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Viewpoint: An Opinion Editorial

Designing for Community: Third Places are Essential

When asked, “How long with this Third Place thing last?”—my answer is simple, “The very moment we no longer have a need to consume beverages or have human contact, the need for Third Places will be over.” This is not a trend, this is a necessary fabric that must exist in every community; it is the place where lives come together in a beautiful mess of authenticity.

The church should be leading the way in asking the question and bringing valuable answers to how we can Design for Community. Many things have occurred to create a time such as this, where the church is being given the opportunity to go back to the center of town both figuratively and literally. And if we choose to use the same methods and approach that we have the past few decades, then we may miss a “once in our lifetime” opportunity. Stewardship is not about simple “occupancy of space,” but about seizing the “opportunity of place.” Now is the time we have been given to open our eyes and invest our resources to help fill the void of Third Places that has been left in too many of our local communities.

Third Places are essential ingredients if a church is serious about Designing for Community. Because when thought through and designed properly, they create, enhance, and sustain community. It is when authentic community is to the point of sustainability that the best chance of making an impact to and through generations is realized. Sustainable Third Places leave a legacy when we go beyond settling for copying trendy mainstream and instead tapping into our most valuable resources—humanity fueled by God’s imagination.

From Ft. Walton Beach to a development in the Philippines, correspondence continues to pick up pace with phrases like, “I feel God wants us to go back to the center of town…”; “…feel called to go back into the marketplace as the church…”; “…to be the church seven days a week in and for our community.” What I am really being asked is, “Michael, how can we Design for Community?” That said, there is still a tremendous need for increased understanding and more intentional design along with proper business and ministry planning for those who want to create community, whether within the traditional walls of a church in the more classic times of meeting or in the times, places, and ways of doing church that are not as common—yet.

Understanding the social needs of people is an integral part of understanding their spiritual needs. I have had the conversation about Third Places for more than a decade now—and I have tried to quit it twice like a bad habit, but two things stopped me. First, there is no rehab program for people passionate about trying to communicate the importance of fully understanding this amazing tool, and second (the most important), God would not let me; which I’m sincerely thankful for, because we’ve not even seen the tipping point yet and it has never been a more exciting time to Design for Community. The terminology around Third Places has existed for about 25 years; the concept and human experience has always been.

In the roles I serve in, I am in daily conversation about the design and intentionality behind creation and sustainability of Third Places. Let me offer this analogy: the local church is a piece that fits in a bigger puzzle that is the community; the community is not necessarily a piece that fits inside the church. Once through the common preliminary questions about Third Places and what’s happening today, this question almost always comes up, “How do we find a balance between being overt and covert?”

1.  Add Value First: stop looking past the cliché that the church needs to contribute to the community it is in and stop merely consuming from it—this must change;

2.  Stop denying that the church is a Business. We are businesspersons—going about our Father’s business. Go from, “We’re non-profit and good at it” to “We’re unashamed to make a profit and do good things with it”;

3.  Love With No Strings Attached: never forget to love because you were first loved; give knowing it will be given beyond your imagination;

4.  Start the conversation and trust God for the conversion: this goes back to the serenity prayer of doing what you can do and not trying to do what you cannot do.

It is not time for the church to try and go underground, attempt some subtle version of bait and switch, or adapt to the saying, “If you can’t beat em’, imitate them by setting your imagination on the shelf.” Instead, now is the time for anyone wanting to BE the church in their community to recognize that it is when we have a full awareness of those around us, an attention to details such as the engaging of all five senses, and by making ourselves available in the places where real life takes place, that we find a great starting point in the overdue conversation for how the church can lead the way in the mandate to Design for Community.

By creating sustainable Third Places inside our facilities and for our communities, we will be able to bring the church back to the center of town and put the front porch back on America.

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