The Church should be the Third Place not the First.

I can’t wait until we launch our church in Portland and can see it become our third place! Can’t wait to not have it be the first place as it should never outshine our family and home time. And, even though we will work full time in ministry, I am thankful that we won’t have it be our second place either.


You ask why? Because, if I am behind a desk in an office in our building and not at a coffee house or Powell Books or Pioneer Square downtown, or at a City Council or Chamber meeting in Portland then I’m not really working anyway. I want to meet people every single day. That is my personal and professional goal. Every single day, unless we are home with our family chillin, I want to meet people (plural). How else can we “Go into the world and make disciples” if we never go and make acquaintances with future disciples? I want to come on the scene, as futurist Leonard Sweet says, and “find what Jesus is already up to in people”. I Can barely sit still here on my couch and wait! 


The people we gather, the friends we make, the life-long relationships we discover will all form the “church” or comraderie. When we are together, in a building, our building, our bookstore, or worshiping in services, then we can be the third place. 


The ‘third place’ is a phrase coined by contemporary sociologist Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg (1990) postulates that the third place is a term referring to a public place where people gather for the social satisfaction that they can’t get from the first two domains of the home and the workplace. Moreover, Oldenburg argues that the availability of such gathering places in America is lacking. Loitering outside of convenience stores and fast-food franchises has become a common practice among those looking for a neutral social atmosphere. In an age of such compartmentalized social life, there simply is no public place for people to go and enjoy one another’s company. Aren’t we glad that isn’t the case in all cities in this decade? Starbucks, local coffee houses, cigar lounges, pubs have all become popular places of socializing. 


Article about Starbucks blogged in 2009

Inspired by Oldenburg’s observations, Schultz of Starbucks has turned America’s seeming lack of place into a viable business opportunity. Encouraging loitering and offering lattes, Schultz has developed Starbucks into a cozy home-away-from-home. In a book of his own, Schultz (1997) applies the need of a third place in the lives of people to the popularity of Starbucks with its customers:

In an increasingly fractured society, our stores offer a quiet moment to gather your thoughts and center yourself. Starbucks people smile at you, serve you quickly, don’t harass you. A visit to Starbucks can be a small escape during a day when so many other things are beating you down. We’ve become a breath of fresh air. (p. 119)

Oh, to not be a church that is “beating you down”. A breath of fresh air would definitely have described Jesus and his ministry. Then it went on to describe the message his disciples lived out. We, the church, the third place, can be what Howard Schultz described in 1997 that has caught on a bit, don’t you think?! 

This concept, which I have studied and meditated on for years now is probably another reason why I love local coffee houses and local bookstores. Why I love a small park or fountain area in an urban neighborhood where people congregate. Once you are bitten by the feel of doing life together in that third place, wherever that may be, you are never satisfied with work, home, work, home, far off vacation, work, home again. Oh, Plymouth, MI how you have inspired me and forever changed my idea of community.

THE THIRD PLACE: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about the community and urban planning concept. For other uses of the term, see competition.

The third place is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. In his influential book The Great Good PlaceRay Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil societydemocracycivic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.

Oldenburg calls one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. Oldenburg suggests these hallmarks of a true “third place”: free or inexpensive; food and drink, while not essential, are important; highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance); involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there; welcoming and comfortable; both new friends and old should be found there.

Michael Krassa argues along similar lines, looking at neighborhood design, social network formation, and civic involvement.

Robert Putnam addressed issues related to third place in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital (1995, 2000).

The concept of a “Third Place” has become popularized and has been picked up by various small businesses, including as a name for various locally owned coffee shops, and is commonly cited in urban planning literature on the issue of community-oriented business development and public space.


Variant forms of the concept include the “community coffee house” and the “community living room”, a term which has been adopted by several organizations to describe the model of a cooperatively-run “third space” which includes commercial or non-commercial functions with an emphasis on providing a free space for social interaction.

The general store or pub and occasionally bookstore or diner are traditional variants of the concept, provided in such cases there is an emphasis on expectation of socialization, and customers are invited to stay and “hang out” with or without making any (or additional) purchases. Institutions which traditionally provided some functions of a third place included shared leisure facilities such as a bowling alley or arcadefunction hallslodges or social clubs, when and if facilities were available for casual use.


An increasing percentage of American workers now telecommute, not from home, but from a third place. Workers cite isolation when telecommuting from home and find working in public spaces a happy medium between the home office and the corporate office. Availability of public wifi has been a major enabler of this trend, and an increasing number of retail chains are catering to it.


A traditional public house encourages social contact between patrons. But a third place which provides internet access may create a hollow effect in that the patrons are physically present but do not make social contact with each other, being absorbed by their remote connections. Some café owners are trying to ameliorate this effect by staging performance art such as live jazz and turning off the wi-fi to encourage audience engagement.

What and where is your third place?




About Sonny Hennessy

PR, Marketing, Future Church Planter Coffee....yes please! View all posts by Sonny Hennessy

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