Some years ago sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe those locations in the community more or less open to all. In his thinking “first place” is the home, where we share in the most intimate experiences of our lives. “Second place” for many is where we go to work. Many people spend more time there than anywhere else. In his book "The Great Good Place," Oldenburg lifted up the value of “third places” – churches, coffee shops, libraries, schools and parks.
They aren’t our homes or places of employment – baristas and pastors excepted. They straddle the border between private and public. We find a sense of community and family there, of belonging and purpose. They are mostly accessible and free, welcoming both newcomers and longtime friends, providing opportunities for growth and development, without a lot of rules or requirements. Nobody has to be part of a third place. You’re free to come and go.
As a pastor for more than thirty years, I have seen how much the Church can mean to people who have no formal relationship. They call in a moment of loss and grief, wondering if we can help. We can and we do, over and over again through the course of a year. It is a privilege to walk with people through such times in their lives. They don’t have to do anything to qualify. There is no membership fee. If we can possibly accommodate their request, that’s what we do.
The congregation I currently serve offers one of the best preschools in the South Bay. We also provide after school care from kindergarten through 8th grade, as well as an amazing summer camp program that was rated Best in the South Bay last year by the Daily Breeze Reader’s Choice Awards! Most of these children and families are not affiliated with our church. But they know that we love children, and we’ll help them learn and grow in a safe and healthy environment.
We host a monthly music series called “Second Sundays at 2:00.” Performers from around the world offer programs equal to anything in Southern California. A free-will offering supports the musicians, but there is no charge for admission. People from all over the community discover a sense of grace and beauty here.
Sunday services are like that too, actually. There is no fee for anyone to worship, no charge to belong to the congregation. People come regularly, occasionally or even irregularly, and offer their gifts as they are moved. Fortunately, the generosity of those who gather each week makes it possible to share the grace of God with the world around us. When I look out on the congregation on a given Sunday, I am amazed and grateful for the different experiences, viewpoints, needs and hopes we bring together.
No pastor or other leader is in charge of this process. We could never manage it if we tried. But it happens. Long time members look forward to being together each Sunday. First time worshipers walk in the door and find that they are already home. We sing, we pray, we talk, we listen. We know what we’ll find when we get there. But it’s also completely different every week. Go figure.
I believe we need more “third places” in the world – to help bridge the gaps between us. We are divided enough already. Maybe you noticed. But when we lay a blanket on the grass to enjoy a concert, watch fireworks explode out over the ocean, or even sing out of the same hymnal with complete strangers, we find that we are not so different after all.
When Jesus went about his earthly ministry, people came to him who were not members. They didn’t have to sign anything to become part of the family. He fed people by the side of the Sea of Galilee. As far as we can tell no IDs were checked. People were healed by his touch, sometimes even without his permission. When the Church is at its generous and hopeful best, I think that’s how we want to live.
Jonathan Chute is Senior Pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, which worships each Sunday at 8:30 and 10 a.m., and 5:30 p.m. He was educated at Harvard University and Pacific School of Religion, and lives with his wife, Dr. Thyra Endicott, in Palos Verdes Estates. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com