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 . . .