Today, still reading the intriguing book about Starbucks and the Gospel, I came across the concept of the 'third place'. The idea, apparently is that the home is our 'first place', and those who live there are, I suppose, our first community. The workplace - if we have one - or, I suppose, school or college, if relevant, is our 'second place'. And then any other socialising or community gatherings happen in the 'third place' wherever that might be. The book, naturally, implied that Starbucks coffee houses are ideal 'third places'.
The main features of these 'third places', apparently, are that they should be open to anyone, with some regulars, but freely welcoming newcomers. They should be a place to relax, with a sense of fun, and where there's plenty of conversation.
I immediately thought of the traditional British country pubs, where farmers and other workers would congregate in evenings, not to get drunk but to share a few pints of beer, and perhaps have a sandwich, and talk about their days, and perhaps play a few games of darts. Women, traditionally, would have their coffee mornings and sewing circles and so on. Terribly sexist of course. But these did provide a sense of community, separate (for the men) from their workplace, and (for the women) from their home, where they also worked. British pubs still exist, usually with meals available, and attracting women as well as men these days. But so many women are in paid employment that there are considerably fewer women's gatherings during the week, in most circles.
The book suggested that churches used to provide a 'third place' for Christians. In some cases, they still do. Sometimes people arrive early for a Sunday gathering, to spend time catching up with their friends; there may be time to talk within the service - if, for instance, the Anglican 'passing of the peace' takes place - and there's almost certainly half an hour or more for coffee and chat afterwards. Perhaps the church community has Mums-and-Tots, Day Centres, Tea Dances, Youth Groups, Scouting organisations, Coffee mornings and more, providing opportunities for both regulars and visitors to drop in, and socialise, and relax.
Sadly (from my perspective) too many church services focus on music and 'teaching' (which fails to teach anything to the majority). Congregations increase in size, and many church buildings are not conducive to socialising. When people drive several miles for a Sunday morning service, they're unlikely to pop back during the week to catch up with their friends. So the Sunday service may provide something useful - a way of connecting, of worshipping God (for those who like to sing), of learning (for those who are auditory learners), and perhaps, for anyone, a time to be quiet and to listen to God in the company of others. But they don't provide the 'third place' in the sense used in the Starbucks book. Which, perhaps, explains why so many people hang out at coffee bars or restaurants, or on the beach, or anywhere else where they can hope to find a sense of community.
The Internet has become a 'third place' for many. The astounding success of sites like Facebook, and the continuation of online forums and chatrooms suggests that we all long for connection, even if we can't find it in 'real life'. When, on (thankfully rare) occasions our Internet connection is down, I feel almost bereft. But for me, at home most of the time, the Internet feels like my 'second place'. My work, such as it is, involves writing web pages, and researching, and emailing. I socialise there too, and play games (mainly Scrabble).
So I'm thankful for friends who invite us to their homes, or who come to ours, for informal 'cell groups' of Christians. For me, friends' home are my 'third place', whether we hang out and chat, or play a board game. Perhaps that's why I have little desire to visit a coffee house.