Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

On any given Sunday, in any given city, the transformation begins. A cargo trailer pulls up to a high school, movie theater, or bowling alley. Volunteers scurry to unload large wheeled containers and roll them inside. Swiftly they unpack equipment and assemble the infrastructure, raising a trussing festooned with lights above the auditorium stage; plugging in the prewired sound system; and depositing coffee urns in the lobby, toys and baby gates in the children's areas, and signage everywhere.

An hour or two later: Open the doors and see all the people.

For decades, Detroit built its industrial prowess on process efficiencies and custom manufacturing. Portable Church Industries, an $11 million company in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan, applies those same strategies to a different market: houses of worship that lack their own houses. Portable churches rent space in buildings--most commonly schools, which on Sundays are closed or sparsely occupied. After services have concluded, the volunteers cart away the entire setup.

Going portable is an economical option for startup churches, which typically can't afford their own buildings, and for existing churches that want multiple campuses. It costs roughly $5,000 a seat to build a dedicated church. By contrast, it costs $200 a seat to buy a portable church that operates out of a rented space. But while churchgoers care more about the spiritual than the spatial, they still have expectations for comfort, technology, and amenities. Churches "want the same level of technology they have in a $45 million building in a $450,000 portable launch," says Portable Church founder Pete Van der Harst.

And money isn't the biggest problem portable churches face. "The real scarce resource is skilled people," says Van der Harst. Every week, teams of volunteers must quickly assemble from hundreds of discrete items a church that typically includes not just an adult worship area equipped for live music and video but also multiple children's rooms outfitted for play and education. "A church can't waste umpteen people-hours doing this," says Van der Harst. "Because the church is in the life-change business, not in the stuff-moving business."

Portable Church Industries is in the stuff-moving business. Over two decades, Van der Harst has developed an array of products and processes that allow volunteers to work with the speed and efficiency of Broadway stagehands. His company equips portable churches with virtually everything they need ("We don't supply the preaching or the curriculum," says Van der Harst) customized for their spaces and delivered in movable containers. The 50-employee business has served well over a thousand clients out of what Van der Harst estimates are 24,000 portable churches nationwide. (He admits that's a "back-of-the-napkin" calculation.)

Among the company's most recent clients is Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, which has operated out of a conventional church building in Carrolton, Texas, since 1997. This year it planted a new church in an elementary school in Frisco, another Dallas suburb. "We were walking into an elementary school and we just couldn't see it," says Michael McKibben, student director of the Frisco campus, who managed the launch. "But when Portable Church came back with their proposal, we saw it."

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Bent Tree briefly considered coming up with its own portable solution, "but we knew that having to set up and tear down church every Sunday would be taxing and laborious, and we want to take care of our servants," says McKibben, referring to the church's member volunteers. "One way we can appreciate them is to make the experience as seamless as possible. I can't talk highly enough about the logistics Portable Church brought to the table. There is no way we could ever have come close to what they did for us."

"The Kingdom of God could use this."

Although he didn't know it at the time, Van der Harst found his calling during a gap year. Unsure whether to pursue a career as a pastor, missionary, or working joe, he took a job assisting the youth director of his church. There Van der Harst excelled at streamlining processes. For example, he cut an hour off the departure time for an annual amusement park trip by creating color-coded tickets and separate sign-in areas for each bus.

In the late '80s, the youth director--by then a pastor--was hired by a portable church to launch a second portable targeting people for whom church had become irrelevant. The pastor called on Van der Harst to help. (Starting a new church is called "church-planting.")

Kensington Church, which operated out of a rented middle-school cafeteria in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, became the laboratory where Van der Harst invented his core processes. Paramount was the use of cargo containers. While majoring in industrial engineering at the University of Michigan, Van der Harst had interned at United Parcel Service, where he discovered the magic of packing lots of little stationery things into one big mobile thing. He began building large, caster-mounted crates out of plywood to hold all of Kensington's equipment. He also designed products like a prewired sound system that requires virtually no on-site setup.

When Van der Harst was done, six volunteers could set up everything required by Kensington's 800 congregants in two hours 15 minutes. By contrast, at Kensington's parent church, Faith Evangelical Presbyterian, it took 25 people three hours to set up for 400 congregants. "What do you do with those extra 19 people who aren't hauling stuff on a Sunday morning?" says Van der Harst. "You use them to touch lives. Work with the kids. Greet people."

By 1993, Kensington was experiencing what Van der Harst calls "the parade of camcorders." A couple of Sundays each month, people from other portable churches would come by to record Kensington's setup and breakdown processes and to ask questions. An authority on church-planting named Bob Logan visited and urged Van der Harst to document his processes. "He pulled me aside and said, 'The Kingdom of God could use this. You need to take very good notes,'" says Van der Harst. 

