eating lunch, we were packing it back up into the trailer again. We wiped dried milk and crumbs out of plastic school cafeteria chairs and arranged them for worship. We unpacked audio equipment from an 8-ft. trailer. In a narrow elementary hallway, we unfolded pack-n-plays used for baby beds. No special lighting. No stages. It was raw and creatively simple. Our makeshift church-in-a-trailer was labor intensive, but no labor was ever more fulfilling.

I’ll never forget the Sunday morning a guy walked in straight from the woods after hunting. Dressed in camouflage, he still had that hunting smell. We welcomed him in as he said, “What the hell! I figure I’m dressed for church in a school.” We made friends with a homosexual man who brought his partner to church because he said, “I’m not typical, and you’re not typical either.” For many who had given up on church, we were a safe place. Somehow, the walls of the school seemed more inviting than the bricks and steeples of a church building. We were reaching people.

As fulfilling as it was, I also was scared. The statistic that two out of three start-up churches failed, rang in my mind. Would we fail?

Well over a decade ago, we started a church. We didn’t make any fastest-growing-new-start-up-church magazine articles. We didn’t hit mega-church status in record time. But we grew. And we are healthy. And we are reproducing ourselves and planting churches around the world. But … I miss the church trailer days! 

The first Sunday in our own building felt good. No set up! Unexpectedly, though, it felt strange. For five years, we didn’t arrive at church but at a building, and the church (the people) came together. We had been a team and a community that broke down barriers for the lost to feel at home. Now that we have a building, we work at creatively reminding the people that our church building is just a toolbox and the work is “out there.”

So, if your church is still living out of a suitcase and setting up every Sunday, don’t overlook the blessings! If your kids are young and you’re wondering if they are missing “real church,” take a look again. They are growing up learning to be the church. Step back, breathe in, and open your eyes to see what God is creatively doing through you.

Published March 1, 2018

Lori McDaniel

Lori and her husband, Mike McDaniel, and their 3 children were missionaries in Africa before returning to plant Grace Point Church in Bentonville, AR where Mike is Lead Pastor. Lori serves as a Global Mission Catalyst with the IMB, mobilizing churches and leading women to participate in God’s global mission. Lori shares how everyday life can be a life on mission at