A lot of psychological and sociological thought bolsters the third-places concept, but, ultimately, it boils down to the theme song from TV’s Cheers: You want to go where everybody knows your name. It’s a comfortable place, the predominant hang out beyond work and home. Even if you are new to the scene, it’s still welcoming, even enveloping, and becomes that place where everybody knows your name.
The notion is ageless, but urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg gave name to the third-place concept with his 1989 book “The Great Good Place,” which studied third places and lamented their loss in an increasingly fragmented society. Later, Starbucks embraced Oldenberg’s teachings as its marketing philosophy, creating a national, if not international, sensation. While Starbucks and other pop culture touchstones have portrayed cafes and coffeehouses as ideal third places, other locales have served the same purpose over the course of history and for different communities, whether it’s a bar or tavern; club or small theater; bowling alley; health club, YMCA or Boys and Girls Club; barbershop or salon; or church. Early fire pits may have been prehistoric man’s first third place.
“These things have been around forever,” said Michael Trent, founder and idea engineer at Birmingham, Alabama-based Third Place Consulting. “They’ve always been around and active.”
Trent was an early adopter of third-place concepts as a ministry tool. As a youth minister, he incorporated a café into ministry, creating a place for the youth and college-aged to hang out, build relationships and subtly strengthen faith and bring others to Christ. As a youth minister with a budget of zero, Trent also saw an opportunity to create third places as a means to raise funds for missions and outreach, not to mention build leadership and life skills for those involved. About 10 years ago, he worked with Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California, to create Third Places Café, which evolved from a one-day-a-week operation to seven days. A decade later, he’s helped churches across the country fulfill Third Place Consulting’s ultimate goal with such spaces: connect people, build leaders and fund causes. With your church and its surroundings, a third place creates and strengthens connections between church members, members and guests and the church and the broader community, Trent said.
“It’s been this long journey of educating architects and churches and the coffee industry,” he said.
A good third place serves as a gathering point where people truly desire to congregate, but it also may serve as your church’s front door for guests, especially for those who may not be comfortable in more traditional church settings. Since it’s your first impression, a third-place has to be taken seriously as a valid ministry and properly administered and staffed, which is even more essential when establishing “Main Street” third places that are not located on church grounds, Trent said.
Within the church grounds, a third place needs to be front and center and more than an assemblage of countertops and a coffee maker in a back corner, a seemingly convenient location that ties into bathrooms’ plumbing.
“It’s the most important real estate a church has, and that’s something we communicate to the church from the start,” said Kevin Bennett, managing principal at Barron Design Group in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s the first impression that every visitor will have when they come that very first time.”
Of course, a good third place evokes a church’s personality. While the interior of the space is part of that, it’s certainly secondary to the people who staff it. Investing in the people who staff the third place ensures consistency in the product sold as well as consistency relative to who patrons interact with behind the counter.
At the first Third Places Café, workers started off making $9 per hour rather than minimum wage. The reasoning: happier workers will consistently make great coffee and drinks, and, in turn, sell more, as well as be open and a positive force for worship and ministerial opportunities. With an on-campus third place, real estate costs are already covered, too, which should allow for a greater focus on people and product.
“You get more by being generous than you do by being cheap,” Trent said. “You have to do this with excellence and completeness and all the right equipment and training and design aspects. It’s no different from pulling off an amazing church service or event that people want to come back to.
“When people come in from outside and see people hanging out in a comfortable, casual environment, that’s attractive,” Trent continued. “If they’re not hanging out and connecting and building relationships, you’re not accomplishing anything.”
Journeys is the destination
In the early stages of a building-expansion program, Messiah Lutheran Church in Midland, Michigan, embraced an on-site third-place coffee shop, Journeys, and the concepts Trent espouses. At first, the concept was a little tough for some in the church to grasp, but four years later, Journeys is a seven-day-a-week operation with a drive-through window.
Journeys is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. through around 1 p.m., or whenever after-church activity quells, on Sundays. Journeys’ pricing runs from $1.80 for a 16-ounce coffee to $3.35 for flavored lattes and $4 for 20-ounce smoothies. The coffee beans generally originate in Brazil, and a third-generation, family owned firm in Seattle, Washington, roasts them. Every penny of profit and every cent from Journeys’ tip jar goes directly to missions and ministry, whether it’s funding youth mission trips of supporting a child or family through Compassion International. Messiah is now in the planning stages of adding an off-site, “Main Street” Journeys in Midland and considering other concepts like a third-place health club associated with the church.
“People in the church love Journeys as a mission tool and want to serve,” said Dan Lacher, Messiah Lutheran’s “church bartender,” as well as IT director. “We’re not in this to make money and be coffee slingers. We’re in this to bring others to Christ.”
Lacher has a number of examples of Messiah Lutheran members and Journeys’ staff touching people’s lives through a comfortable, inviting third place and a cup of joe. One of the church’s senior citizens introduced an unchurched – and hesitant – friend to Journeys as a place where they could chat, have a good cup of coffee and watch their grandchildren play. Exposure to Journeys and its staff made the woman more open to attending services and the church family where she previously would not have considered it. Journeys’ staff also is trained to recognize cues and opportunities to minister to patrons.
“It’s about creating an environment where life transformation can happen,” Lacher said. “If you can grasp their attention and get another second to pout into their lives, it’s so much more worthwhile.”
Similarly, WPH-Architects for Ministry designed a third-place coffee shop for Essex Alliance Church in Essex Junction, Vermont. Essex Alliance’s third place includes ample open/lobby space, a fireplace, an outdoor café overlooking the Adirondack Mountains. As well as its café function, Essex Alliance’s third place serves as worship space on Sundays – with services simulcast – and as a spot for parents to convene during children’s programming. Adjacent church property includes sports fields and hiking and biking paths that connect with the town’s own network of paths, further integrating the church and its broader community.
Third places are integral to the multi-purpose worship centers WPH is designing today, firm president Todd Phillippi said. They’re key to getting prospects in the door in the first place and establishing the church’s image.
“What starts out as a pass through can end up as a destination,” Phillippi said. “It’s an environment. It’s certainly an indispensible part of everything we’re designing.”
What’s next? Fourth places?
So what happens after you’ve made the connection and everybody knows your name? Author, innovation and commercial real estate consultant and Mindshift Thought Leader Rex Miller has a few ideas. After you connect, you create.
Miller’s ideas are modeled on Apple Stores’ Genius Bars, where Mac owners can go for tutorials on how to take advantage of their computers’ facets and technology in general, as well as President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which leveraged the internet to create on online platform for supporters to self organize. As it applies to worship and ministry, a fourth place may involve a learned church member offering to lead a discussion on a specific book of the Bible or scriptural element, or it may involve a church member with knowledge of music composition and production working with others to write and create new worship tunes. It could include knowledge sharing on creating and administering nonprofits and grant writing and any number of creative options for service. Ultimately, it’s a major attractor and creative outlet, especially for youth and 20-somethings, but it will require a different type of space, a type of space that has yet to be created, Miller said.
“We need to recognize that we really don’t have spaces designed yet to attract this creative, tech-savvy generation,” Miller said. “We’ve got to start thinking about new ways. The idea of the fourth place involves the ability to have a self-organizing and participatory congregation.”