Recognizing a greater need, Van der Harst left Kensington and established himself as a consultant. One of his first customers was a church in Florida. Two months after demonstrating how to transport items in rolling containers, he received an irate call from the client, who complained that the containers didn't roll. Turns out the church had bought cheaper versions than the ones recommended by Van der Harst. "That was the critical light bulb moment for me," says Van der Harst. "I am dealing with a master's degree'd life-change fanatic, and I'm trying to teach him caster selection. He doesn't know. He doesn't care. And he destroyed the entire concept."

After that call, Van der Harst realized consulting alone wasn't enough. "We would have to say, 'Would you like us just to build it and bring it out?'" he says. Portable Church Industries was born.

The logistics of spreading the Word.

A portable church is like a hermit crab, making a home in another's shell. In 2014, Portable Church Industries assisted churches operating out of schools, theaters, conference centers, banquet halls, hotels, and even a water park. The company's consultants met with 100 potential customers--a record number--and closed around 90.

Typically a pair of consultants--salespeople trained in audio, video, and lighting--travel to the customer's rented space. First, they determine whether the location is feasible. "We ask, 'What is constraining your capacity?'" says Van der Harst. "It doesn't matter if you're in a facility the size of a stadium. If you have 100 parking spaces, you are only going to fit 200-ish people on the premises." When constraints can't be overcome, Portable Church helps the customer find a better venue. (Rent varies significantly depending on size and type of venue. For schools, it typically works out to $4 to $5 per member.)

Consultants then design each church based on the client's goals and the demands of the space. For example, movie theaters are dim, so they require powerful lights. A bowling alley might use video displays with magnified images so everyone in the long, narrow room can see the people speaking. Signage directing people to children's areas or bathrooms are created with the client's typeface, color, and logo.

"If you go back to the beginning of the company, for every single client I had to invent something," says Van der Harst. With more than a thousand churches under its belt, the company has already solved many problems by sourcing unusual products or designing them itself. For example, "if you own your own building you are going to have a nice big rocking chair with big arms so that Mom can sit and nurse junior and still watch the service on closed-circuit video," says Van der Harst. But such a chair would take up too much room in the trailer and be unwieldy to pack and transport. The solution? Folding rocking chairs made by the lawn care industry. "It would be a dumb thing to put in your living room, but they work for us," he says.

In Troy, employees pack each client's equipment into large wooden crates with carpeted interiors. The containers are manufactured in-house, and each is customized, California Closets-style, to hold its specific contents, with no wasted space. The company sends off everything in one or more cargo trailers, which clients often buy as well. "We literally hand them the keys, and they have it all," says Van der Harst.

The Saturday before the first service, two trainers arrive to walk setup and teardown teams through the process. "We teach them to start out with your electricity, and then you put your staging into position," says Van der Harst. "You want to get the band practicing as fast as possible because they won't have had a place for rehearsals during the week.

"We tell them it will take six weeks to get this thing down," says Van der Harst. "The next morning they roll the stuff in and they are acting like old pros."

Making the portable professional.

An engineer to his bones, Van der Harst two years ago sought to hire a CEO with superior people and management skills. A recruiter identified Scott Cougill, a former IBM marking representative who at the time was executive pastor at Pacific Crossroads, a portable church in Los Angeles. By coincidence, Cougill had just started talking to the company about the needs of his own church, which was mulling expansion to a third site.

At Pacific Crossroads, setup and teardown "was so difficult and time-consuming that they paid a team of local people to move the stuff," says Cougill. "When I came here and saw how it worked, I teared up. We had made it so hard when it didn't have to be."

Van der Harst and his wife are now "pseudo-retirees," meeting with Cougill every other week at their house to talk about the business. Cougill is fulfilling his mandate by adding headcount, helping a consultant staff that was previously was so overburdened that some almost quit. To refocus the business squarely on portable churches, he is avoiding distractions, such as requests from traditional churches that want their audio-video systems fine-tuned or marching bands that want containers built for their equipment. In contrast to Van der Harst's get-in-get-the-job-done-get-out approach, Cougill would like to develop longer-term relationships with clients that might include annual visits to provide additional training or refresh their facilities.

Portable Church's most ambitious new efforts are in thought leadership. That's an area it should own, given that Van der Harst invented the portable-church-supply category. (More than two decades later, the business has just one significant competitor.) The company is partnering with church-planting organizations for which it trains pastors in setup and operations. Staff members, including Cougill, are contributing articles to magazines like Church Technology and Church Executive. Portable Church has also produced e-books and podcasts on subjects like the principles of portability and how to find the right facility.

The importance of education is not lost on Van der Harst. In the early days, he recalls, "I talked to a gentleman in advertising who thought [this business] was a silly idea. His complaint was that first we had to educate people as to why this service should exist, and then convince them they ought to buy from us. He said that two-step process is a disaster. He said don't do it.

"But we did it anyway," says Van der Harst. "And just our existence has given churches more confidence that, yes, this can work."

Published on: Jan 4, 2016