Saturday, August 17, 2013

Churches Cannot Be Third Spaces

I don't hear it much any more, but I used to hear some church leaders talk about the concept of "third space" and discuss the church as such a place. I'm reminded of that by this recent post at the blog of the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa here in Memphis. He links to an article that explores the idea of museums as Third Places.

Wikipedia uses urban sociologist Oldenburg's definition of such places as
the heart of a community's social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. They promote social equality by leveling the status of guests, provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities.

Oldenburg identifies that in modern suburban societies time is primarily spent in isolated first (home) and second (work) places. In contrast, third places offer a neutral public space for a community to connect and establish bonds.
According to this view, a "third place" must have the following characteristics:
Free or inexpensive
Food and drink, while not essential, are important
Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
Welcoming and comfortable
Both new friends and old should be found there.
I think churches (in cases I'm familiar with, anyway) fail at several points:

1) Depending on your definition of "free or inexpensive" churches are not. In some, the push to tithe is enough to make casual attenders or unconnected community visitors uncomfortable.

2) There is limited food and drink, mostly coffee on Sunday mornings and perhaps a community meal on Wednesday evenings.

3) Most church-goers I know do not live nearly close enough to their church to walk, and the people who actually live close enough to walk are from a markedly different socio-economic group than the church's members.

4) This one fits, as church activities always involve people who habitually go there.

5) Welcoming and comfortable? I have to say that churches are almost always cordial to visitors, but if your definition of welcoming involves more than a smile and hello, I'm not sure most of the churches I've been to manage to make people feel like they are truly welcomed into the inner life of the community. And make no mistake, there is an inner circle in any church. Depending on who you happen to overhear, you will be made to feel distinctly uncomfortable. God forbid you sit in any of the regulars' habitual seats, for example.

6) If you have managed to make a place for yourself in a church, then, yes, you will find both new friends and old if you are in a church where new people ever visit.

Wikipedia quotes 8 characteristics that Oldenburg says a "third place" must have. I'll comment on each of these from my own personal experience.
1. Neutral Ground: Occupants of Third Places have little to no obligation to be there. They are not tied down to the area financially, politically, legally, or otherwise and are free to come and go as they please.
Church members actually have a distinct obligation to be there, having almost certainly taken some sort of membership vow. Non-members have no such obligation, but doesn't that mean they don't "belong"? Many churches have "pledge campaigns" during which you make a commitment to give a certain amount of money during the upcoming calender year. Members definitely have an obligation to be there.
2 Leveler: Third Places put no importance on an individuals status in a society. Someone's economic or social status do not matter in a Third Place, allowing for a sense of commonality among its occupants. There are no prerequisites or requirements that would prevent acceptance or participation in the Third Place.
Obviously, this is not true of churches. There are requirements for someone to join a church in almost every church I'm familiar with, and also a method for kicking folks off the roll. Churches try to not give preference to folks' socio-economic status, I know, but many people find that difficult. Many churches have requirements that prevent various types of participation. For example, many around here don't allow women to have any leadership role except with childrens' ministries, many won't let divorced people teach, many won't allow openly gay people to join at all. A church member once told me that she had told a visitor he should go away and come back once he had showered and changed clothes. She didn't think that was too much to ask, but as he was homeless and destitute and she didn't offer him shower facilities or fresh clothes, I'm sure it felt like an insurmountable barrier to him.
3 Conversation is Main Activity: Playful and happy conversation is the main focus of activity in Third Places, although it is not required to be the only activity. The tone of conversation is usually light hearted and humorous; wit and good natured playfulness are highly valued.
There is happy conversation in most churches, but it is never the main focus.
4 Accessibility and Accommodation: Third places must be open and readily accessible to those who occupy them. They must also be accommodating, meaning they provide the wants of their inhabitants, and all occupants feel their needs have been fulfilled.
This may well be true of churches, as folks who don't feel their needs are being met tend to leave.
5 The Regulars: Third Places harbor a number of regulars that help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and characteristics of the area. Regulars to Third Places also attract newcomers, and are there to help someone new to the space feel welcome and accommodated.
Churches definitely have regulars, I'll give them that.
6 A Low Profile: Third Places are characteristically wholesome. The inside of a Third Place is without extravagance or grandiosity, and has a homely feel. Third Places are never snobby or pretentious, and are accepting of all types of individuals, from several different walks of life.
Not a chance.
7 The Mood is Playful: The tone of conversation in Third Places are never marked with tension or hostility. Instead, they have a playful nature, where witty conversation and frivolous banter are not only common, but highly valued.
Again, not a chance.
8 A Home Away From Home: Occupants of Third Places will often have the same feelings of warmth, possession, and belonging as they would in their own homes. They feel a piece of themselves is rooted in the space, and gain spiritual regeneration by spending time there.
This is true of churches. Those who do really belong feel it's a home for them.

As the purpose of churches is to provide worship opportunity, to convert people, to make disciples of them, to aid them on their faith journey, to teach them, to provide opportunities to reach out to do good in the world, and other Christian activities, I'm not sure how possible it is for churches to be third places in the sense described above. I haven't heard it discussed in church venues in a long time, so perhaps it's not considered in church circles any more. I think churches more often function as private clubs for like-minded people than as open spaces for community gathering.

I believe churches could provide third places in their buildings -not be third places, but provide space for them, but I don't personally know of any that do.


  1. The third space is an interesting concept but I wonder if any place truly achieves all the characteristics. I would like to think that my church Columbia United Methodist comes close but I'm a regular and I may see it differently than an outsider would.

    1. yes, even starbucks, shopping malls, public community centers, and museums have some general standards they require, but churches (at least most that i'm familiar with) have stricter requirements than the generally accepted local public standard for clothing/behavior/lifestyle choices/religious beliefs.

    2. The churches that have these tighter requirements probably have lost sight of God through their lens of religion. Many times however it is not the church as a whole but only particular members of the church who have lost sight of God.

    3. the united methodist church is fairly liberal as churches go but still has membership requirements. i don't see how a church could remain faithful to its purpose of making disciples without that. i'm not sure that becoming a third space as i saw it defined is desirable as a goal for churches. i do agree that the more judgmental a church member is the more likely it is that they've lost sight of what christian discipleship is.

  2. Very interesting concept! I have been thinking a lot about my own community over the last few weeks, trying to come up with new ideas to photograph it. I may use this. Thank you!

    1. we have a couple of local coffee shops that i think fit the definition. now that some of the parks have started hosting food trucks, i'm thinking they might also fit. and a couple of our museums actually seem to function this way, at least on a limited basis. when i try to think of a church that works this way, i think of first congo: (beware the evil auto-play audio if you go to their site.)