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.