Converting Sacred Space: Religious Buildings in Transition

“… necessarily sell excess property and then respond to the disappearance, repurposing, or preservation of formerly "religious" space in the city. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Tricia C. Bruce Maryville College Contact Me

About this award

This research examines “church conversions”: physical spaces that transition from religious/church/congregational purposes into “non”-religious purposes. Amidst urban renewal and change, scholars of religion turn increasingly to the study of space and community. Sociologists and others recognize that buildings are themselves religious entities and exemplars of religious change. Recent declines in religious affiliation and attendance among Americans portend ever-greater urgency to questions about what happens to un- or under-utilized religious buildings. Lower rates of church attendance test the carrying capacity of cities’ religious infrastructure, pressuring congregational and denominational leaders to make choices about how much space they need, or can afford. For what purpose (and price) are they be willing to part with churches? What happens to church buildings when they do? Answers to these questions vary widely. Religion is instrumental in placemaking, as formerly-religious sites test the balance of continuity and revival in contemporary cities. “Ex”-churches become prime anchors for new urban development. They are rezoned, re-appropriated, and reconstituted into new forms of community. The question of what happens to ‘old’ churches captures a core challenge facing religious institutions in North America today, warranting a closer investigation. Property outcomes hold urgency for multiple stakeholders: (1) religious leaders tasked with selling religious buildings with finances, people, and mission in mind; (2) urban planners and real estate developers; and (3) scholars of religion, community, and space. The proposed research will examine the process and consequences of 24 “church conversion” sites across the United States, interviewing key informants from among religious leaders, real estate professionals, developers, and urban planners. Findings will shed light on the very continuity (and/or disruption) of religion in contemporary North American communities.