The coffee peddler Starbucks famously grew to monster size on the public hunger for a “third place,” somewhere besides home and work where people, alone or in clusters, could, well, be somewhere besides home or work. Variety is the pumpkin spice latte of life. More recently co-working spaces have come to serve that same felt need, a place for gig workers to toil and commiserate and look at different walls than their own.
Maybe church serves as a third place as well.
I thought about this in yesterday’s worship service, where we had a gratifyingly large number in the congregation even though it was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. What brought all these people out on a nice morning when they could be planning their barbecue or just maintaining the torpor of a long weekend?
Might have been the music; we had wonderful music yesterday. But just as likely, I think, is that being together in church, as the church, fills a need that runs deep in us. I believe we’re built for spiritual communion – for one thing, there has been neurological research that shows brain structures that predispose us to mystical experience – but alongside that, we’re built to be together sometimes. Even introverts like me need that.
And church provides a ready avenue for that kind of third-place experience. It’s a place you come to know; as you integrate yourself into a congregation, you learn people’s names and they learn yours, and you start to hear people’s stories and see intersections and connections with your own. You get bonded to this place in a way you’re never going to be at Starbucks, for example, or Wegmans. And as a bonus, nobody is trying to sell you anything.
We have lots of people streaming the worship service these days, either in real time or at their time-shifted leisure. That’s a good thing, and an important thing for those in our body who have moved away, or who are homebound or in the hospital. I try to remember that the faces I see from the pulpit are not the only faces who are being reached by Nativity’s shared ministry. But I can’t help thinking that the streamers are missing out on the rewards of the third place – of being present with and to each other, looking at the bulletin boards and the altar flowers, having a cookie every once in a while.
The world needs more third places. Thank God that our ancestors in faith built this one.