I don’t know if you’re a coffee drinker who can relate to the feel-good vibe you get when you visit your favorite java-joint.  If you are a fellow dark-roast lover, you are familiar with this comfy, almost-home feeling.  There is actually a term for it – Third Space.  The space in your life “between work and home”. We all have third spaces, coffee shops or otherwise, and we love them. Third space is a public, open space where you still feel at home, where you like to spend time and where you connect with others.   Many Christian folks believe your church should be your third space.   It should be the happy place between home and work, the place where you spend extra time and build close relationships.  At a glance this idea feels right – get all the church-attenders centered on church as the focus and source for Jesus-followers.  When I consider the Gospel and the claims/lifestyle of Jesus, I hesitate to subscribe to this idea.  Here’s why:

Churches have to compete to become third spaces.

I attended a meeting of clergy, sponsored by the United Way, at which only 15 or so of the more than 300+ clergy members in our area made time to attend.  At this meeting these clergy members politely decided that we couldn’t cooperate on anything. We had lunch and left.  I really enjoyed the lunch, and the coffee, but I was thinking “Really, We can’t do anything together?”  Consider this – Churches have to expend huge amounts of Kingdom resources to earn, and keep earning, the Third Space position.  Churches need better buildings, more full-time professional clergy, awesome sound equipment and sweet coffee shops to keep winning attender attention. Once the church has invested this much into earning your Third Space position, how can we possibly risk losing it?
However, outside of Christian, church-attender circles, most people question the competition they observe between churches.  Many people translate this aggressive competition into the reason why Jesus can’t be worth believing in.  Others see the things we build as a waste, resources spent far away from those who are really in need.

Making church my third space actually pushes me into social isolation.

If you have ever joined a church and really involved yourself in the organization, you found out that over time you lost connection with everyone outside that church.  Social distance from people who are far from God is the natural result of making the church my third space. Why? Because the church is not their third space.
Invite me to your church or join me at my favorite coffee shop, which location opens up more doors for conversation and connection?  Invite me to a “special service” or come over to my home for a BBQ.  Which one sounds more like conversation and connection? Our lives are natural, God-given locations for third-space interactions that we rarely use because we have been taught to invite people to church instead of inviting people into our lives.

Third Space churches generally build consumer-oriented believers.

In order for a church to be a third space it has to expend an incredible amount of energy and money.  In doing so, the church becomes the center, the fixer, the provider of all things Christian.   So we, the attenders, begin to fall into consumer mode. The church provides everything we need, so we stop looking for it ourselves.  Following Jesus becomes interchangeable with being involved in church, so followers rarely, if ever, venture beyond the weekly provisions of the Sunday service.  The end result is that we are deeply involved in church but are actually far away from Gospel life and the mission to transform lives.  Church becomes about… Church, not the gospel.

Moving away from personal ownership of the Gospel and its transforming power is not the best direction for followers of Jesus.

Believing that the church can transform the world by focusing on the production of awesome Sunday services just doesn’t work for me.  (If you read around and do some research, you might discover that it doesn’t work for a lot of people.)  Church-centered Christianity is the natural fall-out when the non-profit organizations we call churches, and their attenders allow the focus to be on earning Third Space loyalties.

What if the church, the organization we call the church, was simply one element of our follower-ship of Jesus? What if the goal is to focus our lives on the Gospel, not just church?  We would discover that life is full of Third-Spaces that we can use to invite others close to Jesus by bringing them close to our lives.  In contrast with the church-centered faith that points life inward, toward the church, its attenders and programs – the Gospel actually points life outward, toward those far from Jesus.  Personally embracing this sent purpose as the primary focus of Jesus followers is the turning point for each of us.  The problem is that we never really get there when our church is demanding that most of our money, time and attention be devoted to making the organization successful.

I should say that I love churches. I lead one, but I am super-concerned that much of what we currently embrace as church-growth methods are actually leading us astray.  Competitive, Christian-focused, church-centered faith is far from the way of Jesus.  I believe the purpose of the church is to create communities of Jesus-followers that love and serve people, living together with faith in Jesus and lives centered on His mission, the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.  The church should nourish outward-focused followers of Jesus, sending them to those far from God, in real, practical ways by aligning the philosophy, finances and schedule of the church to that end.

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