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The ‘Third Place’ May Be the Best Place for the Church to Gather

Worship In a Movie TheaterHome. Work. Hangout. Those are the three places we do life. There’s no better place for the church to gather than right in the middle of the third place – the hangout.

Via Wikipedia:

In community building, the third place (or third space) is the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. In his influential book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.

Oldenburg calls one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs.

Three years ago now, Grace Hills Church launched in the Malco movie theater on what is locally referred to as “restaurant row.” We didn’t initially plan on being a theater church, but it didn’t take long for the idea to grow on us. Before the theater, we met in an office complex in Bentonville, a hotel meeting room, and an educational building on a regional college campus.

Those initial locations were all in different areas of Northwest Arkansas and we decided back then that we didn’t ever want to be defined by our location. We were a regional church for the Bentonville, Rogers, Bella Vista, Lowell, Cave Springs, Centerton, etc. community we affectionately refer to as Northwest Arkansas. Further, while we would gather in some place on the weekend, we would be scattering and spreading out all over the community in the form of small groups and service projects.

What I’ve grown to love most about meeting in our theater is that we’re in the middle of one of those third places. In the shopping area surrounding us are a dozen well-known chain restaurants, two office supply stores, a bookstore, a home improvement store, and plenty of places to shop for clothes, home decor, and pet supplies. It’s one of the places people in Northwest Arkansas go on the weekend to do life beyond home and work.

I’ve also loved the cultural neutrality of meeting in a theater. In a traditional church building, we’re asking guests to come and meet us on our terms – our parking lot, our church-style building, our pews, our stained glass, etc. We’re asking them to embrace the unfamiliar and break through a lot of barriers.

In a movie theater, the barriers are pretty much non-existent as long as we’re able to meet our guests at the door and guide them through their experience. We already go to theaters. We feel happy there. We eat buttery popcorn and laugh at comedies and get wow’d by action flicks there. Maybe it won’t be so scary to try going to church there.

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The same could be said of a coffee shop, the atrium of a shopping area, and often a school or civic building. These are third places, accessible, affordable, and attractive to those looking for places to hang out and do life beyond home and work. These are the places where community happens.

Let’s rewind a couple thousand years. Since there were no church buildings for several hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, where did local church families gather? The Jewish Temple, synagogues, and marketplaces. Wherever people normally met beyond home and work, the church felt at home gathering there.

Does this mean churches with traditional church buildings should close up shop and relocate to malls and theaters? Absolutely not. While church buildings may be an innovation post-dating the apostolic era by several hundred years, they have also become a familiar third place in and of themselves.

I do think, however, that we should think about how to make church buildings places where community happens in more ways than just a single worship service on Sunday. Ron Edmondson and Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington do a great job of this, as do First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas. They’ve worked to become third places where people do more than just attend a weekend service.

For church planting movements, however, especially in urban and suburban contexts, I think it’s extremely valuable to seek out already existing third places as places to plant seeds of faith where overlapping communities of people are already gathering and hanging out.

To put it more succinctly, I love being a church right in the middle of the marketplace, in a movie theater, where pretty much everybody loves to come hang out!

Why Gathering with the Church On the Weekend Matters

We need some terminology shifts in our discussion about weekend gatherings of the church. First of all, the word “attendance” implies that church is an event that we support and make happen with our attendance. But church isn’t an event. And while the church is “local” in its expression, it isn’t defined by a building or a location either.

Church is people. The church is a covenant people who are united by our belief in Jesus, our baptism, and by communion, and we commonly crave to celebrate the presence of Jesus among His people collectively. It’s a communion of people who depend on and crave Jesus and each other, so we show up out of our common desperation for more of His truth, His presence, and the fellowship of His people.

The writer of Hebrews encouraged us to not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25 NLT) This isn’t written as an imperative or a command, as though attending the weekend event is a legal obligation. Rather it’s written as an urging to us to gather because it’s necessary for our growth and our encouragement.

The church, with all of her flaws, is a beautiful mess. Gathering with the church on the weekend matters because people matter to God, and God definitely matters to His people. So we gather to worship, to learn, to witness, and to draw life from Him and from one another.

With whom, with what church, and where are you going to gather this weekend?

Acknowledging the Ultimate Gift Giver

GiverJames, the brother of Jesus, once said, Every good present and every perfect gift comes from above, from the Father…” (James 1:17 GW) All the stuff we possess is a gift from God, and failing to recognize Him as the Giver is to miss the opportunity to glorify Him in our lives and in the world.

Acknowledging and thanking God as the Giver does two things for us. First, it helps us worship. That is, it elevates Him in our minds, causes us to feel dependent upon Him, and provokes us to speak well of Him to others.

And second, thanking God as the Giver keeps us humble. There is something humbling about receiving a gift. We’re never quite sure what to say, and that’s often a good thing as we stand before the Creator and King. In our silence, we become submissive to a God who loves us and cares for us by providing for our needs graciously.

