Imagine you have never set foot inside a church, or at least haven't in some time. Imagine you have a stigma concerning organized religion or that you have been hurt by a church at some point in your life. Would you want to walk into a Sunday morning worship service alone, unsheltered from judgment and criticism, untrained in how to act and where to sit?
Now imagine you can test the waters. You have the opportunity to meet people in a relaxed and neutral environment, a place you begin frequenting several times a week. You are able to feel out the canons of the body and chat with church members who share common interests. Soon this café, fitness center, or bookstore is your favorite place to be. That first Sunday service isn't so intimidating now, is it?
This is an example of the church through a third placeministering to, while simultaneously becoming a part ofits community. Ray Oldenburg, sociologist and author of The Great, Good Place, coined the term "third place," defining it as the place people need and seek outside of home (first place) and work (second place).
Not long ago, a third place was an organic part of every life. Whether it was a local diner or someone's front porch, people connected with one another somewhere, making it a regular part of their day. Nonetheless, according to our experts, this cultural norm was almost extinct due to modern zoning and human migration.
This lack of a connection hub remained true for society until a few years ago when retail third places, like coffee houses and bookstores, became everyday hangouts for virtually everybody. In the same fashion, churches are flipping around an open sign every morning inviting the neighborhood in for morning coffee and conversation. In the afternoons their venues are an alternative for the after school bunch, and in the evenings, the adult crowd can stop by for an art show, live music, or just maybe an incidental Bible study.
Space vs. Place
For a long time churches have created various gathering spaces, such as a narthex or atrium, but these spaces cater mostly to those already attending the church and are different from third places, which are created for the community.
"The third place typically provides more of a relaxed environment, encouraging people to slow down and have meaningful interaction, whereas spatial areas [like a narthex] might be more functional for facilitating corporate gathering and crowd management," says Hank Pryor, president and chief imagineer of Kingdom Productions in Batavia, Ohio.
"It is when you create an environment that engages all five senses that space becomes a place," adds Michael Trent, owner of Birmingham, Alabama-based Third Place Consulting. "Coffee, smoothies, and teas have an amazing stickiness factor' that slows us down and gives us time to talk."
By adding a third place to their ministry, churches are inviting the community in and ministering to them, but they are also giving themselves the ability to develop leaders and provide existing members with a place to connect. According to Trent, the latter may be the most urgent reason of all. "If we, the body of Christ, are not connecting with one another in a consistent and healthy way, then how do we expect others to be drawn to Jesus?"
Although he prefers the term "third room," relating to the Biblical Upper Room and its ability to connect people and purposes, David Schultz, president of David F. Schultz Associates based in Barrington, Illinois, agrees, "We are a part of the most interconnected generation in history, yet we are the most physically disconnected." He goes on to talk about the personal digital assistant- or PDA-toting "Generation-i," the first generation to grow up with the Internet, that is the emerging church. "These families want authentic, culturally, and socially engaged ministries, and they're thinking, If you don't have a third room, you're not the church for me.'"
However, according to Mel McGowan, founder of Visioneering Studios, a nationwide architecture and urban design firm, the most significant purpose of a third place can only be viewed when the big picture is considered. "I believe God is calling churches to tear down the cultural walls that separate the churched from the unchurched. The true test of a third place is when anyone in the community is completely comfortable stepping foot into the environment without needing to be personally invited."
Trent also buys into this theory, sharing a story about the night he became "The Church Bartender" at Third Place Café, a part of Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California. "For months, the same guy would come to the café, belly up to the bar and just talk; while I would just listen. Both his smell and his language were foul, but what I loved about this guy was he seemed to be more authentic than most believers I knew. One night, he says to me, Man, you're like a church bartender. If I had a church like this with a church bartender, I might go.' God used this man to remind me of the absolutely huge and important ministry opportunity and responsibility he had given to me."
Conversely, Kevin Callahan, CEO of Callahan Studios in Scottsdale, Arizona, differs in his opinion of how best to reach the community. "Jesus went to the people, as opposed to asking them to come," he says. "The key to ministering to the community is to just be in the community, loving your neighbor as yourself."
Designing for Community
When it comes to creating the third place, the goal is to be relevant to the culture of the community served while being true to the personality of the church. "We found that the cultural solution that would be a bridge to the unchurched in Austin should look radically different than it would in Anchorage," says McGowan. He goes on to share stories from successful third place projects completed all over the country.
For Chicago, Illinois-area West Ridge Community Church's third place, Encounter Café, dark, distressed woods and leathers were chosen to convey a house of blues feel. The third place is a restaurant and coffee house with indoor and outdoor spaces that are independent of one another, but still connected through the use of garage doors, which of course contribute to the urban feel designers were looking for. For cost reasons, digital graphics, stained concrete, and plastic laminates were used in place of original materials in some areas of the design.
Stepping Stones Café, the third place of Manchester Christian Church in Manchester, New Hampshire, was inspired by the autumn colors of its region. A New Hampshire mountain lodge was the muse behind the church's overall remodel and includes a granite "Nehemiah Wall," which serves to catch the attention of drivers with its graphics and forms the fourth wall needed for the outdoor living room and fundamental gathering spot of Stepping Stones. "The effectiveness of this approach was quantified as the church has identified that 30% of first-time visitors are coming to church as a result of simply driving by, with no personal invitation," says McGowan.
Aforementioned Third Place Cafe was first an old nursery space in a corner of the church's sanctuary. McGowan's firm added a focal tower and circular dining patio and then overhauled the space into an ambience-rich Mediterranean piazza complete with outdoor fireplaces, "jumbrellas," and canopies of lights and palm trees. The Tuscan color palette was enhanced by environmental art constructed from giant sandstone, which also serves as bench seating. Inside the café, one wall is covered in character plaster and specialty paint to give the impression of an ancient wall concealing a mariner's map.
Although aesthetically different, all of these third places share the ability to draw people in by being engaging and showing knowledge of the society they coexist with. Consequently, they rival anything secular third places have to offer.
Equally important to design are furnishings, which can make or break the atmosphere of third places, says Mark Towell, president of National Church Purchasing Group in Richmond, Virginia. He praises the functionality of lounge-style seating, saying it is comfortable, but trendy and versatile enough for anybody who might show up.
"Overwhelmingly, churches are going for a utilitarian, industrial look in their furnishings," Towell comments. "However, we're also seeing a shift toward a cabin look with fireplaces, and other elements that contribute to a cozy environment."
Another design component to consider is exterior access, which does not require non-church patrons to walk through the church building. All of our experts agree that on-campus third places that are separate from the actual church building aid in security concerns, as well.
The Future of Third Places
It's hard to say where third places are headed since they are just now making their way back into our culture. It is safe to assume they will continue to appear in the secular and sacred worlds, even becoming as familiar as Sunday school and traditional outreach programs.
"I've never seen a tool more powerful at connecting people than that of an intentional third place designed and implemented by people who have the ultimate competitive advantage. We must design and deliver with excellence," says Trent.
That said, whatever third places become, it is important they are approached with an open mind and the desire for authentic connections, otherwise it's just another space.