I’ve recently been learning about the concept of “third place.” No, I’m not speaking about a bronze medal in the local pig-wrestling contest. Although third place in pig wrestling is nothing to be ashamed of! Instead, the concept of third place was developed to explain one of the key ingredients of healthy communities.
In 1989 Ray Oldenburg published a book called The Great Good Place in which he distinguished between three social spaces. The first place consists of your home and the people you live with. The second place is your job, where you may actually spend most of your time. But the third place is the common ground in a community where people congregate. The third place is neither “my” place nor “your” place. It’s “our” place.
All societies have third places, though in an increasingly individualistic West, communities must be more intentional to create such spaces. In his book, Oldenburg suggests that the greatest factor in the deterioration of third places in America is modern urban planning with its high valuation on privacy. In the last fifty years, for example, we have seen the virtual extinction of front porches, and with them, the loss of the traditional American neighborhood.
EXAMPLES OF THIRD PLACES
So what are some third places? Oldenburg suggests some basic characteristics:
- Free or inexpensive
- Food and drink usually present
- Highly accessible
- Involve regulars who habitually congregate there
- Welcoming and comfortable
- Both new friends and old should be found there.
Third places are only limited by our creativity. It could be a bar, a pool hall, a bowling alley, a knitting club, a coffee house, a shared interest group, a Crossfit gym, a running club, a standing cookout in the park, a weekly ultimate frisbee game, and much more. It simply needs to be a place that we regularly go to interact with others in a natural environment with no real agenda other than being together.
THE (UN)MISSIONAL CHURCH
In my experience, most Christians in America today have developed rhythms of life inimical to our missionary call. Our nights are filled with Bible studies, choir practices at the church, or dinners with our Christian friends. We send our children to Christian schools, put them in Christian sports leagues, and send them off to Christian camps in the summer. And if we do engage in hobbies, most of us typically only do so with our Christian friends.
I am not suggesting that any of these activities are inherently bad. In fact, all of the activities I mentioned are good in their own right. What I am suggesting, however, is that many Christians seem to utilize “third places” almost exclusively as a means to being around other Christians.
THE MISSIONAL VALUE OF THIRD PLACES
But what if we viewed third places as a God-given opportunity for Christian communities to naturally rub shoulders with those who don’t know Jesus?
What if you used your weekly golf time to invite someone who doesn’t know Jesus? What if your small group watched Sunday football together and viewed every week as an opportunity to invite those far from God? Not to evangelize. But simply to experience the Christian community and build trust. What if you used your love of running to join a local running club? Or what if your small group used your meeting time twice a month to go bowling just so you could invite people into that?
What are one or two third places you or your small group could make a regular part of your lives?