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A group behind an $8.5 million Chattanooga worship and religious training center slated to open this week says the structure has a foundation built on the Bible. Literally.
Builders of the headquarters of the International Congress of Churches and Ministers and its International Conference and World Church Center on Lee Highway implanted about 900 Bibles in the metal wall studs and ceilings and 100 more in its concrete sidewalks.
"When you come in here, you're surrounded by the word of God," said Michael Chitwood, founder and chief executive of ICCM.
The nonprofit, a religious entity with an evangelical charismatic focus, offers training in the ministry and helps churches and ministries obtain 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. ICCM is transforming a former Circuit City store in the onetime Lee Highway shopping center near Highway 153.
Chitwood said the facility fulfills a dream to create an elegant place where people can come to learn and worship.
"It seems that in Baptist churches, Baptists want to hang together. In Churches of God, Church of God people hang together. In Methodist churches, Methodists hang together," he said. "It seems like there was no neutral venue where all brothers and sisters in Christ can come together."
This week, the organization that Chitwood founded opens a "world conference" in the new space, marking what he hopes will be a place where people nationally and internationally can come for training in every aspect of ministry. People will learn such subjects as delivering a sermon, healing, fasting and prayer. There also will be financial classes to help ministries and preachers, according to Chitwood.
Among the sessions offered at the world conference will be a "millionaire wealth seminar."
Chitwood, 63, also operates Chitwood & Chitwood PC, a Chattanooga-based financial services firm that caters to churches and ministries nationally.
"The official sponsor of dreams" reads the lettering on one wall of the richly appointed lobby.
"We want to help people in all areas," said Chitwood, referring to the facility. "If we can change the way you think, we can change the way you live."
Chitwood said he believes there's nothing quite like the center, not just in Chattanooga but in the Southeast, especially citing its high-definition television and radio studio that will be used for training and worship services.
Rosalind Hackett, who heads the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, said there are some Christian religious groups that don't want to be part of an association of churches. She said that can be problematic because there are social problems that may only be solved by creating partnerships.
"Do they have plans to cooperate with other Christian organizations?" she asked.
Chitwood said ICCM will serve as a neutral venue that has "strong ecclesiastical principles," and that it will open up to other Christian organizations. He said the Olivet Baptist Church, which has a historically black congregation, will hold a service in the center this month.
In addition, the center will hold free concerts featuring a variety of performers, such as CeCe Winans and Micah Stampley, on a first-come, first-serve basis, he said.
Inside the facility's lobby sits a finely appointed wooden table built in Italy. A stone floor features onyx imported from Israel. Granite countertops are used in other rooms in the facility, which is nearly 50,000 square feet in size.
The site, which takes up about a third of the old retail center, also will hold worship services at its two sanctuaries. The smaller of the two can handle 855 people and has three big screens, the largest at 40 feet wide, in front above a platform. The larger sanctuary, which is still under construction, will have space for 1,015 people and offer stadium seating, said Chitwood.
He said plans are to spend $2 million in addition to the $6.5 million already spent to finish the bigger sanctuary and add four more classrooms to the eight already in place.
Brian Messner of the firm Roe Messner & Associates said it was hired to build the space and it utilized its heavy experience in that segment.
"We've built 2,000 churches around the U.S.," he said.
Chitwood said 60 percent or more of the money to build the facility came from "Chitwood personal wealth funds" and that the center is debt-free.
As to why so much money was invested in such a center, he said he wanted it "to be nice." People who come to the site will "see it as about them going to a new dimension in their life."
"We don't want people attending here with a poverty mentality," he said. "I want you to feel successful."
One of the ICCM meetings this week will be the free millionaire wealth seminar to help people financially and teach them how to handle debt, Chitwood said. People who want to have their own business may be interested, he said.
"Wealth is not how much you make, but how much you keep," Chitwood said. "We teach a strong program of financial breakthrough."
He said churches in general don't teach how to manage money. While there may be great ministries, people aren't getting financial training there, Chitwood said.
Chitwood said the new facility has a full-service kitchen to feed people who use the building. He added they will feed the poor, though put people to work as they do so.
Kammy Chitwood, his daughter-in-law and ICCM's operations director, said they are "willing to help people who help themselves."
The space also can be used for weddings. It has reserved space as a suite for brides and their parties to ready themselves for the ceremony.
Outside, the drab former storefront has been revitalized. Chitwood said one area is reserved in the name of his late wife as a "prayer garden."
Overall, he said the project has moved quickly from concept to reality in just a year.
"We did what we thought the Lord wanted us to do and to make something excellent," Chitwood said. "We really feel blessed."
He said he's in talks with the owner of the rest of the former shopping center about buying some adjacent square footage, which could be used as retail space.
Tiffany Hall, who works at a Murphy's Express location on Lee Highway across the street, said the new tenant is a welcome change from the mostly vacant former shopping center.
"It's a good thing," she said. "That will be good for business. I hope it will help everyone" in the area.
Currently, Cornerstone Bank has an operations facility in the expansive structure, which at one time held a Sam's Club and a training center for football players.
Chitwood said Chitwood & Chitwood PC has grown to 7,000 clients over 75 years. Its roots go back to his grandfather, he said. Chitwood said his father was an accountant in the city for about 60 years, with the business serving churches and ministries.
While ICCM has been around for decades, it really took off in its present version about seven years ago as "the best vehicle to do ... training," he said.
Chitwood said there are many ministerial students, some in their 30s and 40s, who don't want to go to a four-year school and get a degree.
"We train them here to do every aspect of the ministry," he said.
ICCM additionally provides 501(3)(c) tax-exempt charters to churches and ministries and is certified to issue ordination credentials and licenses, according to its website.
Chitwood said he had been eyeing the former shopping center space for ICCM earlier this decade, but a business had bought it in 2011 for a restaurant and entertainment complex. He thought he had lost the site.
But, the eatery and entertainment facility didn't work out at that location and he was finally able to buy the property.
"We lost it and got it back," Chitwood said. "I feel like God had this waiting for us."
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318.