Evangelism in Every “Place”

Tim Brister —  September 22, 2009 — 19 Comments

This past week, we at Grace “parked the Great Commission” again, and included in that effort was going door-to-door, inviting neighbors to join us for a picnic and games in the park.  When I got back, I tweeted:

For those who don’t believe in going door-to-door, 2nite my group was 19 for 19 in engaging folks w/ invitations. Don’t abandon 1st spaces.

What happened after that was about a dozen conversations debating the merits of door-to-door evangelism in a post-Christian culture and what in the world I meant by “1st spaces.” What I would like to do is explain the thinking behind the places/spaces and how we can think intentionally/missionally in redeeming each place for the advancement of the gospel.

What Is a “Third Place”?

As I understand it, Ray Oldenberg developed the idea of “third places” in his book The Great Good Place. Third places are places or environments where people in the community interact with one another outside the first and second places.  The first place is that of the home, and the second place is that of a person’s workplace.  Oldenberg explains that “third places” are

“anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. . . .  These hallmarks of a true “third place”: free or inexpensive; food and drink, while not essential, are important; highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance); involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there; welcoming and comfortable; both new friends and old should be found there.

Popular “third places” include coffee shops (such as Starbucks), malls, city parks, exercise facilities, restaurants/pubs, and venues for the arts/entertainment.  Personally speaking, Panera Bread has become my dominant “third place” as I spend approximately 15-20 hours of my work week there.

Generational Gap and Places

While recognizing the danger of generalization, I think it is fair to say that the older generation has focused their evangelistic efforts around first places (homes) and the church as their third place.  First-place evangelism was seen as going door-to-door and perhaps scheduled through a weekly visitation schedule through the church.  The dominant third-place was the church, which came to be in part as a negative withdrawal from a culture increasingly becoming post-Christian and godless.  Therefore, churches began developing their own “family life centers”–some of them including their own bowling alleys, playgrounds, and “movie nights.”  The point was to make the church the culture center for the family (especially the kids) and therefore disconnect them (“come out from among them and be ye separate”) from the pagan world around them.

The younger generation of evangelicals is finding first-place evangelism, especially door-to-door evangelism untenable and even reprehensible.  They haven’t entirely given up on first-place for evangelism, though they rarely talk about it.  Rather, third places have become the leading evangelistic narrative as living “missional” has challenged people to get out of the Christian subculture/bubble and get back into the community through thinking and living redemptively in these third places.  The appeal for third places is a desire to engage the culture rather than merely have a culture warrior stance and live more incarnationally instead of a “drive-by” sort of evangelism.  Also, many third spaces are culture making venues, seeking to redeem the arts, music, and fostering interactive discussion on contemporary issues within a biblical worldview.

Strengths and Weaknesses

There are strengths and weaknesses in every place, including second place which I have not mentioned.  Door-to-door evangelism in first-places is more confrontational and less relational, while third place evangelism is more conversational and more relational.  In first places, the gospel is usually brought up rather quickly; in third spaces, not so much.  In fact, the danger with third places is that you can become so familiar, so regular, so normal with unbelievers that the urgency and priority of speak the gospel becomes blunted by the routine you hoped would have you “dining with tax collector and sinners.”  On the other hand, you can present the gospel immediately with a neighbor in their home through first places and yet not have follow-through because of the absence of a relationship and sense of trust.  Furthermore, people can feel uncomfortable with a sense of invasion of their privacy and results in further alienation.

The weakness in second place is finding ways to uphold the Christian work ethic while taking advantage of opportunities to represent Christ in word and deed to fellow co-workers.  I believe that one of the most needed discussion is how to employ believers in both worlds (this world and God’s kingdom) with skill and faithfulness.  For a paradigm of evangelism in the “second place,” check out my working paradigm for missional work.

Evangelism in Every “Place”

Every believer should have an evangelism strategy or plan for personally carrying out the Great Commission.  Good stewardship of the gospel means that we must see how we can “do the work of an evangelist” in every “place” of our lives. We should be competent and opportunistic in every place because “becoming all things to all men” means you will be meeting all kinds of men and women, especially those not like you.  If your evangelism is limited to the refined sinners who are within arm’s reach of church building, you will reach a very small number of people and neglect the thrust of the Great Commission.  We must go into all the world, that means depth and not just breadth.

While the traditional mode of evangelizing in the first place has been “door-to-door evangelism,” there are certainly other ways to utilize your home as a mission outpost for the kingdom.  For instance, you can regularly schedule hospitality evenings for neighbors and invite them into your homes.  You can also host a community group on a regular basis that is not primarily focused on a study but on living out the gospel among unbelievers.  You can host neighborhood block parties or activities for your neighbors (in my case, I have two buses who stop in front of my house).  Finally, you can greet the mailman, garbage collectors, UPS dude, or anyone else and leave with them information about the gospel.

Before you skip to third places, do not forget about second places, because the average person spends more time at work than anywhere else during the week.  If you have not considered your workplace as a mission outpost, then you are “off duty” for the greater portion of your week and tuning out of the mission among the people who have the most access to (outside your family).

