The coronavirus pandemic has caused a bit of a shake-up. But one thing that has become evident from this experience is the fact that the church is not a building, and it is not a program. We are the church, and we are called to love and serve both those who are inside and outside the church building.
One way to serve those who are outside the church is through the concept of a “third place,” made popular by Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place. A “third place” is defined as a place where people gather for social interaction and community outside of home (“first place”) and work (“second place”).
For Christians, church is a natural third place where we gather for fellowship, love and a common bond. But for people who are not connected to Jesus, church will never be their third place. So, in order to reach the unreached, we need to learn to use the other third places that exist in our culture.
As an example of using an existing third space to reach unbelievers, we can look to Jesus Himself in His encounter with the woman at the well. During that time, the well was a type of third place where people gathered for social interaction and community.
The ironic twist in this story, however, was that the woman He met was apparently an outcast in her community who came to the well at a time when others would not be there. But after meeting and talking with Jesus, this woman, an outcast, became the catalyst to bring many people from her community to Jesus. And that’s our goal in using third places — to see people connected to Jesus.
In order to reach the unreached, we need to learn to use the other third places that exist in our culture.
As a modern-day example, I live in the suburbs where a natural gathering place for the people and families we are trying to reach in our community is an ice cream shop. The business owner is not a believer, but he has invited us to come and host worship services in his parking lot.
Since we began these services in May 2020, our attendance has doubled and we have seen numerous people become connected to Jesus. Our hope and prayer is that this business owner will also become a believer who continues to take the gospel to this community once we find a permanent church home.
So, where is your third place? Where do people still gather in your area, even in the midst of COVID-19? Just as the prophet Jeremiah was told to instruct the Israelites to seek the welfare of the city to which they were being exiled, we are to seek the welfare of the communities where we live. One way to do that is to go to the places where people naturally gather — their third places — and shine the light of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You may not see results overnight. It will take time to build relationships and earn the trust of those in the community. But now is the time to start. As Jesus told His disciples in John 4:35, “Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (NIV).