We don’t often put those three names together in the same sentence. Yet the idea of the third space—those places where community forms, distinguished from home (first space) and work (second space—is a powerful concept becoming part of the the conversation among those for whom church continues to be an important third space.
Yet somehow the idea of church as a third space doesn’t quite feel like it makes sense. Our church is currently exploring the idea of third space as part of our mission focus to “create places where people can experience life with God.” The conversation has raised questions like:
Can church be a third space and do we need a third space that is separate and distinct from church?
Ray Oldenburg, the popularizer of the third space idea, defines third spaces as those settings “beyond home and work in which people relax in good company and do so on a regular basis.”
Oldenburg suggests that third spaces are characterized by:
Because of Starbucks we often identify coffee shops as the most common third places. But coffee shops are often not nearly as active third places as other opportunities. In our town the local Foundation of the Arts may be one of the most vibrant third places around. They have collected a great community of volunteers and attenders. Cafes and homegrown restaurants serve as third places. Sporting leagues, hobby clubs, and schools provide great third place opportunities. Service programs that serve people with specific needs—like reading programs, recovery groups, and food banks—often generate their own third place communities.
Can Church be a Third Place?
There’s a lot about church that characterizes it as a third place. In earlier years churches were main street institutions, sitting right downtown where they were daily entities as people worked, were schooled, and played. In fact, churches were often the center piece of social life. They were where you went to see friends, to engage in conversation, and to enjoy fellowship and entertainment. I think James Emery White is on the right track when he suggests that early Christians occupied third spaces such as the Jewish temple, the synagogues, and even the marketplaces of the first century world.
For those of us who are Christians church is one of our significant third places. Church is where we gather, we talk, we relax. In our large worship gatherings we find significance in numbers and outlets for our interests and needs. In our smaller gatherings we connect in relationships that are close and affirming. As I reflect on my life church has been my most significant and ever present third place experience.
Do we need a third space separate and distinct from church?
For the last thirty years or so our country has experienced a growing antagonism towards Christian faith with a commensurate barrier between those whom we would wish to influence towards Jesus and the very faith that gathers those of us who believe as church. Our church as third place is often considered hostile and neither welcoming or accessible to those not of our faith tribe. Faith removes the neutrality so essential to third place context.
If we are to gain the opportunity to influence those estranged to faith in Jesus most likely we are going to need to begin by engaging in their significant third places. Their third places are bridging opportunities where we get to know one another as we develop significant conversations. We’ve got to go to them, to their places and spaces, to build enough credibility to help them feel comfortable enough to come to our places.
Some Suggestions on Church and Third Places
or serendipity, but a matter of design . . .
You've probably done it again, made some new year's resolutions: lose a little weight, eat a little better, exercise a little more. It's time to do the same for your church. But before you launch into the generic church resolutions (add more people, gain more contributions, improve Bible classes, etc.) here's a quick tool that will give you a better perspective on what you might ought to give priority to.
This effective exercise was developed by Tom Paterson after whom the Paterson Center, a strategic planning training group, was named. It's called the 4 Helpful Lists; this exercise will help you identify the things you need to do to prioritize them over all the things you could do. You can use this little jewel at almost anytime: to set new year's resolutions, to evaluate an event or program, or just to get better perspective on what is happening.
Get your paper out and draw 5 columns. Starting from the left and working right you'll answer these four questions leaving the last column for perspectives gained.
Column 1: What's Right? We're somehow wired to focus on what's wrong rather than what's right. Get a positive jump and try to come up with as much as you can that's right about the situation, event, or current state. My rule of thumb is try to populate the what's right column with more bullet points than any of the other columns. As you plan your goal is to optimize what is right.
Column 2: What's Wrong? Now go to the what's wrong. Be specific and look for causes. Don't just put "people did not attend." Look for possible causes as to why they did not attend: "people did not attend because I did not give them enough advance notice to get this event on their calendars." Your goal is to eliminate what is wrong.
Column 3: What's Missing? This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer because we often do not see what is missing but we sure do feel it. Step back to gain some perspective altitude on what you're reviewing. Here's a few questions to help you get to what is missing. What kind of questions did people ask? Where did we (those organizing) feel a bit lost? Was there an obvious "oops" moment? The goal is to add what is missing.
Column 4: What's Confused? Isn't that a great question! What's confused? What didn't make sense? What did people not understand? How was clarity lost? The goal is to clarify to what is confused.
Column 5: Perspective Learnings. This is the goldmine moment of this exercise. You've been working at ground level with these four questions. Now spring up to the 5,000 foot level. Look across the column and ask yourself, "what am I learning about this?" My rule of thumb here is to force myself to identify at least four of these learning points. Here's some examples: We're scratching an itch our people feel. This is a good idea but we're not ready to implement it yet. To be done well this activity needs someone who will be responsible for it over the next year.
Making New Year's resolutions is good and helpful. I pray these Four Helpful Lists will help you put a plan to your resolutions.