Sociologist Ray Oldenburg developed a theory about the different “places” that you and I interact with the world, to varying degrees. And I’m fairly certain the church could learn a lot from these ideas.
Oldenburg described the places we spend our lives using three categories:
– First Places: Our home, where we are most “ourselves” and least “with the world”
– Second Places: Our work, where we are somewhat “ourselves” but most connected to “the world”.
– Third Places: Places where we are both “ourselves” and connected to “the world”
“Third places” are places like the barbershop or salon, restaurants, bars, and coffeeshops. They’re places where we as people drop our guard and relax, but still come in contact with the world at large. These are places where extroverts recharge and introverts people watch.
It takes time to get comfortable both inviting people over to your home AND being invited over to a home. It isn’t easy to relax in someones living room until you get to know them. When you’re working, you’re professional (not your real self) and less relaxed than you are at home. It takes a long time to really get to know someone at work (in most jobs. Some speed this process up). Both at home and at work, it can be difficult to build real relationships.
But not in “third places”. You’re able to laugh and relax in your favorite restaurant. You get to listen in on some great conversations at the barbershop. And you’re able to ask some personal questions at the bar.
They’re also places where non-Christians are more comfortable and open to spiritual conversations. That’s because it’s neutral ground, or maybe even their turf. You’re on equal footing, and playing by the same rules.
The problem is that a lot of Christians use their church as their “third place”. It’s the place they go to relax, meet friends, and spend time. Their church is where they go to be “themselves”. The problem is that, largely speaking, the church isn’t connected to the rest of the world. So Christians aren’t able to build relationships with non-Christians.
More and more, people are staying distant from the church because there isn’t equal footing. The church has rules and customs that non-Christians may or may not know. Church isn’t neutral ground for non-Christians to have spiritual conversations; rather churches are the proverbial lions den.
So Christians are more likely to build real authentic relationships with people in these ‘third places’. In the coffee shops, restaurants, and in the bars. One of my favorite ministries I ever heard of was a group of women who took casserole dishes into strip clubs for the dancers. It got looks from church folks, but it also gave Christ a presence in a place that could use it.
I know that scripture says we are to be “in the world, but not of it”. But I’m concerned that Christians are scared to be “in”. A lot of Christians seem to think that we’re not supposed to go into bars or certain restaurants. Or that they have an obligation to support anything with a ‘Christian’ label.
The problem is that in do those things, many Christians continue to remove themselves from non-Christians. Which, in turn, makes evangelism and sharing the Gospel of Christ more and more difficult. I’m not saying it won’t be tricky or messy. But getting to know people in bars, restaurants, or even strip clubs is something I can definitely see Jesus doing.
So while the church wrestles with how to reach the world without venturing too far “in”, I’m hoping to spend some more time in the coffeeshop down the road. Then you can cue up ‘The Doors’ song.
I love y’all, and there’s nothing you can do about it.