A third place (coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg) is the next place in our lives after our home and work. Socially, they tend to be informal, fluid, and spontaneous gathering places like coffee shops, bookstores, and bars. They are important because they tend to be democratizing (people from all walks come together), accessible, and welcoming. If you want to know a little more about them, I suggest you take a look at the Sentralized blog.
The blog post above makes a pretty good argument that congregations ought to invest some energy in engaging third places. Many in fact do. One pastor I know has office hours in a coffee shops. Many emerging congregations have regular theology pub nights, where members and friends of the community get together for informal discussion that may or may not be explicitly religious.
But I see at least two other ways a congregation can (and maybe should) try to engage this idea of third places:
1) In addition to engaging outside third places, the church can try to create third places. People do try this fairly often with coffee shops, Christian bookstores, Christian Science reading rooms… the problem is that it’s difficult to figure out how to be “Christian” and still be 100% welcoming, democratizing, fluid, open, and grounded in the community. When congregations fail at this, they end up only making the clubbishness more extreme by giving Christians more options to segregate themselves from the rest of their communities.
2) Some congregations take engagement even farther and become third places themselves. This includes crossover congregations like Luther’s Table in Renton, Washington- a brilliant little cafe that doubles as a church and gathering place at certain times during the week. But it doesn’t necessarily take that kind of double identity, nor is that ever likely to be the experience of most Christians. When congregations roll back some of the formality, schedule, and showmanship to make worship and fellowship more interactive and open, they can encourage a different kind of connection.
It’s like the difference between being welcoming to families with children by offering a nursery (so kids won’t mess up the experience for everyone else) and smiling at kids as they run into worship to sing along and then disappear to read Bible stories in the next room, only to reappear and cuddle up during the sermon. The second way will screw up your church and make it look less like you, but it helps create the kind of openness that might connect with someone who wasn’t sure exactly what they feel.
I won’t say more, except to invite your own reflections and engagement on the idea of decentering church from ourselves and being the third places in our own communities. As Christian fellowships, we are not called to be the same thing as a coffee shop or bar, but to consider how we can be Jesus in our communities. Part of that means reconsidering how we enable people to partake and share, and how our identity can form something which moves from welcoming to engaging.