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Old churches find new life beyond religion

Churches are being converted into bars, condos, bike shops, and hotels.

KNOXVILLE — Long after the church bells last rang, after the faithful moved on, and the groundskeepers stopped the repairs, the churches still stand tall and their uses are different from when they were built.

"There are thousands of old churches that have actually been converted or that are in the process of being converted," said Dr. Tricia Bruce, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Maryville College. "There are certainly some churches that have been converted into bars, to rock climbing gyms, to restaurants, condos and residential use is very common."

Around the world, the country and right here in Knoxville, old churches are finding new life beyond religion.

"It has this real mix aesthetically of old and new. It’s what architects call adaptive reuse," said Dr. Bruce. "If you have a property that once housed a thriving community of the faithful and then suddenly after one Sunday there’s no one there anymore, what is the role of that place?"

Dr. Tricia Bruce is a professor of Sociology at Maryville College and is studying church conversion around the world. She says trends in church attendance as well as economic pressures often force churches to move on from their hallowed sanctuaries.

"In many ways, Europe is a trendsetter here. The United States is starting to now have some of those same patterns of disaffiliation and lower levels of attendance that have driven excess property," said Dr. Bruce. "Once this has a wholly different vibe to it in terms of maybe a brewery or a bike shop or otherwise, do we still call that a church?"

In Farragut, the Faith Lutheran church will soon become a community center.

In downtown Knoxville, the first Christian Church will be renovated and redeveloped.

In South Knoxville, the old Sevier Heights Baptist Church will soon be converted into the Bakers Creek Bottoms development.

The old church will soon house a bike shop, coffee shop and yoga studio, and hope to open a boutique hotel and a brewery.

"This space that we're standing in is going to be a food hall. We're going to have four different restaurant operators in here," said Tom Weiss, one of the developers. "This is the original sanctuary, this is the original church, this is where it all started for Sevier Heights Baptist Church."

While there is no exact timeline of when the space will open, Weiss hopes it comes as soon as possible.

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