In 1989 Ray Oldenburg wrote the book The Great Good Places in which he intriguingly discussed the importance and recent deterioration of third places within communities, places such as “cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community.” Within these third places, “people get to know one another and to like one another and then to care for one another.” Cheers is the prototypical third place in which “everyone knows your name.”
I find the book intriguing and insightful. The book attracted my attention in that it offers a model for which some churches strive to emulate and far too many people look for within their churches. I have no issue with “third places,” In fact I believe they bring a great deal of value to a community, but I do disagree that they in anyway offer a model for the type of community for which a church should aspire. Let me note that Oldenburg is not proposing churches be third places. In fact he’s not discussing this topic from a spiritual perspective at all.
On the other hand, far too many people look to the church where they can walk in and “everyone knows their name” and no one cares about their life choices. In fact, no one ever inquires into their life choices. There is no accountability. A person can show up whenever they want, consume the product and/or atmosphere and leave with no expectations placed on them.
The third place is a great escape from the first place (the home) and the second place (work) where expectations, anxiety, and responsibilities hover. The third place offers a getaway and relaxed atmosphere. That can be nice but that’s not the church. That has never been the church.
In third places, people walk in as consumers. The third place caters to their preferences and whims to continue to exist and the consumer complies with spoken and unspoken expectations so that their safe place and getaway remain. It’s a friendship of utility (as Aristotle would define it). Both parties are almost singularly concerned with themselves and what they gain from the arrangement. If any key component changes, the relationship between consumer and third place ends.
That’s not the church, and if we approach the church with that type of mindset we will destroy true, lasting community. We must not walk into a church as a consumer and the actions of the church cannot be determined by the preferences of those walking through the front door.
It is at this point, Bonhoeffer’s quote above connects with my line of thinking.
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pg. 10).
So then, if the church isn’t a third place, what is it? How ought community be defined in the church? At this point, I’m simply offering one example of what the church is not.
But here’s a quick definition connected to community within the church. Fellowship is the fostering of relationships in which we share Christ and his purposes in common. That is the type of community we are to share within our churches. As of now, that’s where I’m at and I look forward to plunging head long into further understanding.