Finally, discover the third places in your city/community.  They aren’t the same everywhere.  Stay at home mom’s will go to the library or Chick-fil-a.  College students will likely go to Starbucks or their college campus.  Young professionals can be found at Panera Bread or exercise facilities.  Families with little kids can be found at the neighborhood park or at the sporting complex.  Teenagers at the mall or movie theater.  You get the idea.  Volunteer at a school.  Coach a sports team.  Take your office mobile and go to Panera or Starbucks.  Take your family regularly to the park.  Do these things so that you can show the love of Jesus and have the opportunity to lead them to the cross.

These are just some suggestions I encourage you to consider.  A good question to ask ourselves is in what way are we using every place to communicate Christ to a world without Him?  Make every place count for the fame of Jesus.

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  • http://indoxanated.wordpress.com Tyler Recker

    Thank you sir for this post. Would you say that characterizing first, second, third space as where you live, work, and play is accurate or not?

    • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

      Tyler,

      Yeah, I can agree with that, except for me my 2nd and 3rd place blend together. As a pastor, I do not have an “office” at the church building (which I actually like). I work 25-30 hours from home and about 20 hours at Panera or Starbucks. So I am working but also looking to connect with the good folks who work there as well as the other “regulars” from the community who “work” there as well.

  • G F McDowell

    I haven’t read the book, but would unbelieving relatives be considered “first place”? How much emphasis is there on folks with whom we are already in relationships?

    • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

      G,

      I think so. Evangelism begins in the home. I know of several families who have children in middle and high school who are regularly sharing the gospel with their children through family worship and everyday life. But in the home life, it is even more necessary that your life represents the gospel through a lifestyle of repentance and faith, and if your unbelieving relatives don’t see the gospel at work in you, they won’t likely believe it is the power of God unto salvation. Therefore, I believe the challenge is greater and the emphasis should be more.

  • Ken Rucker

    Great post, and something our church desperately needs to learn and apply.

    A question I struggle with is how to engage people relationally in these “third spaces”? Generally speaking, in our suburban setting, people are private individuals who do not know how to engage with people relationaly outside of a work setting or another setting where relational connection is intentionally directed (i.e. small groups at church). In other words, if people aren’t engaging relationally where they live (homes, neighborhoods), then what will make them engage relationally with people in a “third space”. The change of location doesn’t change them into a more “relationally engaging” person. The danger is that you move a person from being relationally disconnected and missionally ineffective at home to being a person who is relationally disconnected and missionally ineffective at Panera Bread.

    What needs to happen inside them to affect such a transformation of behavior? Does this require training, relational mentoring, trial & error? I haven’t creacked this nut yet, and was curious if you’ve experienced the same thing and/or found ways to help with this.

    • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

      In other words, if people aren’t engaging relationally where they live (homes, neighborhoods), then what will make them engage relationally with people in a “third space”. The change of location doesn’t change them into a more “relationally engaging” person.

      That’s a good point. There’s no inherent magic with third places that make people automatically open up (unless, I suppose you are at a pub).

      The danger is that you move a person from being relationally disconnected and missionally ineffective at home to being a person who is relationally disconnected and missionally ineffective at Panera Bread.

      Another great point. I sometimes wonder if the appeal to third places is a guilt pacifier in the fact at least we are “cool” in our ineffectiveness. I’m not sure how much value there is in living sent when you never saying to those God is sending you to.

      What I am constantly doing is evaluating my on inhibitions and challenging them with gospel promises. I also want to addresses my weaknesses and offer them to God, asking that his grace will be manifested in such weakness. When my passion for God’s glory is greater than people’s perception of me, the inertia is overcome. When my love for the souls of men is greater than the applause of men, then the eternal consequences weighs greater to me that earthly consequence.

      I think we listen to ourselves too much rather than preach to ourselves. When we listen to our fears rather than recognize what we have in Christ, we will live in a way that does not commend the gospel and evidence that we a belong to a risen and victorious Savior.

  • http://barrywallace.wordpress.com/ Barry Wallace

    Generally speaking, I think most individuals (myself included) and most churches do a rather poor job of evangelism in any place. Thanks for the challenge and the encouragement you’ve just given.

  • Ken Rucker

    Excellent response:
    – challenge my inhibitions with gospel promises
    – allow His grace to be manifested in my weaknesses
    – be more passionate for God’s glory than for people’s perception of me
    – love the souls of men over seeking the applause of men
    – preach the gospel to self, rather than listen to self

    Hopefully this will help me engage relationally with gospel intentionality….in other words…make friends and share Jesus with them. Thanks for your insights.

    • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

      Thanks for your thoughts as well Ken. I learn and benefit from the interaction more than anyone else! It’s a blessing to hear from folks like you who are genuinely wanting give more than a hat tip to the Great Commission. May the Lord supply you with tenderness and courage of heart, grace in your speech, and guidance in your steps as you go to make Him known.

  • Ed Trefzger

    Thanks for this, Tim. We’ve been ramping up our evangelism and outreach, including on city streets in our city’s entertainment district. But we need encouragement for all of our folks to be involved. These are some great reminders about how we can make it part of our every day life, and how we can tailor our life around the Gospel.

    I’ve shared this post with a bunch of people at our church.

    • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

      Very cool, Ed. You are the second person I’ve heard from this morning who has shared this with their church. That is exciting to know you find it helpful in your churches and local contexts.

  • http://alvinreid.com alvin reid

    Kudos for door to door. And third places. And anyplace and everyplace where there are people to be encountered. Add without subtracting. Love it.

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