That was the response in a conversation I had last week when I mentioned my love of Starbucks.
"It's just snobby, overpriced coffee. Why would I ever go there?"
"Because they don't sell coffee", I replied, "They sell an experience. They sell connection."
"Yeah…whatever…" was the response. But that's a pretty typical response from someone who is disconnected and inexperienced.
Why do I love Starbucks? Not only because espresso is the miracle of chemistry in a cup. Not only because a Drive By or a Venti Skinny Cap w/foam can be a deep, sacramental and communal experience (it's the Baptist beer!). Because Starbucks is a karaoke culture. A wiki culture. And partly because, as Len Sweet and I believe, it's a place where one can experience an EPIC life—-Experiential, Participatory, Image-Rich, and Connectedness. (In fact, I've been blatantly advocating an EPIC life in my ministry statement since Len's Soul Tsunami knocked me for a loop…) And because it is the gospel of a lived experience, not a thought experiment.
According to urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, three places define and shape who you are: home, work, and a 'third place' for community experiences. 'Third places' include the following characteristics:
- It is neutral ground.
- It is inclusive and promotes social equality.
- Conversation is the central activity.
- It is frequented by regulars who welcome newomers.
- It is typically a nonpretentious, homey place.
- It fosters a playful mood.
While Starbucks gives away third place for three dollars, The Church still has a lot to learn. We used to be a place for sacred relationship, but chose to specialize in formulating and advancing a 'better argument'. So we became better connected to the arguments and ideas than we did with God and His bride, the Church. We grew tired of 'gospel peddlers' and cynical of strategies and formulas (or dependent on them…?). Apologetics for aplogetics' sake. Theology for theology's sake. We've dug our heels into the Age of Reason, while our world has moved on to the Age of Experience. Don't misunderstand me: while I am grateful for all that the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment have brought us, it's still glaringly evident how dehydrated we are in our thirst for connection and experience. ('MySpace'? 'Wikipedia'? 'Can you hear me now?')
Look again at the list of Third Place characteristics. Does your ministry fit that bill? I can look at our ministry here and see that we meet some of them in varying degrees, and a couple of them aren't even on the radar screen (e.g. In my head, I want it to be a 'homey place' that fosters a 'playful mood', but I'm not sure that Joe Congregant would see it that way…)
This is where I have more questions than answers. What in your life is your third place?
How can The Church regain that place?
If you haven't done so, run (don't walk) to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Len's The Gospel According to Starbucks. Enjoy it with an extra-hot Red Eye or the herbal undertones of a Sumatra blend. And bring a friend.