Its cream walls soar a staggering five stories from the red-carpeted floor, past a wraparound balcony and banks of clerestory windows, to a ceiling of planked oak.

As many as 3,200 people can be seated in the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church on the Avenue of the Arts in Center City. Yet on most nights, this grand space is dark and empty, as many houses of worship are.

On those same nights, across the Philadelphia region, dozens of struggling theater troupes, dance companies, and musical ensembles are praying for permanent places to perform.

It is high time, says a local preservationist group, to bring together those who have space and those who have not.

"The richest cache of standing and functional architecture in our region is sacred space," said Robert Jaeger, executive director of Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that for 21 years has worked to save endangered churches and other religious buildings.

Since last summer, Partners has been surveying churches and synagogues in Center City to create an inventory of potential performance, rehearsal, and office space for cultural arts groups. Jaeger said he was "stunned" by the early findings.

With just 14 of 42 sites inspected for the "Arts and Congregations Project," he said, rich possibilities are emerging for "mutually beneficial" space-sharing collaborations.

"We've already gotten a sense of the opportunities," said Thaddeus Squire, head of the survey team and president of CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, which advises arts and heritage groups.

Squire was creator of last year's "Hidden Philadelphia" festival, which placed exhibits and performances in public buildings, including several churches. By showing "the value of places that are underused," he said, it gave rise to the Arts and Congregations project.

Partners must make suitable matches of congregations and arts groups, which will be expected to pay some rent, Jaeger said.

There are at least 138 professional dance troupes in the region, 130 theater companies, and untold numbers of musical ensembles, according to local arts councils. Most operate on budgets well under $1 million, and some on a fraction of that.

Such a venture would be a "first in the nation," according to Jaeger.

Partners' 1998 landmark survey of the many social services that urban congregations provide to their neighborhoods prompted creation of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Services.

The Rev. Elaine Ayres, senior pastor of the 150-member Tindley Temple, said her church, with its long history of music-making, is open to partnership with an arts group.

Named for the Rev. Charles A. Tindley - a pastor whose 1906 gospel song "I'll Overcome Someday" morphed into the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" - Tindley Temple recently welcomed the Philadelphia Fringe Festival into its sanctuary.

Ayres said she believed that some who come to arts performances at Tindley Temple might take an interest in her church, whose membership topped 12,000 in Tindley's day.

"That doesn't mean they have to sign up," she said. "But it would be nice to have more people who know us."

The prospect of finding semipermanent performance space in a church or synagogue already has local artistic directors sounding eager to participate.

"It's a real hope for a company like us," said Tobin Rothlein, producing artistic director of the five-year-old Miro Dance Theatre. The company operates out of rooms at Girard College, Rothlein said, but the school's "gigantic and amazingly beautiful" chapel where it performs does not suit Miro's more intimate scale.

"It's very difficult for companies our size to build audiences when you don't have your own performance space," said Kevin Glaccum, producing artistic director of Azuka Theatre.

On Wednesday, his company opened its latest play, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, about teenagers lost in a "scary" and surreal computer game.

Its 122-seat venue at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St., "is a fine size for us," said Glaccum. But it is the 11th for Azuka since its founding 10 years ago.

"The challenge is having audiences follow you," he said. "I can always figure out a place to rehearse, but I need a place where they [the theatergoing public] say, 'That's where Azuka performs their shows.' "

Tom Reing, whose Inis Nua Theatre Company specializes in producing plays from Britain and Ireland, echoed the need for "rehearsal space, office space, storage space, and performance space. But most of all we need performance space."

On Tuesday, the company will premiere The Early Bird by English playwright Leo Butler at the Adrienne Theatre at 2030 Sansom St.

But because a comedy club has rights to the Adrienne's stage on Saturday nights, Inis Nua cannot perform there on the busiest theater evening of the week.

"Not only that," Reing said, "we have to tear the stage down after each Saturday matinee and set it up again Sunday mornings."