21st Century Wells: Christian Community in the Third Place

March 11th, 2013

Is it possible for authentic Christian community to form in ‘unlikely venues’?”

When I served as the rector in a transitional size parish it was difficult, due to the intense schedule of worship services, pastoral care, committee meetings, parish programs, etc., to carve out a few hours each week for sermon preparation. I tried crafting sermons in my office on the parish property, and I attempted sermon preparation in my home study, but neither place seemed to provide me with the right creative, quiet space. After six months in my first call, I soon discovered that I needed a third place, which would provide me with an alternative atmosphere, some space for creativity, and at the same time, offer me a plethora of real-life situations, from which I could draw for my homiletical musings. The third place I finally chose was unique and it clearly hearkened back to the coffee house ministry my spouse and I led a few years before we left for seminary. That “unlikely spot” for me soon became one of several local coffee shops, which offered not only really good (I mean really good) espresso, but also it provided a unique opportunity for me to connect with people in a way I had never imagined possible.

“Going back to school?” was the young man’s question as he sat down on the sofa across from the coffee shop’s comfortable well-worn, leather chair I snagged as I entered the shop. I imagined the young man’s question was triggered by the fact I had a “textbook looking” Bible commentary sitting near my laptop.

“Oh no, I just finished grad school last year; I am working on a sermon for Sunday,” I replied.

“So, you are a pastor,” he asked.

“I am a priest in the Episcopal Church,” I said.

“Oh, interesting,” he paused with a troubled look on his face, “I never really understood all that religious stuff.”

I couldn’t resist that opening remark and decided to take a risk for some conversation. So, I set my commentary down, closed my laptop, and then the curious man and I talked about religious stuff for the next hour or so. This was only the first of many such safe space conversations I began having throughout my vocational journey. It was through discussions like these that I came to realize the significance of holding safe space available for people to explore the spiritual life. I also learned quickly how simple it is to open up space for “safe” conversations that engage folks who are unlikely to step through the doors of our churches.

A colleague of mine who is also facilitating this form of ministry, sent me this quote by Henri Nouwen the other day, and I think it offers us some sound advice about what it means to meet people where they are, to take a risk and enter into relationships of trust, to create space for belonging that help people come to know the love, reconciliation, grace, mercy, and life everlasting, present in Christ, in us.

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.

Henri Nouwen

It is critical to our mission to create space for authentic conversation in what I call “21st century wells.” The ministry of presence is the ministry of the baptized in Christ. It is the missionary commission, which is to go and make disciples of ALL. We are called to, in this world, create spaces (in multiple places) by which relationships of Christian authenticity might emerge. We must realize that in the 21st century, for so many reasons we may or may not understand, it may be difficult and even desperately risky for some folks to enter what at one time—the church building, was a safe place for relational engagement. Thus, the burden to step out of our comfort zones and meet people at “the well,” falls on those who are called to be “Christ-like” in the world.

Now Jesus . . . had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a]) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

The Gospel according to John, Chapter 4 (NIV)

Do you see the connection? Samaritans did not worship at the temple. Samaritans and Jews did not engage in social interaction—they were separated by an unfortunate cultural separation. Had Jesus not stopped at the public, common “watering hole,” I wonder how likely it would have been for this conversation to take place. I know that people like to use this scripture as I have, to encourage good church folk to “meet folks where they find them,” to go out and evangelize, but doesn’t scripture help us to see that we should tear down barriers to relationships? Are we not sent out to meet ALL folks where we find them? Are we not commissioned to fashion, by our authentic relationships, a people who live by grace? We need to recognize in this culture, a society in which 20 percent of the population now claim no religious affiliation at all, we can no longer reach the “ALL” by merely opening doors, creating wonderful programs, hiring stellar leaders, or trying new worship styles. We need, no, we must go to the “wells” and invite people into an authentic relationship that is safe, where vulnerability is gently held and nurtured. We need to be in the third places of people’s lives. We must be the risk-takers in the “third places” of today’s culture.

The third place is a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.                                   

Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place, p. 16.

So if the faith community and its many opportunities for connection, is facing greater challenges to provide a “third place” for a growing number of people, where then do we look, and thus discover, places of relational engagement today? It all depends on the local context. For some villages, a “third place” may be the local Starbucks or community coffee shop. In others, it may be the local pub where friends gather for conversation, liquid refreshment, and good food. Still in others, the “third place” could be the local gym, library, soccer field, baseball field, or family restaurant. A third place may even be someone’s home where folks gather each week for a shared meal, some great conversation, and merely “regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings.”  

Three years ago, my spouse Terri and I invited a dozen or so folks to gather every Friday night at either our house or another friend’s home with the intent of being together. It became our “third place.” We all brought food and libations to share, but we also brought our troubles, our celebrations, our spiritual struggles, doubts, and fears. We were doing life together and we were doing life in a Christian context, sharing our spiritual journeys, encouraging each other, and praying for and with each other. Some of the folks in our little group never would have come to church on Sunday, but they all came together each week, and entered into a safe space where the core value of vulnerability was held with gentle, loving hands. After a year or so of “doing life together,” one of our group stopped me one night and said, “Eric I want to thank you for this gathering. When you first said, let’s gather on a Friday night, I thought you were crazy. After a week of working 40+ hours, all I want to do on Friday night was have dinner, put the kids down, kiss my husband and then crash. Now that we are a part of this little group, I would not miss this night for anything. Thank you!”

We can create “third places” in our local context that provide space (safe space) in which, authentic Christian community might emerge, but we must do so with caution. If we begin this journey of meeting folks in “21st century wells,” we must keep our hidden intentions in check. If we take this risk of connecting with folks, and our primary expectation and goal is filling pews on Sunday, you may want to re-think the project you are considering. The goal of “third place” ministry is not recruitment, but relationship building, and it can only be done by creating space for fragile relationships to sprout, and thus offering loving possibilities of those relationship being nurtured over time. When we meet folks in the “third place,” when we invite a group to gather together, when create space where questioning is ok, doubts are welcomed, and opinions are honored, I believe we will be surprised at the unique opportunities God will give us to connect with people in a way, we have never imagined possible. We may even bear witness to the possibility of authentic, Christian community developing in a pub, a coffee house, a soccer field, a gym, or wherever the “21st century wells” might be located in our own villages.

If you would like to explore creating a “third place” in a 21st century well, please contact me at 941-548-6027 or email me at ecooter@episcopalswfl.org.

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