Churches should want to become a central part of the community by providing third spaces for people to go to. Ray Oldenburg, who wrote The Great Good Place, characterizes the third space as those places in a community that are neither home (1st space) or work (2nd space) and that offer a place to retreat and hang out with friends, enjoy their company, laugh and chat. In theory, someone should be able to turn up to a third place on their own in the knowledge that they will meet old friends or be able to make some new.
He mentions the traditional local pub as an English equivalent, where anyone can turn up and become a ‘regular’ simply by putting the time in. French pavement cafes do a similar job. Third places are where friendships are formed and deepened with people who are neither your family nor your colleagues.
Sadly, these places are disappearing from our towns and cities – in the US there are rarely every any in suburban living, and in the UK the traditional pub is being replaced by the ‘family meals’ pub or the coffee shop. Both of these operate on the ‘bring your own friends’ basis. They can offer a good service – food and drink – but they very rarely offer company to someone looking for it.
With these places disappearing, yet the longing for community and connection ever increasing (and people often have no idea how to create it any more), I believe that churches can meet this need by providing creative spaces that people can turn up to, be accepted and spend time just chatting. Many churches have already embraced this by providing coffee shops that are welcoming and friendly like this – just last week we stumbled into the Source Cafe in Buxton and were heartily welcomed and chatted to by the volunteers there. The Kairos Centre in Grange Park, Northampton is another.
What makes third places different to other places of interaction such as work and home, and why are they needed? Ray Oldenburg notes:
- They are neutral. You can never quite relax in someone else’s home no matter how good a host they are. Third Places belong to everyone.
- They are levellers. Whether you’re a solicitor or a street cleaner, everyone is welcome on an equal basis. Everyone’s opinions count the same – they are inclusive and accessible.
- Conversation is the main activity. Talk is good and lively and engaging, but not too heavy. Offers the perfect place to unwind and get to know others.
- They are accessible. This one in important. Third Places are those that someone can go, alone or with others, at any time of the day with assurance that acquaintances will be there. They are also physically accessible – pubs are called ‘locals’ for a reason.
- They have regulars, and anyone can become one. They are a ‘home away from home’
- They have a low profile. By this he means that they are most likely not a chain, and aren’t too pretentious (thus putting people off going).