catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 9 :: 2006.05.05 — 2006.05.19


Church as "third place" as church

Church as third place has always been implicit in emerging church events. Self-directed movement among installations, food and drink available, background music and soft seating, even whole services run in cafe format?all that remained was to leave it in place and open during the day. In most places churches are underused spaces in the urban fabric. The doors are locked and the lights are out, except at certain times on Sundays and evenings. But it’s been the experience of the emerging church that these can be good places to hang out, given the right amenities. What’s required is a new approach to how church buildings are used:

  • not just open for single events
  • not privatised spaces for members only
  • a community space, in the ethos of the independent coffee house whose explicit intention is to promote community
  • and therefore a workspace also

Church as third place isn’t about a cafe attached to a church, it’s about use of the actual church. No longer is it a private, “sacred” space used only for services but is itself offered as a service to the city. When church is a third place the services take place in a public environment among the sofas and tables. Which is a challenge to what actually happens in worship. And if worship is adapted to that environment, could it happen elsewhere?any third place? Third place as church.

Church happens wherever two or three are gathered. We need to see our belonging in terms of a network, a spiritual network in the city?not competing centres. No more should we think of one “church” per building, and ourselves expected to only belong to that and not take our custom to the church [building] down the street. The scandal of denomination has left us a legacy of buildings everywhere, many kinds?we could make better use of them.

Moving away from privatization is key. Even when they’re open, church buildings are not often perceived as public spaces. To be public one must adopt a neutral attitude to visitors, and not attempt to co-opt them into a belief system or get clingy. Most churches are not perceived as neutral in this regard?entry is usually taken as a first step towards membership. Church as third place challenges our methods of communication.

The kingdom of God is embodied in values and actions, such as gift and hospitality, not just events such as church “services.” Kingdom space?what does it look like? What kinds of design embody kingdom values? After all, we understood that old-style church buildings and interiors embodied values that we didn’t like. Any secular third place displays its values?how do we do the same without being churchy? [Clue: expressing values is not the same as expressing religion.] If people come and go, what do they take with them apart from a coffee? Visitors to emerging church events often leave with mementos in their pockets, reminders of spiritual experience that also allow it to be recreated in another time and place. How do we extend this idea for everyday customers?

So we have a whole new model of church in four layers:

    1. places
    2. embodying objects and spiritual technologies
    3. ways of belonging and community
    4. ways of communicating kingdom values and worldview

Each of these pieces implies the others. Together in turn they imply a different kind of presence for the people of God in the world?pervasive, low profile, serving and embedded?that is a long way from the monarchical models of the Constantinian era.

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