Creating the “Third Space”
Some people in our communities find churches intimidating and are reluctant to enter. 'Third Spaces' aim to address this. Pete & Kath Atkins explain more about their Third Space - the Open Door, which has been supported by Rural Ministries.
We’re all so different, aren’t we? Some of us thrive in a hub of activity and are at our best in a buzzing atmosphere of pressure, strategic planning, big picture thinking. Some can’t bear not to be at the centre of decision-making and information. Offer other people a computer and a cup of Costa-something and they are happy to work away all day without having to engage with anyone else at all. Although apparently, however each of us spends our days, whether they’re stress-laden or mind-numbingly empty, each of us needs a ‘third space’.
The term ‘Third Space’ or ‘Third Place’ was coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the early 90’s. In his book ‘The Great Good Place’, Oldenburg identifies ‘third places’ as the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. Third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work”. Oldenburg explains that beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community’ social vitality. These spaces level the social status of the guests, providing a setting for grassroots politics, creating habits of public association, and offering psychological support to individuals and communities.
God’s amazing, isn’t he?! We’ve been so thrilled at what he’s done and enabled in our little third space in Bardney, Lincolnshire. Who would ever have guessed that we were lining ourselves up with a sociologist’s published recipe for the well-being of a community? God, maybe?
According to Oldenberg, “the character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.”
The Open Door (named to reflect Bardney’s ancient heritage… see Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’!) is a little coffee shop, which opened its door early in August last year. We have watched, almost awe-struck, at the people God has gathered in that place since then. Old and young, employed and not, single Mum and family, widowed and married, alone and in groups, mobile and less able-bodied… and on and on. ‘Habits of public association’ have been formed effortlessly between those who know and love Jesus and those who might only know his name as a swear word. The ‘status of guests’ is never questioned… hospitality to all is a core value. ‘Psychological support’ has been offered and received over homemade cookies and cupcakes and fabulous fairly traded coffee (at very affordable prices). Prayer has surrounded the creation of this space. It’s prayed in every day. We’re not surprised when our guests say they love the atmosphere here.
Last night, sat at a meeting, I happened to be in the company of one of the Open Door’s ‘regular clientele’. In a completely different context, and to a room full of people, some of whom had never even heard of Bardney’s name, I heard her repeat in tears what a huge difference that little third space had made to her village… and how much she loved it. I heard this morning that she will start there as a volunteer next month. ‘Comfort and support’ have been found and the young lady will soon be part of offering that to others.
Fresh Expressions have drawn a really helpful picture of what we’ve watched in action in this third space: the Fresh Expressions journey. Conversations about who we are and what we believe in come naturally… and only when asked. God opens doors regularly into peoples’ lives and the privilege of being able to respond is natural and unforced.
Are there places in your rural community which you recognise already as third spaces? Places “for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably — a ‘place on the corner,’ real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life”. Could you create one to serve the health and wellbeing your community? Watch what God will do!