Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who famously coined the phrase “third places, or “great good places,” as being those public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. As Oldenburg notes in his book The Great Good Place, most people ocntinually move between three distinct places or zones of meaning-making: first places (home) and second places (work) dominate peoples concern and are mediated and at times sustained by third places: locales that allow people to put aside their sectarian concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. As Oldenburg states, third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Examples of these ‘third places’ has literally sprung forth from the rubble of reaganomics in the 1980’s and sustained in many ways the dot.com boom and bust of the 1990’s: beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy.
“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.”
It is no suprize that Evangelicalism amidst the church growth frenzy of the 1980’s saw the notion of ‘third place’ as a call to arms: people need to gather and talk! We shall build large, sanctified third places! We shall provide coffee! We shall provide bookstores! We shall offer line dancing and yoga and colorful childcare areas filled with optimism!
But Oldenburg’s call to creating a third place for people to gather, to dialogue, to meet ‘others’ on a neutral ground with our sectarian differences left at the door is not what many church plants have created nor fought for. Rather, many so-called ‘third place’ churches have draw up plans and focus born of the shopping mall phenomenon rather than a truly open space for meaning-making. As Oldenburg puts it:
“Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region. There is little acquaintance between these developments and not much more within them. Most of them lack focal points or core settings and, as a result, people are not widely known to one another, even in their own neighborhoods, and their neighborhood is only a minority portion of the mall’s clientele.”
Haunting but true – to walk into the sprawling narthexes in most churches built in the last 20 years is to enter a mall of unbridled consumerism: focus is drawn to the walls and walls of pre-fab seminars cut and pasted off websites that don’t identify the hurts and longings of the community in which it hangs. As such, the experiment is running out of steam as evidenced by the fact that these neo-third place churches are emptying by the week and people are simply not coming back.
The big question: where are they going…?