Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

The Church as a Third Place

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2010 Nov 04

Recently Starbucks unveiled its biggest overhaul in its forty-year history.

Though still a prototype, a new kind of Starbucks has launched in Seattle's bustling Capitol Hill area which serves regional wine and beer, along with an expansive plate of locally made cheeses served on china. The barista bar is reconfigured to allow customers to sit close to the coffee.

It doesn't really look like a Starbucks at all, but more like a café that's been part of the neighborhood for years. So don't be surprised when you find an outdoor deck and an indoor/outdoor fireplace.

Starbucks is trying to get the after 2 p.m. business that other java joints have been peeling away from them for years. If it works, expect it to come to a Starbucks near you.

The point isn't about beer and wine - it's about the importance of a "third place."

And Starbucks wants to be that place.

Most people have two social environments: their home and their workplace (or depending on your situation in life, their home and their school).

In his book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg argues that we need a "third" place. His thesis is that the home is where we live and constitutes who we live with; our workplace/school is probably where we spend the most time but is very "task" oriented in nature. We need a "third" place to provide a mooring for community life and wider, more fluid, creative interaction.

So what are the marks of a good "third" place?

Oldenburg suggests that they should be free (or at least inexpensive); provide food and drink; be highly accessible (even walking distance); encourage "regulars"; be welcoming and comfortable; and allow for both new friends and old to be found in its confines.

In the U.K., I think it's safe to say that the "third" place has been the pub (though as a frequent traveler and fan, real ones are fading fast). In the Middle East, the Hookah lounge seems to fit the bill. In the United States, we didn't have one. That is until Starbucks, which might explain the coffee chain business exploding into a $15 billion enterprise.

Has it ever really been about the coffee? Most taste comparisons put Dunkin' Donuts, or lately even McDonald's, ahead in the taste department. No, it's where you go to read a book, meet a friend, work with others on a project…

It is a "third" place, one that we obviously want and need.

Where should the church be in this conversation?

Right in the middle.

The church, wherever she is, should be conscious of casting itself as a "third" place.

Biblically, it seemed to be a mark of the early church. We read that they met in homes, sure, but they also had a "third" place they seemed to frequent on a daily basis - the temple courts (Acts 2:46). While they may have been there to engage in actual temple worship on a daily basis (not the sacrifices, but the prayer service, cf. Acts 3:1), it is more likely they turned the temple courtyard into a first-century Starbucks in order to gather as a community (e.g., Acts 5:12).

From the beginning there seemed to be a need and a desire for the new community forged in Christ's church to offer a real, tangible "third" place.

How is the church offering that today, or is it one more dynamic we've given over to the secular world as it gains even more of a hold over our lives?

People often denounce churches that invest in such things as coffee bars or bookstores, designed to allow people to congregate throughout the week and around weekend services, as if it is one more sign of selling out to the culture.

In truth, Starbucks may be reminding us how to reclaim culture.

One cup at a time.

James Emery White


"Starbucks remakes its future with an eye on beer and wine," by Bruce Horovitz, USA Today, October 18, 2010. Online at http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2010-10-18-starbucks18_CV_N.htm 

Veno and ventis at a Starbucks near you, The Today Show, Tuesday, October 19, 2010. View online at http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/vp/39737111#39737111 

The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community by Ray Oldenburg (1999).

"Third Place," Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place.

Publication date: November 4, 2010