Home. 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.
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.
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!
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