Third Space Church: A Faith Leader Perspective

By Pastor Jerry Morris

I was talking to my son the other day about how the pandemic experience has changed both of our workplaces. I told him about the greater number of online worshipers that we have now than before, and he said, “But that’s not good, Dad! Church is one of the last Third Spaces left!” Now there’s a certain irony in my son, who has no interest in attending church either in person or online, being concerned about our attendance patterns, but his concern has nothing to do with the church, really. He’s concerned about our society. To explain that, let me unpack his statement for those who are not familiar with the term Third Spaces.

In his 1989 book The Great Good Space, sociologist Ray Oldenburg divided most people’s lives into three spaces. The first space was home, where people spend most of their time, and the second space was work (or school). Third Spaces, then, are any other space where people find community. Examples would be churches, coffee shops, community centers, libraries, parks, and so on. Oldenburg says two things about Third Spaces: first, they are necessary for the functioning of democracy, and second, they are disappearing.

The reason that Third Spaces are so important for democracy is that they bring people of different political persuasions together on neutral ground for non-political purposes. So at one time, the John Bircher and the New Deal Democrat might bowl on the same team and come to know each other in ways other than their political views. Their votes would still cancel each other out, but on the day after election day, they would still be friends. People at church might know better than to discuss politics with this person or that person whose views they disagreed with strongly, but they weren’t at church to discuss politics anyway, so they sang in the same choir, taught each others’ children, and so on. Third Spaces help democracies to function without falling apart into factions.

But Third Spaces are disappearing. For this, there are many causes. The advent of air-conditioning ended long summer evenings on front porches or at the park or public pool. Television encouraged people to stay home with the family. Declining birthrates have meant fewer families with fewer children (and children have always been one reason to get the family out of the house). And then, of course, there’s the internet. Notice that Oldenburg was concerned about the decline in Third Spaces in 1989, even before we had this thing that both lures people into one-on-one contact with a screen (instead of with humans right next to them) and sorts them by algorithm into groups of people who think exactly like they do (where they never have to get to know their political opposites as human beings).

That’s the societal problem that my son was worried about. Whatever he might feel about the value of church for himself, he recognizes its value for a decent society and a sustainable democracy. Well, I’m concerned about disappearing Third Spaces, too, especially the effect of the internet on them, but I’m not as concerned as he about the church. As a Third Space, we are still healthy.
Yes, we have a reputation as the “liberal” United Methodist Church in Eau Claire, but liberal is a relative term. Everyone’s liberal compared to someone. In political terms, we have people at Lake Street from all across the political spectrum, who sit with and sing with and worship with and volunteer with people whom they know are going to vote for the wrong person in November. This is possible because church reminds us that we are children of God before we are adherents of any political party and also that even if we do happen to hold the correct opinions (at least compared to that person over there), we all share the distinction of being sinners in need of God’s grace.

And even beyond our own church membership, we have made a concerted effort over the past five or six years to be a Third Space for others. During the course of a normal month, we host the following community groups: four gatherings each of two different Narcotics Anonymous groups, eight sessions of a Brain and Body exercise group for people with dementia, one Early Alzheimer’s support group, one Huntingdon’s Disease support group, four quilting group meetings, one meeting of the Chippewa Valley Sewing Guild, four Cub Scout meetings, four Girl Scout meetings, four gatherings of Moms on the Run, four Male Chorus rehearsals, and one meeting of the Inclusive Ministry Church.

It is not our purpose as a church to be a community center. Our purpose is to live and share God’s love. But sharing God’s love means understanding and trying to meet the needs of others. One of the things that people need is community – places where they can gather in safety and be refreshed by the shelter of us all. They need Third Spaces. We got this.