Why Your Church Will Never Be a Good “Third Place”

Chris —  January 15, 2015

The term “Third Place” caught on after Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Like many books since, Oldenburg outlined how American individualism was starting to take a social toll.

“The course of urban development in America is pushing the individual toward that line separating proud independence from pitiable isolation.”

This isolation has led to our need for a “third place.” If the home is your first place and work is your second place, then the third place is the place where socializing can authentically take place. For many, the need for such places was immediately recognizable. It resulted in a number of social experiments, most notably, the explosion of Starbucks.

It didn’t take long for thought leaders in churchworld to grab on to this. Churches started building in coffee kiosks and books about how churches can be more like Starbucks started showing up.

Sunday afternoons… are so relaxing. – Long exhale – Photo cred @stengy

A photo posted by Houndstooth Coffee (@houndstoothcoffee) on

Three Problems with Trying to Be a Third Place

The idea of the “third place” is vital to understanding the broader American culture, but it makes a lousy model for a church community for theological, practical and missional reasons.

Theology: Don’t Try to be a Place

The primary, yet subtle problem with thinking of your church as a “third place” is that the Church is never meant to be a place!

We Christians have struggled with this idea at least since Constantine. We want temples where holy activities take place. While there may be some value to this, it shares little in common with the church as the living, breathing body of Christ described in the New Testament.

By focusing our energy on trying to monkey the atmosphere created by a third place, we are distracted from the work of building a community of Jesus-followers. We are perpetuating ideas like “church is a building” or “church takes place on Sundays.”

We need safe, hospitable places to gather. But those places aren’t “church.”

Practical: Drop in Hours

One primary element that makes a third place work is that it has “drop in hours.” It’s both a time and place where you can assume you always find like-minded people, welcoming people. You come to a third place in your free time to relax.

It’s hard to envision a church operating in this way. What would such a church do? Have a cafe of bread and wine? Confession booths? Worship stations?

If a space offers such amenities, is it a church?

We need spaces that we can drop in and feel welcomed. But those places aren’t “church.”

Missional: Imitation or Incarnation?

The story of Jesus, and therefore his people, is primarily a story of incarnation. God is not a cosmic vacuum cleaner, sucking people up to live in an alternative world. God comes and lives among man.

Rather than trying to imitate third place environment, churches should incarnate within third places. Pubs, coffee shops, gyms, and salons are where people spend their unstructured time. Jesus followers need to be in those places.

The best way interact with a culture of third places is to become a supporter. We should know the business owner, the menu and the regulars. We should be there enough to be known by them as well.

We need to be the regulars at a specific “third place.” We don’t need our own.

Five Simple Ways Your Church Can Support a Local “Third Place”

1. Show up without an agenda. Go to a coffee shop with a book or hang out at the pub. Don’t go if you feel stressed out and have a lot of work to do. Pray for opportunities, and be ready to be interrupted.

2. Get to know the staff. Learn the name of the bartender or barista. Ask about their family. Ask them for recommendations. After all, they are the people you are most likely to see on a regular basis.

3. Have meetings at third places. Church offices have their purposes, but most meetings can (and maybe should) take place in public. Meetings give you one more chance to be in your third place. It gives you a chance to introduce church friends to third place friends. It’s also got great beverages.

4. Learn a few good questions. In some ways, third places aren’t that different than cocktail parties. People are there because they want to engage. Have a few go-to conversation starters on hand, if the moment arises.

5. Be your third place’s biggest fan. You need the third place, and they need you. Go regularly. Tip well—really well. Tell your friends about it. Attend official functions. Help make the place fun.

How do third places fit into your life and ministry?

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