Feeling reverent can be a little tough when you're staring at crayon pictures drawn by second-graders or inhaling the leftover scent of brown bag-lunches.
But for nine county churches renting public schools on Sunday mornings, it's how you feel inside that counts.
"Our people are good listeners, and there's a good spirit of worship," says the Rev. Michael W. Hubers, pastor of the Fellowship Baptist Church, which meets in the multi-purpose room of the George Cromwell Elementary School in Ferndale.
Every week, the minister hauls the pulpit into the back of his Chevy and over to the school. Other church members bring the hymnals and the sound system, and set up chairs. Then they assemble in the weekday lunchroom to praise and pray.
Similar scenes are repeated around the county, as church groups gather in public elementary and high schools, says William Peacock, of the school system's planning and construction department.
The denominations range from a Lutheran church that meets at Jessup Elementary School to an Evangelical Presbyterian church gathering at Broadneck.
Fledgling congregations, like the 5-year-old Fellowship Baptist, benefit from having a place to meet. Says Hubers, "We've become pretty accustomed to meeting in a school building. There's plenty of room to grow."
But the church hopes to break ground in October for an 11,000-square-foot building of its own, the minister says. "We've saved about $375,000, and we'll go into the new sanctuary debt-free, hopefully a year from this fall."
Larger congregations that are overflowing their own sanctuaries, like the Glen Burnie Assembly of God, can spread out in the school's large auditoriums or cafeterias.
The church has met in the auditorium of the Glen Burnie High School for ayear. When the Rev. Dan Mucci came to the church six years ago, the congregation numbered around 60. Each succeeding year, the numbers rose, and today an average of 375 people come on a Sunday morning.
By June of last year, the growth had forced the church to resort to conducting three consecutive morning services.
"With people coming in and going out, it was just difficult," says Mucci, who also had to preach the same sermon three times in a row.
Moving to the high school provided a place where the entire congregation could meet at once.
But the environment isn't your perfect church atmosphere, the ministers concede. Most of the churches rent the multipurpose rooms ofelementary schools, which also tend to serve as the school lunchrooms during the week, says Peacock.
Some visitors to the Community Church, which meets in an Annapolis elementary school, find the lack ofstained glass and stately pews a distraction, says pastor Dennis Rigstad.
"Some have said it just doesn't feel right, and they go elsewhere. But we're trying to reach people with little or no church background, and the informal environment can work well," says Rigstad, who started the 50-member church about two years ago.
Traditional trappings also aren't as important for churches drawing younger families, says the Rev. Keith Peck, pastor of the Broadneck Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The church of about 200 members meets in the cafetorium of Broadneck Elementary School, and the not-typical-Presbyterian context doesn't much matter, the minister says.
"People find that you don't need to have a (traditional) building to have a church," he explains.
A second hurdle is the cost of renting space in a public school. At several hundred dollars a week, it's not inexpensive.
Rental costs vary, depending on the size of the room and how long the church needs to use it, Peacock says. Non-profit groups pay an operation maintenance cost of $1.70 an hour per 1,000 square feet anda custodian cost.
However, church groups are classed with commercial groups, who also must pay a space rental fee. For a church to rent a multi-purpose room in an elementary school for three hours costs about $198.80 a Sunday, Peacock says.
Still, that's much cheaper than building a whole new church, points out Mucci, whose church hopesto someday erect a 750-seat sanctuary.
"We're trying to raise money, but while we do that, the schools make a fine haven," he says. "God provides in all sorts of places."