Third Place Ministry
What comes to your mind when you think about what it means to do ministry? When I was younger, I always assumed that ministry was something that most frequently happened inside the walls of a church building. That is where most of the ministry I had been involved with had been. I went to church on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, and Wednesday Prayer Meetings…all inside the church. When I thought of ministry, the church building is where I naturally assumed it should take place. That was my experience and that is how I assume it should happen.
An interesting thing happened to me when I got into campus ministry a number of years ago. I was working with a church in a college town and my initial thoughts about where ministry should take place were still heavy in my mind. I was hired to continue a ministry that had been started and the main thrust of the ministry was to get students to come to church. There were also all sorts of peripheral goals about evangelism, leadership, and discipleship, but when it came right down to it, the point of all of it seemed to be about getting students inside the church building. If they came, we could evangelism them and teach them to evangelize. If they came, we could disciple them and get them to disciple. If they came, we could teach them to be leaders The whole strategy assumed that college students would come to the church. The strategy worked for the most part. We usually had 30 -50 students a semester that were pretty active in the ministry in a variety of different ways.
About two years into the ministry, something began to feel off. I was excited about the students that were part of the ministry, but when I looked around the campus, I noticed that there were still tens of thousands of students who weren’t going to church and would most likely never come to church. The strategy worked fine for students who were inclined to come to church, but what about those students who had never been introduced to the Christian faith? What about the students who had never gone to church and never thought about going to church? What about the students who repeatedly rejected invitations by students and church members? Suddenly the strategy seemed to be lacking. All the time and energy we were putting into the big weekly meeting and then the weekly small group meeting suddenly seemed to somehow miss the point. I began to pray about where I was spending my time and energy and God began to show me a different way of doing ministry that would take me out of the church building and into Third Places.
If you have never heard of the term Third Place, the phrase was coined by a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg who wrote a book called The Great Good Place. In the book, Oldenburg laments the loss of the common places in neighborhoods and cities where people met together and were in shared communities with one another. Oldenburg suggested that there were three main places that we spend our time. The first place is our home and the second place is work/school. The third place, where Oldenburg gets the term from, are the places in our community that we gather. It could be a church, a café, McDonald’s, or the park. In his book, Oldenburg suggests that these places are disappearing and that there is value in keeping these places as part of our neighborhoods.
With fewer people, particularly younger people, interested in going to church, we must rethink our strategies for reaching those people. If our goal is to get them to church, then we are failing a pretty large percentage of the population and that population will continue to get larger as our culture moves further away from Christendom.
After a great deal of prayer, my strategy shifted from getting as many people as I could to the Sunday evening service to finding places that college students and young adults were hanging out and then going there. The idea was to go to a place and spend time there. I wanted to meet the regulars. The point was to actually become a regular. I wanted to invest in the people and in the place in a way that I would be able to build relationships and have gospel conversations. Where are the places that you can go and invest in your community?
Questions for Reflection:
Do you see Kingdom work as being inside or outside the church building?
Do you think there is space for both?
Where are the Third Places in your neighborhood or community that people are gathering?
Are you apart of those gathering in a significant way? Why or Why not?
Are you having gospel conversations with folks outside of your church building?