Third places and intersections

Wireless world, networked ministry — Part VIII of a series

By Rev. Rick King

Much is changing in the institutional church today, and the pandemic sped up the change in the past year and a half. This series of columns is based on the book “The Digital Cathedral,” by Rev. Keith Anderson, to expand our concept of Church beyond the bricks-and-mortar, exclusive-membership, financial and flesh-and-blood institution we’re used to, allowing God to birth the NEW reality, already underway in the world.

“Third places”: The term refers to a public space that is not a “first place” (home) or “second place” (work). It was coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg in his book “The Great Good Place” (1989). Third places are essential for social connections, inclusion, and democracy to happen.

They can be churches, coffeehouses, gyms, barbershops, post offices, main streets, pubs, beer gardens, community centers, bookstores, parks, gift shops—any place that’s part of the local, neighborhood culture and hosts informal, regular gatherings of people who come out of choice, because all of us need a third place.

Keith Anderson writes that these third places are “not just places of encounter, but also places of deepening engagement through conversation,” where leisurely discussions can take place as people hang out with others over something to drink or eat, and often where real dialogue can take place.

Stout’s Pub and Grill on Larpenteur and the old Underground Music Café are examples near and dear to FHCers’ experience, places where mixing can happen between congregants and others who happen to be there at the same time.

For a long time, I’ve made a practice of offering a coffee shop as an option of where to meet someone from church instead of my office or their home; a coffee shop is more neutral ground, which often fits the bill much better.

Third places are not only social hubs. They can also play an important role as religious spaces of encounter, holy ground for meeting people, where lives and worlds intersect—places that Anderson says exist between the faith we practice privately in our homes and that which people practice as a group, in local congregations. “Theology on Tap” is one example of gathering people over drinks and food to have conversation over a question of the night that builds community and delves into a deep issue of meaning or purpose.

Christian Reformed pastor Bryan Berghoef notes that pubs are often just right for diverse groups to gather to engage in conversations about life and death matters, whether those groups are made up of friends or strangers, people of faith or unaffiliated Nones.

People are longing for relationships, for meaningful dialogue about issues and a safe place to do that, where there aren’t expectations of a certain belief or perspective. I think all those things come together at the pub in a unique way, or the coffee shop for that matter. But I think there is something about a pub setting that really allows people to feel at home and lower their guard and feel like, “Hey, this is low key. I can just pull up a chair like I might do on any other night and order a pint and something to eat and listen in and hear what people are saying and offer something and be heard.”

What third places can YOU identify in your life? This might be a café or a pub, but it might be the hair salon or a favorite bookstore, or the YMCA. Where might FHCers’ lives intersect with everyday life at such a gathering place?

I wonder what would happen if we started something? Do you?