Most mornings I spend a couple of hours writing and working at the Pourhouse, a local nonprofit coffee shop. It’s a space that’s a cross between a community center, a gallery and a dining room. A world map drawn with chalk fills up half a wall, while another wall has repurposed dresser drawers functioning as shelves. The coffee bar is made out of remnants from used pallets, and every corner is filled with furniture from a thrift store.
It’s frequented by a majority of students from the university who fill up the tables. I often will meet students here, as many campus ministers do with their groups. Looking around, I’m reminded of the concept of the “third place” first introduced by Ray Oldenburg in his book “The Great Good Place.” He argued that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement and establishing feelings of a sense of place. The home is where we live and constitutes who we live with; our workplace/school is probably where we spend the most time, but is very “task” oriented in nature. We need a “third” place to provide an anchor for community life and wider, more fluid, creative interaction.
From her inception, in many ways the church has embodied this notion of the third place — that is, a space distinct from home and work, and one that emphasizes community and connection. The characteristics outlined by Oldenberg include: free or inexpensive to visit; food and drink, which, while not essential, are important; highly accessible; proximate for many (usually within walking distance); involve regulars — those who habitually congregate there; welcoming and comfortable; and both new friends and old should be found there. One could certainly make a case for the ways churches seek to provide this in their own way. (The food and drink of communion counts, right?) In recent years especially, we see within churches many contemporary efforts to create a third space that reflects this culture: café-type rooms and lounges, coffee bars and more. Some of this comes out of the current realization churches are not the first place individuals will go to for that third place.
I appreciate the effort to create spaces within churches to provide a third place, especially for young people. But Chris Morton offers a compelling challenge on his blog:
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 are perpetuating ideas like “church is a building” or “church takes place on Sundays.”
Still, most realities are hardly either/or. Churches are embodied in spaces, and those places provide hospitality and inspiration. These are all opportunities to incarnate Christ in whatever setting, whether pews or pubs. The call is ultimately to make space for the Holy Spirit, and if we are doing that faithfully, then I believe the places we create and occupy will be spaces for people to truly connect.
Mihee Kim-Kort is a teaching elder in Bloomington, Indiana, and staff for UKIRK at Indiana University.