Standing under baskets and electronic scoreboards in a school gym, Ryan Butz lifted his hands in prayer during an Authentic Life Church service.

"The church of God is not about the building. It's the people," said Butz, who enjoys the unconventional setting. "I feel a very close connection to the people here. I hate cookie-cutter things because they're all the same. And this is definitely not the same."

More and more congregations like Authentic Life have become "mobile" churches in the economic downturn, choosing to lease space in schools, theaters and other nontraditional worship spaces instead of buying property or building new churches.

Currently, about 248 churches in the Twin Cities metro area meet in schools or other temporary leased venues -- about 7 percent of the 3,399 total churches in the Twin Cities, according to John Mayer, executive director of the nonprofit City Vision, a Christian organization that tracks local religious data.

Going mobile saves money and allows churches to grow at a quicker pace, but it's also labor intensive. For weekend services, volunteers pack trailers with musical instruments, speaker systems, lights, chairs and other equipment. Then they haul it to mobile sites, unload it all and set up for worship.

The majority of churches across the country still own and occupy traditional church spaces. But growing megachurches, as well as fledgling churches, have increasingly turned to the mobile model in recent years.

Less costly way to worship

Ken Olson, senior pastor at Authentic Life, which has nearly 70 members, said the congregation has been meeting in the Hopkins West Junior High gym for nearly two years. The church had been leasing a more traditional church building in Orono for $7,000 a month. At the school, they pay around $2,000 a month.

"I studied other churches and what they had done," said Olson. "It still was a little scary. But the more I thought about it ... it just made sense financially, it made sense location-wise, it made sense the kind of church we wanted to be, focused around community and relationships ... giving back."

With the money saved on rent, Olson said Authentic Life has been able to put more resources into the church's mission work of helping those in need. They've donated money for supplies at local schools, supplied Thanksgiving meals to the needy, and assisted unemployed people looking for work.

Going mobile has meant church volunteers like Butz, who serves as Authentic Life's stage manager, must show up about two hours before each 10 a.m. Sunday service and unload a 24-foot box trailer filled with the church's electronics and other equipment needed for worship.

Bleachers are pushed against walls and folding chairs are set up in front of the church's stage area. Church band members set up drums, guitars, sound systems, lights and other gear, and rehearse for about an hour before the service starts. Olson, who envisions Authentic Life remaining mobile for a little while longer, said he would eventually like to have a permanent home.

Though there's a lot of "grabbing cords, running up and down the stage," Butz says he's enjoyed bonding with fellow church members: "It's not like you're at work or anything. We're all there 'cause we want to be there. There's a really close relationship with everyone."

Epic Life Church's congregation of about 80 has been meeting in the Andover Cinema movie theater about two years, said Skip Crust, lead pastor. The new church looked at property it could have rented full time but decided on the theater, mainly because of the $900-a-month rent.

"We were looking at a place that would have cost about $3,000 a month," he said. "But I could not justify the cost. You can call any pastor in the Twin Cities and they're going to tell you they're struggling with their budget. And we're no different. I would be perfectly content to continue meeting in a mobile location for the remainder of my ministry."

Crust also sees the social benefits of mobility: "The biggest advantage it has is that every week I get to spend two hours before church hanging out with people that I love and care about. There's a camaraderie that comes with setting up and tearing down every week you don't get in a permanent site. There's no place in the Bible where it teaches that folks should meet in a building."

Helping churches go mobile

To make the transition to a mobile church, Authentic Life turned to the California-based business Church on Wheels. The company sells electronics, sound systems and other equipment to congregations, and helps them design and lay out mobile systems. Costs for their services can range from $30,000 to $100,000.

Eric Bako, lead sales consultant for Church on Wheels, said the company has serviced dozens of churches throughout the country and sees more congregations staying mobile longer in the down economy.

"In these economic times, it's rough to ask members for money for a building project," Bako said. "Because usually that's above and beyond their normal tithing." With mobile churches, "you're creating a brand new church home out of not a lot of resources. There's just a lot of value in it."

Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research, a Christian research firm that tracks church trends throughout the United States, said besides megachurches and start-ups -- or "church plants" -- there's another type of congregation attracted to the mobile model.

"We are starting to hear some folks going against the grain and saying owning a building is not a requirement," he said. "Instead of investing in physical assets, we're going to continue investing in ministry assets. We're going to a long-term plan to rent, not own. That's probably the newest phenomenon, to actually hear some churches that really by strategy are planning to never own a building."

McConnell notes churches have always been about people and their relationship with God: "In America, church has become very tied to a place. And yet I think there's a generation that's rediscovering, it doesn't have to be a building with a steeple and a red door. It is the people ... as long as we can have a space that allows us to do the things we need to do, worshipping God together."

Rose French • 612-673-4352