Why I Love the Third Space

A post by Nathan Hill.

In ministry, sometimes the best things are those you stumble upon by accident.

My story has been about “third spaces,” places that are not church and not home. They are neutral territories, out in the community, where intersections between strangers and guests happen a little freer than the guarded walls of our sacred gardens. “Third spaces” offer safety for everyone in shared conversation. Since no one is in their home or sanctuary, power is a little more balanced. The only person one can remove from the conversation is themselves.

I can point to many “third spaces” that have shaped my faith – bars, restaurants, coffee shops, parks, and museums. These backdrops have served up conversations, lectures, questions, and experiences that have shifted my perspectives and probed my faith. I’ve made friends who might have otherwise been enemies. I’ve been the cool kid among the outcasts and the outcast among the cool kids.

I didn’t discover “third spaces” by reading books or understanding theory. Instead, I sort of fell into it with some roomies who were interested in getting out and making connections in an unfamiliar city. Our effort grew bit by bit, as our little organic web stretched itself with each new person attracted or caught by the pull for community. Some people came once and left. Others were regulars. And none of that mattered, because we didn’t own anything. The space sort of belonged to everyone.

Jesus used “third spaces” all the time. Whether it was the town’s literal watering hole, distant mountainside, industrious beach, dusty roads, or city gates, he met people where they were. Like the woman at the well, he struck up conversations that intrigued, shocked, and delighted. There seemed to be something about Jesus that let others know it was okay to ask questions. He seemed to like having to stop and say, “Who touched me?” Jesus spent more time out and about his countryside, ranging far and wide, than within the walls of the temple.

If churches are serious about engaging their neighborhood in conversation, Jesus and the “third space” seems to point one way forward. Church buildings offer a lot of positives as far as a secure, comfortable space for conversation and privacy, but neighbors don’t have x-ray vision. Our community around us cannot see what we are up to. Third spaces open up windows not just for others to see the church but for the church to see others.

At East Dallas Christian Church, I continue to be blessed to do ministry in third spaces. Our regular Tuesday evening pub ministry provides that kind of neutral space for regular churchgoers and non-churchgoers  to intersect and talk about big and little questions. It’s surprisingly simple and effective ministry. It’s easy to invite people, because it’s at a pub with great pizza and cold drinks. If the conversation isn’t your cup of tea, the delicious pizza and local beer mean you’re still going to have a decent evening.

On the other hand, inviting people to worship can be like inviting someone to take a stroll through a minefield – no matter how hospitable you are, watch where you step!

Why not meet folks who are new to your church and your faith halfway? Why not see what your neighbors are talking about? Why not celebrate new restaurants and gathering places in your city?

You may just stumble on Jesus while you’re out.


12 thoughts on “Why I Love the Third Space

  1. Thank you, Derek.

    I get a little cynical about the “doing church” or theologizing in a pub bit. It seems a little age/culture specific to me and a tad on the exclusionary side. It’s chic for white, American millennials or hipsters a few years past their prime, but what about the black and hispanic folks who have been shut out of the theology conversation altogether? What about poor women who are forced to stick their kids with a “lady who watches kids” while they do 39.5 hours per week at some shit-hole fast food joint? Maybe we should be spending more time in prison visiting rooms with those who have been designated human garbage by an inherently unjust and oppressive culture, or setting up children’s play centers at women’s homeless shelters so some of the most abused human beings on our planet can get a nap, than deconstructing American Protestantism (defunct as it is) over $4/beer bar. I am moved far more by the Body of Christ that goes into the unsexy smells and sights of the retirement homes where we have warehoused our elderly. There is little risk in a pub. There is no speaking truth to power in a pub. There is no proclamation of the gospel that God has declared once and for all oppression will not stand. I’m not sure if the poor can hear the promise of justice from the pub. Unless we’re talking about the kind of bars I used to roll in. Which is another story altogether. 🙂

    I’m definitely appreciative of third spaces outside the church building’s walls, but I think the test is that if it does not uphold the dignity and honor the humanity of those who have been crushed or forgotten or ignored, then it dehumanizes all of us.

    As always, I am grateful for your insight and conversation.


