Adult Americans have a real hard time making friends, at least that is what most recent research claims. There are reasons. Interpersonally speaking, our lifestyle choices have hemmed us in. The shift in America toward single-family housing, the total dependence on automobiles, and the seemingly endless amount of land we have to develop spreads us out and walls us in. While it all makes sense, it certainly has its downsides.
This walling off of people from each other has significant social consequences. It is most likely one reason our cultural and political views are increasingly atomized. Many people only participate in interpersonal relationships with people who are like them. If we choose not to, we no longer have to interact with people different than us. It also leaves people with a sense of loneliness, despite the fact that we are more connected than ever through a web of social media.
For Christians, we have an even more important reason to push against this state of existence. We have a gospel reason. Christian, if you are like me, you need to get out more.
What is a “third place?”
In 1989 a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg first postulated the idea of “third places.” These third places are, as he says, informal, public gathering places that are vital to the existence of society. That was 27 years ago, but the concept of the third place has stuck.
Third places are a space distinct from your home (first place) and your work (second place) where you can interact with people outside of those settings (third place). According to Oldenburg, we all need them. Third places are what allow the exchange of ideas, the shaping of society, and for the believer, the spread of the gospel.
If you are wondering what might constitute a third place, think about those public gathering spots. Coffee shops where people become regulars, parks where moms take their children to play, libraries where children go to do their homework after school, biking clubs that get together once a week, all of these are third places. These spaces allow us to escape the closed nature of fenced yards and automobile cages that transport us from place to place. In the third place, the believer is forced to encounter those who are not like them, those who need to hear the good news of a great savior.
We all need those spaces.
You need some third places.
If we take serious the call to make disciples, then we must grasp the significance of third places. A study in 2013 noted that “20 percent of non-Christians in North America really do not ‘personally know’ any Christians.” Simply put, that is not okay.
This is one of those issues where it is easy to point fingers at the generic Christian culture, but that will not solve such an interpersonal issue. Instead, we need to ask ourselves if we are part of the problem. If you have ever complained about struggling to share the gospel because you do not know any lost people personally, then this is for you.
So, do you have any third places?
This is not the same as frequenting a restaurant drive-thru. I am not asking you if you ever go do anything fun, I am asking you if you have places outside of your home and work where you invest time. Do you have places where you get to know people other than your family and coworkers? Other than your local church? Perhaps the reason one out of every five Americans do not personally know a Christian is because we are not too good at getting to know people different than us.
And that is a shame, because according to research people do not actually hate talking about their faith. Despite our fear that everyone around us is antagonistic to a conversation about the gospel, it appears many more people are open to the idea than we might imagine.
Merely going to a third place isn’t evangelism.
Let us recap. Third places are important. You need a third place. But, simply having a third place does not mean you are “on mission.” Merely being in the same location as lost people is not evangelism. Having a nice conversation with someone, even a deep conversation, is great, but it is not evangelism unless you are actually sharing the gospel. We love the idea of relationship evangelism, but a word of caution needs to be said. By all means have those conversations. Develop relationships with people, genuine relationships, that demonstrate love of neighbor. Just be quick to share the gospel.
Now, go find some third places, and make sure the gospel is on your lips.