Sunday, October 28

Can a church be a "third place"?

The phrase "third place" has become a fixture in planning circles. The sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term in his 1989 classic The Great Good Place, and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz ran with it and made some money in the process.


“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives, and our work places the ‘second.’”

It's a home away from home; a neutral community space that creates a bridge between entirely public and entirely private lives. The book examines a host of examples: bars, coffeehouses, main streets, post offices, beer gardens, restaurants. They are easily accessible by foot, create an atmosphere that encourages lingering, often serve food or drink, and mingle regulars with strangers. Oldenburg suggests that these neighborhood establishments are not only essential to the psychological well-being of Americans, but they are also important for maintaining a vibrant democracy.

Where do church buildings fit into this? Is this a role churches should aspire to? I'm not really sure. The primary distinction is that most churches in the United States only open their doors for several hours on a Sunday every week. Members and visitors flood into the building for a formal worship service and then disperse, the building (and parking lot) remaining mostly dormant for the next six days. Churches also differ, necessarily, in the sense that they cannot be truly neutral. While almost all desire for people from all walks of life to feel comfortable in community, their mission to promote faith precludes the kind of detached marketplace of ideas that a coffee shop offers. This is not a criticism at all, just an observation.

Many churches are trying though, and Oldenburg is regularly asked by churches for consultation. A mega-church pastor in Texas, Randy Frazee, describes his own ideals candidly,

“We committed to the 100-acre-megachurch-campus-off-the-freeway strategy only to discover that we were contributing to the problem. Our mega-church was just one more contrived place that fractured people’s lives. [W]e built the mega-structure that became just one more commute. We need to stop trying to manufacture community within a church and instead go do church in the community. The ideal church structure of the future will be churches with many locations of multipurpose/community center buildings in the middle of neighborhoods.”

Churches following in this model use their facilities for a variety of purposes during the day, and convert to a larger gathering for times of worship. In Missoula, the SHEC community center uses it's sanctuary as an indoor skate park during the day, providing a safe gathering place for teenagers. Other churches are forgoing the purchase of a building altogether, in order to fill into and help support the public spaces that already exist in a community. Missoula's new Grace Pointe church has been holding services in the Missoula Children's Theater. Those who consider themselves part of the "emerging church" also hold the concept of a third place in high regard.

This is still an open question for me, and it will be interesting to see how different churches transition away from the suburban mega-church model.


J.W. said...

hey, how'd the gre go?
Also, you may want to check out Wolterstorff's chapter 'City of Delight' in Until Justice and Peace Embrace.

Daniel Nairn said...

GREs went ok. Not as well as I was hoping for, but I think sufficient.

I'd really like to check out Walterstorff on this. I knew that he gave a lecture at a conference on urbanism, but I didn't know where he had written about it. Thanks ...

Michael Forsyth said...

I realise this blog was from 2007. I notice Oldenburg's writing omits mention of church as a third place. In the UK since 2006 there have been fresh expressions of church and churches pioneering community projects which closely reflect Oldenburg's observations of a third place. Do you think this is something new, or a return to a biblically orthodox understanding of church, (I.e. Acts 4:32-35).