The Third Place

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It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Paris called Craft (www.cafecraft.com). It’s a nice little space with minimalist design and plenty of outlets for all our gadgets. Around me are about a dozen or so people who are doing the same thing. They’re on their laptops, mostly MacBooks because duh, and they’re sipping on some single origin coffee which they have received in a repurposed scientific beaker, now more known for pour over coffee containers than actual scientific experimentation.

Some have headphones in their ears listening to whichever streaming service they fancy. I prefer Spotify, but in France it’s mostly Deezer. Others, like the group of six people next to me are using this place as a coworking space. They are working. And still others are here with a friend, a partner, a colleague, to share some caffeine and conversation.

Later this evening I will make my way over to one of my favorite breweries in Paris, Paname Brewing Company (www.panamebrewingcompany.com/en). Truth be told there are not many. Paris is still working on it’s craft beer scene, but it’s coming! I’m going to meet a friend of mine for a different type of libation, but surely good conversation. And all around me, just like every evening in pubs all around the world people will gather together to unwind.

Welcome to the “third place.”

Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place, tells us that these third places are important for society as they give individuals a sense of place. If your first place is home, your second place is your workplace, then the third place is found in places like coffee shops, pubs, clubs, and for many years, churches.

What interests me is the way these third places function in ways that churches often only dream of. So take for instance a pub. There’s something magical that happens as people share a pint together. People share themselves with others. They find a common place and begin to divulge information about their lives that would never happen in the workplace and sometimes not even at home.

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Pubs have a long history of this type of behavior. Originally called Public Houses, pubs served as a common meeting place where individuals came together to socialize, gossip, and even arrange help within their communities. It was place where community was formed. Where you were known and got to know others.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in these third places you know the range and depth of conversation that can occur. Some may write it off as the affects of alcohol loosening people’s judgment, but I would argue there’s more to it than just the ABV of a beer or glass of wine. Pubs have created an environment, a culture, where individuals feel safe to talk freely without judgment.

So often I have witnessed the good intentions of churches unable to create this environment. And I’m left wondering why?

Walk into any church on a Sunday and you’ll be greeted (hopefully, though sometimes people fall through the cracks) by members gathering for worship. “How are you, today?” inquire friends and strangers. And often the answer, regardless of the truthfulness underneath the response, is “I’m good!”

Have we lost the ability to make our churches places where people feel safe to share honestly where they are in life? Or has church become a place that is so focused on having it all together that even a simple question is met with shame, guilt, and fear if the answer is anything but “good!”?

In Michigan and now in Paris, I’ve been semi-regularly holding pub theology gatherings. We meet over a pint to discuss some theological topic, usually controversial. And I’ve discovered time and again that people want to go deep. They want to ask hard questions. They want to be able to express what they think and wrestle with that often times they don’t feel quite as comfortable expressing in church.

As I think of solutions two things come to mind.

First, in our churches, in our gatherings, in our small groups, and even in the church lobbies we need to be challenging our congregations to be honest. Sometimes the fear and shame of answering in anyway other than positivity is deeply entrenched and so church leadership, from the pulpit and in our conversations, needs to communicate and respond in loving and listening ways. Not quick to jump to trite Christian answers but sitting with and listening to the real and complex human emotions that we all possess.

Second, we need to be involved in the third place. This isn’t a “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude, but a chance for being truly missional. In our community (see I used that word!) at the American Church in Paris we often talk about the real work and response to our Sunday worship services happening the moment we walk out of the church doors.

The reality is there are deeply interesting and valuable spiritual conversations happening every day in these third places. As followers of Jesus how are we using these opportunities to use our own voice, our own experiences, our own theologies to add a different perspective to the ongoing discussions happening in our communities?

I am not advocating for us to begin leaving tracts as tips for servers. Dear God, please do not EVER do that. NEVER EVER DO THAT. But you have a voice. I have a voice. We have a voice. What if we could learn to be a part of the third place in such a way that we can point others to the radically loving and radically inclusive nature of God all while we share a pint and share our stories with others? Isn’t that what being missional is all about?

What do you think? How can we learn from and participate in the third places in our lives that we might bring heaven here to earth?

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