Big Plans for Small Spaces

A small church can be a force to be reckoned with. That’s true for Hope City Church in Sarasota, Florida.

The church started with 47 members in 2017. Each week, the congregation met in a portable environment at an elementary school. Over its first four years, the church built momentum through its family and kids’ ministries. As the congregation grew, it became clear they needed a more permanent facility where they could thrive.

They rented a retail storefront space in a shopping center that provided the space they needed for worship, classes and events, with room to grow. Soon after, they engaged PlainJoe, A Storyland Studio, to help them envision what would come next.

“We may be a smaller church, but we’re big on community, family ministry and worship ministry,” says Peter Gowesky, lead pastor at Hope City. Gowesky was determined to maximize the available space to reach as many people as possible. 

Room to Expand

We master-planned the church interior with expansion in mind. It might not be obvious when you’re standing in the worship space or the lobby, but a look at the building’s schematic design reveals a surprise: The building’s current layout is perfectly mirrored. When Hope City outgrows its current space, the wall between storefronts can be removed, and the design can be mirrored on the opposite side to expand the worship space, lobby, and kids’ ministry areas. They have an agreement with their landlord that the church has the option to expand when needed.

Think of the auditorium design, which currently seats 200, as half of a Valentine’s heart. We divided it down the middle and built out one half. By mirroring the layout, the church can take over the store next door and instantly double the space. For churches renting retail spaces in strip malls, for instance, a master plan like this will allow for easy expansion, rather than forcing them to rent or buy a bigger space before they’re ready.

Aside from the auditorium, one of the primary building features Gowesky wanted to focus on was the lobby. Hope City’s lobby space encourages plenty of connectivity and community, extending the intimate worship experience into a casual shared space.

“The lobby makes up quite a large part of the building,” says Phil Taylor, executive producer at PlainJoe. “They wanted to make sure that people felt like they had a space to hang around after services. It’s bigger than what you would expect for a space that size, but it makes sense when you learn how they utilize it.”

Hope City’s lobby isn’t just open for regular service times. It hosts a Tuesday night women’s gathering for 60, for instance. Hope City wanted to focus on creating spaces that could serve more than one purpose for the church. They worked to create classrooms that could be used as breakout rooms for a conference. These rooms could also function as spaces where small groups or the youth can meet.

“The multifaceted approach felt smart,” Gowesky says. “We didn’t put any square footage toward offices, so we’ve had to get creative and ask, how do we office out of this space in a modular way, and also a communal way? Our design has lent itself to that, with emphasis on the future.

“We’ve done a lot of modular things and put a lot of things on wheels. We’ve done creative seating, and we’ve left a lot of blank space. [We asked ourselves,] How does this need to serve us as a church? rather than filling it with furniture and hoping it’ll work with our people.” 

Branding on a Budget

Some small churches might not be able to afford to own property for their building, especially in the early days. With the right architectural layout, graphics and theming, leased spaces can be adapted to look and feel however you’d like. In the case of Hope City, adding natural wood accents and wall graphics contributed to an updated, yet minimalist aesthetic that’s clean and inviting.

Adding vinyl graphics to the walls is a cost-effective way to help transform your space. You can include little splashes of your selected brand colors on these graphics, as well as wayfinding signage. This is a great way to infuse the space with your brand persona while directing people to their next steps.

Instead of, or in addition to, wall graphics, consider adding wood touches to specific areas of your worship space. Using wood in the lobby or to differentiate offices or classrooms can help to create natural separations between different areas of your building. At Hope City, the wood our team used in the lobby gave it a level of warmth you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a strip mall. Carefully chosen flooring brings an attractive color palette to the large space, which also serves as the church’s fellowship hall. 

Space on Purpose 

Planning your small church space down to the smallest details can help you thoughtfully maximize the available square footage. A great design that’s both functional and attractive doesn’t require a large budget. With patience, time and collaboration, it’s possible to get the most out of your small space like Hope City.

“The priority for me was for people to walk into the space and say, ‘I can’t believe it looks like this. I never would have imagined it from the outside; it feels so much bigger!’” Gowesky says.

“And that’s not an accident. We planned and prepared for this for a year; we thought through every square inch of the space in order to maximize it. We were on a budget, but we were able to accomplish that. When people walk in, there’s a sense of purposeful use of space.”

Mel McGowan
Mel McGowan

Mel McGowan is an Outreach Magazine contributing editor and the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building. He also is the author of Design Intervention: Revolutionizing Sacred Space (PlainJoe Studios) and serves as an adjunct professor at California Baptist University’s College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design.