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Church, but not as we know it…

Posted on: 19/07/2011

Third Space bandAs you may have gathered from other content on this site I am passionate about church buildings – old ones and new ones and everything in between. But sometimes it is really interesting to do church without buildings.

My own church, just outside Cambridge, has in recent years grown into a variety of ‘fresh expressions’ – other forms of church which meet at times other than Sundays, and which meet in venues other the church building. One of these is Third Space, which meets at the King Bill pub on the third Monday of each month. The format of the evening (its ‘liturgy’ one could say) is a mix of music, drama, stand up comedy and story shared over a pint.

The name ‘Third Space’ refers to sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s ‘Third Place’, a term he coined to describe informal public gathering places, which stand in contrast to the relative isolation of first (home) and second (work) places. Third places offer a neutral public space for community interaction and therefore lie at the heart of a community’s social vitality; they promote social equality by leveling the status of guests.

From a church point of view, this is really interesting, not least because in general church no longer fills the role of being the natural gathering place in our communities. For most people, church is anything but neutral, and going there is anything but natural. Church has become highly sub-cultural, and therefore ‘privatised’. To go to Third Space, on the other hand, you don’t need to belong before you feel you can go.

Paul Butler telling Joel's Story

Paul Butler – “Daddy, I knew you’d come to find me”

This is not about dumbing down the content, sugaring the bitter pill of religious truth; it’s about removing barriers to engagement, ‘lowering the threshold’. Last night for example the content included a pub quiz, an electric blues band and two of us performing an excerpt from Nick Warburton’s excellent stage play Witness, based on Luke’s gospel; the excerpt chosen was a dialogue between Peter and Jesus including the Sermon on the Mount.

One can argue there is just as much content here as you find on Sunday in church – the difference is in the stories that emerge in response. So does this replace church as we know it? I see ventures like Third Space as powerful grass roots mission, and worthwhile community building. But I’m not sure it is worship. I see it as enriching the church, enabling it to reach out and engage with the community, but not replacing church. To me the church still needs a solid centre, church as we know it (more or less).

For more…

For more on Third Place see Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community.

The 5 original Witness radio plays are available on iTunes or as a set of audio CDs – highly recommended.

Third Space is organised by Rev Paul Butler and Mark Fuller and takes place at the King William IV pub, Church Street, Histon from 8pm on the third Monday of each month (but not August); details here.