    • Thanks for the reply, Joseph.

      You are right that meeting in the pub fits a certain demographic, and it certainly isn’t the “answer” to anything. It’s just a gathering place, where some types of people gather naturally. It’s certainly not the holy grail of ministry, but it can be something with energy for a faith community trying to reach out to folks in its neighborhood that it no longer connects with.

      Pub ministry for me has been proclaiming the good news. It’s about a table that has a sense of fairness and equality to it – a place where people who have been once excluded (especially by the church) from conversations are invited to share their voice. Those who have been hurt by the church, those who have gnawing questions about God, and those who call themselves agnostic, atheist, or anti-religious are just as welcome around the table as lifelong disciples, evangelicals, or theologians. We try our hardest to not judge. We try our hardest to listen first. It’s not special and… then again, sometimes, we run into Jesus there.

      All of those other ministry/third space ideas are awesome. I could rewrite this article to be all about “being with”, because often, the great work of justice and compassion is simply being with those who are excluded, shunned, or oppressed. Every church must ask – who are we called to be with in the name of Jesus Christ?

      • Joseph, I believe your cynicism may be a bit unfair, because
        1. successful, middle class and wealthy souls suffer and need God too, ministry doesn’t have to be “either/or;” God can handle “and”
        2. a pub ministry may be a great place to connect with middle class people who have the resources to join your ministry to the most marginalized; and mobilize new people for ministry; we do the new people a soul favor as well as benefitting the most disadvantaged. People met in the pub may become the pillars of the church in the future and the organizers of the retirment home ministry.

      • Bill, I certainly don’t mean to be unfair or unjust, quite the contrary. The problem is that the plight of the poor (not the privileged) is so inequitable and urgent that we have little time to waste trying to give equal ad time to both. God cares about the rich, sure, but the work of salvation for all people happens at the margins. No one is free until all of us are free. And the measure of any society is the condition of the most vulnerable, the most poor. They are the first in the Kin-dom. I will never throw my voice behind the salvific needs of the wealthy. Not because I don’t care, it’s just that frankly, they have plenty of people advocating for them. They have the momentum of the entire American Protestant organism on their side. I will always, always, always side with the weak and marginalized. Always. That is where I am called to throw my voice, because there aren’t a whole lot of voices coming from there. I take very seriously the imperative to abandon our possessions (those prized “resources”) and follow Christ. And Christ didn’t go to a pub or country club… he went to the humiliating torture and death on a cross, abandoned by even his disciples.

        I mean not to be hostile to your view. You are correct about the boundlessness of God’s love for all. I am however, emphatic about the preferential option God has for the poor. I think that we should take it very seriously.

        Thanks for the conversation!

      • Nathan, thanks for your reply. Points are well taken. I hope that people find faith in all kinds of unexpected places. My general “cynicism” is not meant to be a specific critique of the points you are making, as much as one against these ubiquitous emergent church reactions that seem to be popping up all over the place. Church in a bar? Okay. Great. But we have more ideas than that, right? I think it is terrific to reframe the idea of a community so that those who have been disillusioned by the church can reorient themselves in a safe space. But far more powerful, I believe, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That gospel implores us to get our hands dirty and risk our lives loving broken, untouchable people back to life and speaking truth to the same power structures that have crushed them. We must step outside of our white American narrative to do this, not so we can feel guilty, but so that we can see that we are just as trapped, and have been duped into oppressing our very sisters and brothers.

        I love this stuff! Thank you so much for the conversation. THIS is how these big answers are getting worked out!

  2. That is so very true! Especially for those who really do not know how to “church.” Imagine the feeling when everyone stands and sings the doxology without it printed in front of them. I believe we need more churches that are within the third space, and more ministries that are more like chaplaincy than church (third space or not) that allow people to truly “wrestle” with religion/spirituality and thus experience the hospitality on many levels. That’s my way of saying these ministries should not be developed and seen a funnels to a church, but simply part of the Mission of the church. Cheers!

  3. Aha! I was wondering what you were doing in an East Dallas bar anyway. Mr Hill has contributed a fine piece here. I know we are making different points, perhaps, but I always appreciate the continuation of these important discussions. Thanks!

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