Jul 04, 2016


Creating Third Place

Ben Pontius of Verge Ministries writes about how “third place” can be the key to connecting with the unreached on your campus.

I grew up being homeschooled, the oldest of seven kids. It was awesome. On good days we were done with our school work by noon. Thursdays during the winter I got to spend the afternoons skiing at the local ski hill. I learned biblical perspectives on science, history, sociology, and much more. Looking back I see all sorts of good in that homeschooling. There were, however, some negatives.

It wasn’t until I moved away to college that I developed any real friendships with people who weren’t Christians. Oh, I had plenty of friends, but they were all friends found through church or other Christian events. I had acquaintances who weren’t Christian, but never really spent any time getting to know them beyond the standard obligatory “Hey, how’s it going? What have you been up to lately” type of conversation.

I’m not alone in this. Anyone who leads a ministry knows well the inexorable gravity of the Christian world that draws them into an increasingly insular network of relationships until the leader is cut off from any real, meaningful relationships with people who aren’t followers of Christ.

It takes intentional structuring of our ministries and our lives to push ourselves out from our Christian bubble and into places where we can interact with the people that Jesus spent so much of his time with; the sinners, the lost, the broken, and the ungodly. Rather than expecting them to come to us and to navigate our Christian culture, we must go into their world and call them to Jesus.

The sociologist Ray Oldenburg described three major “Spaces” that most humans spent their time in. The first space is the home; the personal, private arena where we are generally the owners/controllers. Second space is generally our workplace. Third space Oldenburg describes as a “neutral zone,” not defined by a specific kind of language or insider culture. Third spaces are meeting grounds that are public and open for all. Take, for example, Starbucks, your neighborhood park, or a local bar.

If we desire to reach those who the church is currently not reaching, we can’t continue expecting the unreached to come into our first or second spaces of their own volition. Instead, we need to create or take part in Third Space locations and events where we can begin to develop relationships with those we desire to reach.

Just like I needed to get out of my hometown and into a new context in order to uncover new relationships with people who needed Jesus, so many of us who are Christians need to step out. We need to move from where we’re comfortable in our well organized homes, offices, and ministry spaces and be be pushed into spaces where we can actually get to know those who Jesus wants to call to himself.

In the Wikipedia article on Third Place, Oldenburg is quoted as saying the following are key elements to the kind of spaces that welcome anyone and everyone:

●    Free or inexpensive
●    Food and drink, while not essential, are important
●    Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
●    Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
●    Welcoming and comfortable
●    Both new friends and old should be found there.

The question is, how can your ministry create a place like that? For Threshingfloor Communities in Fargo it means hosting a public grill-out in one of the city parks where the only programmed “Christian” marker is the fact that we pray before we begin eating. For Junction122 it meant playing volleyball and ultimate Frisbee during the summer months. For this group of college students in Austin, Texas it means hanging out at a coffee shop near campus and having regular board game nights.

No matter the size or culture of your location, there are third place locations in existence. Take your ministry there regularly and give them opportunities to act out the Gospel. Join the city softball/soccer/volleyball/shuffleboard league rather than the church one. Become a regulars at a cafe and meet some other regulars. Make your Friday night habit going to a bar and striking up conversations.

Can’t find a third place type of space that you like? Why not create one? Host a free grill out, a park hang out, a casual game night, or anything else that matches the criteria listed above.

Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, in their seminal book The Shaping of Things To Come, write, “incarnational mission will mean that in reaching a people group we will need to identify with them in all ways possible without compromising the truth of the gospel itself.” (57) One of the best ways to get to know those needs and identify with the people group you’re reaching is by having a place where you can interact and become friends without pressure, letting the natural love of Christ flow out of you and over them. They’ll ask questions. You’ll be ready to give the answer.

You can read an earlier version of this post at the Verge Ministries blog, where you’ll find other resources on reaching college-aged young adults.

about the author

Ben Pontius

Ben is the Midwest Regional Director for Verge Ministries, helping churches and individuals launch ministries that disciple young adults and college students. He blogs regularly at The Everlasting Fallout.