Reclaim the third space


It made so much sense—that was the space where God lived. My young brain had decided that God watched over our church service from that dim place, just under the high pitched, A-frame roof of our church, right above the stage. I would gaze up into that empty space behind the pulpit and feel His presence. It was a peaceful feeling, a serene quiet, like a smiling father watching his children playing on the equipment at the park. It seemed to me it was a sacred space and as I grew up, though the church didn’t seem quite so big, the space was still empty and I would still look up and imagine God was there. 

It seems as our societies “grow up” our sacred spaces are shrinking. The church used to be the centre of town, study, community, tradition and beauty. Faith was something that could be more easily shared in public. Now you can believe what you like, as long as you don’t share it. The media and the public sphere in many countries uphold the concept of freedom of religion but decry the expression of that religion.

As Christians we have left the third place. Not only that but we have privatised it.

In his book, The great good place (1989, 1991), Ray Oldenburg describes the categories our lives are divided into as places or spaces. The first place is the private life, at home. The second is work, where we (many of us) spend the most time. The third places are spaces dedicated to community life. They are the places where the most personal growth occurs and ideas are exchanged.

In the past, this included places like the local hairdresser, the playground, even the footpath in your street. When you met someone there you could have a conversation whether you knew them or not. A good example today is the aeroplane. It’s quite easy to strike up a conversation with the person next to you and you can find yourself confiding quite personal stuff, confident you will never see the person again. Unfortunately, the third place seems to be shrinking as fear of the other and individualism spread.

It is this third place that church used to occupy—a place of community, openness, familiarity and comfort, a place to meet new friends and old, and a place close to home and open to everyone.

Slowly, we became comfortable in our churches. They became like home—an extension of our family. We found fellowship but we evolved together—leaving outsiders to feel like it’s private, intimate and unwelcoming. Don’t get me wrong, I love our Church but it feels like we’re no longer engaged with the world. 

As Christians we have left the third place. Not only that but we have privatised it. So we still experience community but don’t add anything to the community around us. And we take God with us, to live in our sanctuaries, not in our lives. So, the third place is devoid of God. Our voice is absent from current events and mainstream conversations. We set up scenarios where we expect the community to come to us. Unfortunately, they don’t have a need or desire to do that. 

How can we engage them? Well, find your passion. Is it knitting, a community choir, photography, self-defence, table tennis? Start a club or join a club that is not full of churchgoers. Start a community market garden on the church grounds or at home and have swap meets there—no program, no agenda, no obligations, no public prayer (but lots in private), just community.

We often think of our society as completely different, and a lot harder to minister to, than the one Jesus lived in but that is an evolutionary mindset. The First Century saw the rapid development of thought and technology as Roman “peace” and civilisation spread. People were materialistic, thought themselves sophisticated, and were very secular and hedonistic. Sound familiar?

Where is Jesus? Where people are. Yes, He goes to the synagogue but He is also at parties, in the marketplace, by the well, at the docks. Most of Jesus’ disciples were fishing when He called them! 

We can only fill the third place effectively for God, if we are filled by God. That way, we are the sacred, Holy Spirit-filled space going into the world.  

For too long, God has been confined to our homes and churches. It’s time for us to re-enter the third place, walking where Jesus walked, without an agenda, to love and meet people. Let us, with God’s help, expand His sacred place.

Jarrod Stackelroth is associate editor of RECORD.