“People always have wanted to gather outside the home or work,” states Michael Trent, founder and idea engineer of Third Place Consulting in Birmingham, Ala. And that is what the concept of a Third Place is all about—providing a comfortable, inviting place for people to meet and connect. So it’s no surprise that the Third Places have made their way into many houses of worship.
While people don’t necessarily need to have food or drink to connect with each other, there is a reason why the typical Third Place environment is a café. “Beverages are the social lubricant of our society,” Trent says. “Eating and drinking together is a foundation of our social interaction.”
There are several ministerial reasons for adding a Third Place café to a house of worship.
“As a pastor, I heard many stories over the years on how much courage it took for spiritual seekers to walk into my church building,” says Jim Tomberlin, founder of MultiSite Solutions based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “A third-place church facility helps unchurched people to overcome the fear factor or negative association many have towards church,” by providing a familiar café setting that makes them comfortable, while still being exposed to the message of the Gospel.
Another purpose of a Third Place café is the opportunity to fund the ministries of the church. “Mariners Church in Irvine, Calif., communicates that all the profits from the bookstore and café are used to fund missions/missionaries throughout the world,” describes Barney H. Paradise, president and senior designer of Design Identity in Carson City, Nev. “We created a Third Place café and bookstore at which people enjoy spending time. A travel/Tommy Bahama-type feel and atmosphere to lend to the world missions support.”
Making a Third Place Successful
While many churches have implemented some type of environment for providing coffee, not all have resulted in a successful Third Place that attracts people all days of the week.
Mike Bacile, president and owner of The Daily Java in Dallas offers an explanation. “There are a few reasons for the success or failure of a Third Place café. Layout and design is very important. If laid out wrong, it can take too much time to make a drink and no one will want to wait in line or come back. Product quality, menu and personnel training are also very important. Weekday events and the location of the Café and of the church will also contribute to the financial and fellowship success. Is it easy to get to and find? Is the church located in an area that [would actively utilize a Third Place cafe setting]?”
Trent agrees with these sentiments. While the café’s ultimate purpose is to facilitate ministry, it can’t do that if it fails as a business. “You have got to have the business things right, or it’s all going to unravel and you’re not going to have the chance to do ministry. Treat it like a business,” he says.
“It takes a lot of effort,” Trent continues. “It takes a lot of passion. It takes consistency—putting out a great product with every order.” If quality varies depending on who is working the café, people will not come back.
Everyone seems to agree that management of the café should be a paid staff position. “We highly recommend there be at least one management staff member on the payroll,” states Bacile. “Some will have up to two or three paid employees depending on the hours of operations. A paid staff member provides continuity, training and consistency of product and service. The café will also be one of the biggest volunteer opportunities in your church. Everyone seems to want to play Barista (espresso machine operator) for a day.”
Trent also feels that most positions in the café, outside of when church services are taking place, be paid positions. “The majority of the time you need hired staff, but when you’re charging for the beverages, it’ll pay for itself. You can do a hybrid [where there is a combination of paid and unpaid staff], but I rarely see it work when you are open seven days a week,” as quality and consistency tend to suffer.
Many churches are interested in the Third Place café concept, but when renovating or building their facility, funds aren’t available to fully implement it right at the start. However, churches should be aware that if they plan on adding a Third Place, planning for it should be done when the building is going up.
“Electric and plumbing are the most crucial elements,” states Paradise. Even if you are not opening right away, running the plumbing and conduit for electrical at the time the building is built will save significant money down the road.
Bacile adds, “It is important to have a café specialist work with your architect and builder on the layout and flow even if you are not doing the complete café build out. The position of the equipment is critical to the success of the café. Correctly pre-positioning plumbing and electrical infrastructure will make life much easier and less expensive when the time comes to take the next step.”
Third Place Satellite Campuses
While many churches are adding a Third Place concept to their church facilities, Tomberlin reports that some multi-site churches are taking the reverse approach. As he reports, “Instead of being a church that happens to have a coffee shop that rarely is used during the week, these Third Place churches have a coffee shop, café or bistro that serves the community all week long and also offers church services on the weekends.”
So what is expected to happen with the Third Place concept in the future? Trent states that getting the basics right is what’s next for most churches. “Many church cafes simply need to improve their quality of product and their service,” he states.
Others foresee a technological extension of the Third Place concept. Futurist Rex Miller envisions a concept he calls the Fourth Place, which is equipped for members of the congregation to share knowledge and skill sets. “The idea is to take these Third Places to reinvent them as a cross between a coffee shop and an Apple genius bar,” states Miller. “The opportunity the church has is to organize and facilitate people meeting and getting together for opportunities to serve each other.”
A church could implement a web-based infrastructure that indexes the skills and talents that people would like to share. Members of the church can use that system to connect with people who have the abilities they are looking for, and to arrange a meeting time. The church would provide a place that is equipped to allow that knowledge to be utilized. For example, Barbara feels led to write a worship song, but lacks music arranging skills. She accesses the church’s skills and talents directory and connects with Sue, a musician that she’s never met. They arrange to meet at the church, where a room is available with a keyboard and composition software.
Yet this concept may not really need the church to go to the expense of providing physical space. Sue may already have the tools, and could assist Barbara without the actual church facility being involved if she’s willing to open her home to Barbara.
Where the Third Place concept primarily provides a place for people to interact socially, the Fourth Place concept would enable people who don’t know each other to meet and serve each other. While Miller suggests that this is what the Third Place will grow into, perhaps a better view is to see these as two separate concepts, serving equally valuable but different needs of the church community.
Call it a Third Place or Fourth Place, Christians are called to live together in community. How can your church leverage its facility to promote and enable this aspect of ministry?