Church as the original 3rd place..?


In this post I'd like to pick up an idea of Dr Luke Bretherton's that the early church was the orginal 3rd space? A space that allowed a radical rebasing of the cultural values around for those of the Kingdom of God. What implications and challenges does this have for christians seeking to use 3rd places today?

A what space? By 3rd place I mean somewhere that is outside the first two spaces in our life of work and home. Ray Oldenburg is credited with coining the term in his book: The Great Good Place.

Ray writes about how informal public gathering places are essential to community and public life. He argues that most people have three places in their life that they feel define them: home, work and a third place. And that bars, coffee shops, general stores, and other "third places" are central to local democracy and community vitality. Such places are also called "social condensers" -- an important way in which the community developed and retained cohesion and a sense of identity. The third-place concept has become a buzzword for retailers as a place to aspire to become - the concept is so strong that Starbucks are celebrated for successfully building their entire marketing campaign on this concept.

A missional space? 3rd place is not only a buzzword for retailers but also for many christians looking to do some form of community based/engaging missional activity. Christians have taken the concept and run with it as a form/way of doing church for example these articles by: steve collins and Ken Dean. It's easy to see the appeal, not only is it a culturally familiar form but the characteristics of it fit well with the idea of a 3rd space for christians to connect with God, each other and their communities. Ray lists the following 8 characteristics of a 3rd place:

1. They’re neutral ground 2. They’re “levelers” where rank and status don’t matter 3. Conversation is a main activity 4. They’re easy to access and accommodating 5. They have a core group of influential regulars 6. They have a low profile instead of being showy 7. The mood is playful 8. They feel like homes away from home

Neutral spaces? Whilst i remain postive about all forms of church and aware that all of them have advantages and disadvantages i am uneasy about whether all these characteristics of 3rd place sit easy with the values/culture of the church? For example, are 3rd places really ever "neutral venues" and should church seek to be one?

Starbucks, after all, is not a neutral venue - it is a consumer venue that demands we participate in the rituals of consumerism. To go into starbucks and use that space we have to make an offering - usually about £3+ for a coffee. If we want to remain in that space for any length of time we will need to pay again... and again.

Dr Luke Bretherton in the book: Remembering our future challenges our inherited values in the use of a secular/cultural 3rd space for church. His starting place is that we are already shaped by the practices and disciplines of consumer culture [for instance the regular liturgy of TV advertisements reoccurring every 15 mins] such that we are seldom aware of the effect of them on us.

Luke argues that people don't just believe and belong to one place but that they also actively belong to non-church places which are not neutral in relation to Christianity. Many of these non-church places are antithetical to the faithful practice of christianity: for example, to be in a cafe is not to be in a neutral space but to be in a site of consumer capitalism. Hence, to claim one is forming a church in one is deeply problematic."

Are emerging churches in danger of becoming collaborators with consumer culture "while older, inherited forms of church are sites of radical resistance, deeply relevant precisely in their non-conformity to contemporary culture"?

Church as the orginal 3rd space:

Bretherton has argued that the early church was an orginal 3rd space - outside of that of the oikos (the family) and the polis (the city/civic life). It was a radical space in which people could belong to a new family/new kingdom - a space that undermined rather than reinforced the inherited cultural values of the time.

In other words it was a space where women and slaves could mix freely/equally with men, they could share a role in leading, in decision making, in acting on the mission of God together. It was a spcae where the distinctions of gender, social class, wealth etc made by the oikos or polis were transcended. It was a true 3rd space in that the radical rebasing of values were not centred on society/culture but the cruciform Christ, or as St Paul put it:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What does this mean for church as the 3rd place?

What if church is and of itself a 3rd place, outside that of our working/leisure/individualistic/consumer culture? A place where instead of participating and collaborating with our consuimer selves our dominant cultural values are confronted, challenged and changed? Such that we have a dedicated space in our lives to re-orient our values, priorities and life as a community around Jesus and his Kingdom.

What if, as Bretherton argues, our historic christian witness is a communal space dedicated to God which deliberately causes disruption to our lives to attend? A space and a place designed to frustrate us, disrupt us, disorientate us and help us find a new centre and reality upon which to do life together?

Or in the words of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador:

“a Church that does not provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed - what gospel is that?”

Let me finish by asking you a couple of questions...

- do our forms of church allows us to choose to escape from the other gods clamouring for our attention and allows us a space to interpret our context through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Should they?

- should church be a place a place that provides counter practices such as fasting, serving, giving, communion which helps enable christians to resist the process of commodification and competition?

- how, if we chose to use a 3rd place, can we radically rebase the inherent cultural values within it on to ones that are centred on the Kingdom of God?

Paul Mayers