When Things Get Real in a Church Plant

Grace Hills' Second Service

A snapshot taken in our first official “second” service, 1/19/2014.

I am humbled! Today marked the 2nd anniversary of our launch as Grace Hills Church. Today, we also launched a second morning worship service – something I’ll write about later. And today, we began a new teaching series called Healing: Recovering from Life’s Hurts, Habits, and Hang-ups.

We had a record attendance. 240 people came, 47 of whom were kids, and 2 young adults received Jesus as their Savior. THAT never gets old! That’s the highlight – two young ladies who are going to heaven now, for whom life will never be the same again.

What really humbled me the most, however, was that I started the message off by declaring, “My name is Brandon. I’m a Christian who struggles with anger, and here’s the story of what that has looked like as Jesus was worked in my life to help me understand and start to heal.”

And the result of risking saying something like that to my Grace Hills family? People were thankful. People felt free to say, “I’m broken too.”

We’ve been determined from day one that Grace Hills will be a church OF broken people with a message FOR broken people. We embrace messes and value messy ministry. We’re a safe place for people with struggles and we believe that, though broken by sin, there is forgiveness and healing in a relationship with Jesus.

I’m taking away some big blessings from today…

  • Jesus saves, and Jesus alone, and He’s powerful to save people from every background imaginable.
  • Risks are worth taking, like launching two services when we hadn’t filled up the room we were in. It worked.
  • Getting real matters. Transparency matters. And I don’t ever want to go back to faking it. Ever.
  • If God can use me, He can use anybody, and He has and He will!
  • Volunteers are awesome! From the early setup crew to the kids volunteers to the greeters and the coffee makers, I LOVE the people who invest their heart and their energy into making Grace Hills what it is.

And we’re still just getting started. God is at work, gathering a community of believers who are coming to know Jesus and serving others for His glory. And I can’t wait to witness what is next!

When It Comes to Worship, Don’t Hold Back!

Christians like to talk about church music and call it worship. Church music usually is a means by which Christians worship. But worship is much more than music. We even have our own “worship wars” in which we decide what “style” of worship is right, wrong, or most biblical. I still see the phrases “contemporary worship” and “traditional worship” plastered on church signs, as though worship can be defined by such descriptors.

In our debates about the biblical nature of worship, we usually ask questions that are fair enough…

  • Is this about Jesus? Or is it about the performer?
  • Are the lyrics theologically correct and deep? Or are they shallow?
  • Are people participating? Or is this a one-way performance?
  • Can we use drums? Smoke? Colored lights? Can it be loud?
  • Is it still worship if we use drums, smoke, colored lights, and it’s really loud?

We’ve missed the point. When I read about acts of worship in the Bible, I find myself asking different questions…

  • Are we increasing our adoration of King Jesus?
  • Are we being real and authentic?
  • Does my life back up what my lips offer up?
  • Is this a witness to non-believers?
  • Is there as much room for my brokenness in this act as there is for my joy?

We had only been in town a month or so to start planting Grace Hills when I first met our Worship Pastor, Neil Greenhaw. I sat at lunch with him and asked if he would consider leaving his role at a great, successful megachurch to start from scratch with no promise of success. I had never heard Neil sing or play guitar at that point, but I knew in his heart he wanted to lead people in authentically expressing their praise to God and raise up a generation of worshippers to impact our culture.

Thankfully, Neil said yes in response to God’s calling, and he’s taught me a great deal about worship. Consider the lyrics to one of his singles, Not Holding Back.

Hands raised high, reaching to the One I gave my heart, my life
Head held high, knowing that You love me and my sin I resign
Jesus is the King of Glory

I’m calling for You, my Savior
begging for You, and Your Spirit
waiting to move, I’m consumed by You

Not Holding Back, I’m giving it all to You
worshiping now, in spirit and truth
Your only Son is coming for us
Your Kingdom come, Your will be done
I’m Not Holding Back, I’m giving it all to You

Heart made right, only through the blood and power
Jesus Christ, crucified, now You’re alive

The heart of that song set the tone for one of our core values at Grace Hills. Namely,

We won’t hold back when it comes to worship. We will express our love for God freely so that our passion for him is obvious to a watching world. Jesus is worth it!

As we engage in worship corporately on Sunday, our atmosphere is one of freedom, but not of chaos. I often look around and see people standing and others sitting. Some are raising their hands with eyes closed while others are politely lip-syncing (and I’m sometimes among them). We never say things like “let’s all smile” or “leave your worries at the door.” We recognize that people worship from places of brokenness as well as places of triumph and we welcome both. Worship is our offering to God, but He uses the worship conversation as a time to minister to our needs.

The bottom line is, we try to spend very little time looking around and far more looking up. From our brokenness, we praise the Healer. From our sin-filled, forgiven past, we praise the Forgiver and Redeemer. And with our grace-appropriated, blood-bought future ahead, we praise the coming King. And all the while, we are thankful that such a holy, holy, holy God accepts and relishes in our authentic worship.