Beyond the Pews
The Third Place
Many of the assumptions we are currently making about the church, its mission, growth and vitality are outdated, if not all together wrong. The world has changed dramatically in the last few decades and even more so since March of 2020, when pandemic realities began to take hold in our culture and society. Our piety and practice shifted to an unknown, unfamiliar landscape of lock-downs, social distancing, quarantining and wearing of masks. With these changes, we can no longer assume that what worked in the church we grew up in will work in the Post-Christendom, western world of the 21st century.
In 2017, while considering a change in my calling and cure, I looked at more than 75 church profiles. All of them, in one way or another, said they wanted a priest who could bring in young families, children and adolescents and grow the church. The descriptions hearkened back to the 1960s church. They were looking for a great preacher, great music, great programs, all wanting to make the church great again.
The world has changed and so should our assumptions. Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran are foreign words to 40 percent of the culture, even more so for those 30 and under. Mainline denominational churches are a product of a former generation, a relic from the past that most millennials don’t understand.
Remember the ancient paths
In Jeremiah 6:16 we are encouraged to:
Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.
When we read the scriptures and hear the words of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God, he paints a different picture of church, one that we need to recapture, an ancient path to walk. Ecclesia, the Greek word for church, means a gathering or assembly, and in this context it describes a community of people anchored in a common faith. As Bonhoeffer would say, they were doing life together. It was a connected and shared experience of coming to know the Lord by faith and repentance and growing in the knowledge and love of the Lord day by day.
If Peter or Paul walked into a modern day, western church, regardless of denomination, I wonder if they would recognize it as church. The church for them was a vibrant community, relational and able to adapt quickly to change. It was innovative in developing the needed structures to sustain the mission to proclaim the Gospel in a variety of situations. It practiced a contextual intelligence, capable of interpreting the culture – like the sons of Issachar, who had the understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do. (1 Chronicles 12:32) The early church was founded in relational/incarnational ministry following Jesus’ practice of withness – of being with people, entering their context with understanding and divine empathy. This was the Pre-Christendom model of church and we need a Pre-Christendom model for a Post-Christendom world.
A surprising Fresh Expression
In 2017, vocational restlessness led me into Fresh Expressions, where I found people longing for church done differently, for a fresh expression of church. I stepped out in faith, joining their ranks as a trainer and mission strategist and quickly found a home among these missional pilgrims seeking to plant churches for people who do not go to church.
It was like going back to a familiar mission of engaging people, interacting with them and participating in a life-on-life manner. Gathering with people around a common interest or a common geography and building relationships is what we see in the Book of Acts. Relationships are the currency in the Kingdom of God, and this is how the Good News of God in Christ is transmitted.
Third Places becoming Thin Places
Because of Fresh Expressions, I rediscovered a deeper understanding of the church’s mission which I’ve come to express this way…
Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist, developed the concept of Third Place. There’s the first place of home, the second place of work or school, and then there are third places, where people gather. They could be a gym, a park, a restaurant, or any place where people assemble around a common interest. In the 1990’s, Starbucks used this idea for their marketing strategy. They wanted to be everyone’s third place – home, work, Starbucks. For many it worked, and Starbucks became a place where people would meet with friends, hangout, grab some internet and even work.
In Celtic Spirituality there is the idea of the Thin Place, a place where the distance between heaven and earth, time and eternity, are reduced and even collide. I have been on some teaching missions in the Diocese of the Arctic in the Anglican Church in Canada. In Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territory, I witnessed the Northern Lights. The night sky was ablaze with greens and blues. For me it was a thin place, showing the heavens declaring God’s glory. I felt the weight of the Lord’s presence. I have felt that before on mountaintops, at beaches, in cathedrals and more.
So here is a modern day understanding of the mission of the church. We enter Third Places of culture, where people gather, and by the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, they become Thin Places of encounter. Redemption, reconciliation, salvation, repentance and faith are mediated in these places and moments, lives are changed and faith communities are formed. Peter, Paul and the saints of old entered the third places of their culture with the Gospel. We should too.
What does this look like?
At Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Key, Florida, where I serve as a part-time vicar, I brought with me some of the Fresh Expression missiology. We have begun a Dinner Church/Community Dinner. We invite our neighbors, friends – in reality the whole community – to an evening meal. We gather around table, engage and connect. There is a short telling of a gospel story, followed by some discussion, prayers are offered and we close with a blessing. A community is forming, conversations are continuing and one day we see it as an ecclesia; an assembly of people, anchored in faith, growing in the Lord. The table, the meal are a Third Place becoming a Thin Place.
I am a cradle Episcopalian; I love the Book of Common Prayer. Liturgy, the church calendar, sacramental elements and other treasures in the Anglican tradition set a needed cadence in my life. We do not need to abandon these things, but we must find a way for them to be translated for a culture that does not speak this language. Isn’t this what Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer did during the English Reformation when he crafted the first Book of Common Prayer? He took the worship of the church – prayer, litanies and liturgies that were in a foreign language – and put them in the vernacular of the English people.
That is our task today, to understand the context of the world in which people live and to find ways to connect and engage people with the Good News of God in Christ. The attractional model of coming to church is disappearing, and maybe that is a good thing. In the Great Commission we are encouraged to go as a sent people into a dark and dying world bearing the light and life of the Gospel. More than anything, I want others to know the joy of being reconciled to Almighty God, and I see that happening when I enter those third places where people congregate authentically with compassion, kindness and understanding, and whereby prayer and the Holy Spirit, Jesus is made known.
The Rev. Jon Davis, PhD, is an Episcopal priest and a recognized leader with expertise in youth ministry, worship, liturgy, church growth and planting, missions, leadership and more. He is on staff with Fresh Expressions as a mission strategist. He also serves as the part-time vicar of Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Key, Florida. He is an engaging speaker, writer, musician and professor. He and his wife Beth live on a little farm in Oviedo, Florida, with a menagerie of horses, cats, chickens, English Bulldogs and other critters.
- Surfing and Spirituality by Scott Claassen, Vestry Papers, March 2020
- Holy Hikes and Thin Spaces by Haley Bankey, Vestry Papers, March 2022
- Formation Moves into the Neighborhood by Greg Syler, an ECF Vital Practices blog, April 4, 2019
- Witnessing Faithfully Beyond the Walls, an ECF Vital Practices webinar presented by Audra Abt, September 27, 2016