A Beacon for the Third Dimension

by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
January 5, 2003


Follows: Reading #443 We Arrive Out of Many Singular Rooms,
and Song #360 Here We Have Gathered

"May all who seek here find a kindly word; may all who speak here feel they have been heard."

This simple formula could well be the key to what animates an effective congregational community. "It is [indeed] good to be with one another," but finding a deeper sense of community beyond coffee hour can be longer quest.

For the entire 15 years of my ministry I have consistently encountered folks eager to find more "community" in their lives. Perhaps many of you initially came here with that hope. Given such hunger for this elusive quality of group life, I have made a continuing study of what meaningful community might look like, what it might require of us, and what obstacles prevent it.

We yearn for community because it is richly diverse and satisfying, but it's also messy and challenging, full of human friction; it's a balance. Today I'd like to focus on one factor that helps sustain a well-balanced community, with implications not just for personal fulfillment but also for the overall health of a larger culture.

For most people, the primary place in our world is home. The second most significant spot is often work, or school. But then there can also be a "third place" in one's regular movements, a familiar locale where one can meet and converse informally with a wide variety of other citizens. It is the presence of this "third place" that sustains and deepens healthy community, even as it improves the lives of individuals.

Thus reads the intriguing thesis of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, as explained in his 1989 book A Great Good Place: Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. This work was published long enough ago that numerous folks have accepted his challenges and tested his basic idea—that a "third place" (other than home or work) where one can converse informally with a variety of others strengthens both the fabric of community and the health of participants.

"All great cultures have had a vital informal public life," Oldenburg declares [p.ix], and this "third realm of experience is as distinct a place as home or office" [p.15]. Those first two places cannot usually provide the informal social environment that adds a balancing third leg to our world.

Without this balance we are merely two-dimensional creatures, trying to get all our needs met at home and/or work. But with a "third place" to go to, we can thrive, supported by a more stable triangle of fulfilling locations. "We [may] arrive out of many singular rooms" but "we enlarge our voices in common speaking" [Kenneth Patton].

"The [notable] activity of third places everywhere," says Oldenburg, "…is conversation. Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk there is good: that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging" [p. 26]. It is in this third, relatively unstructured social dimension that we find a different kind of spark, one that ignites our inner growth in unpredictable and stimulating ways. The interactions we have in this kind of environment affirm and stretch us in ways that are just not available at home and work (or school). It is where we develop our authentic selves in the cauldron of community.

Think of European piazzas, cafes, pubs and beer gardens. Think of American taverns, coffeehouses, main streets, bookstores, etc. These are examples of traditional third places. They usually feature a "leveling" of social status, so that people of both higher and lower status can be relaxed in an egalitarian atmosphere. These settings happily accommodate spontaneity and are easily accessible, often by foot, at many times of the day. Not surprisingly, you'll find there activities that encourage socializing—including certain games that can be closely attended by kibitzers who participate in and enliven the conversations. And the main attraction is less what the management provides than who the regulars are.

There is also a betterment of the greater good that emerges from this third dimension. Civic sensibilities are strengthened in the give-and-take of informal conversation about issues of the day, frequently with strangers—or at least among people who are not always inclined to reinforce one’s own stereotypes and opinions. (The ancient Greeks knew the civic value of such interaction well and their forums are legendary. In fact, they used a certain word to refer to one who did not participate in public activity: "idiot." They believed that privacy can breed stupidity.)

As supportive as third place qualities are, Oldenburg shows compellingly how the steady disappearance of these spaces, beginning about 50 years ago, has had a predictably adverse impact on our personal and community health—maybe short of breeding stupidity, but maybe not! "Experiences occur in places conducive to them, or they do not occur at all," he reminds us. "When certain kinds of places disappear, certain experiences also disappear" [p. 295].

If you've been mentally taking inventory of spots that might qualify for you as "third places," I expect you can recall such a space or two in your past, but there may well not be much to hold onto of late. If there is, consider yourself lucky.

"Currently and for some time now," notes Oldenburg, "the course of urban growth and development in the United States has been hostile to an informal public life; we are failing to provide either suitable or sufficient gathering places necessary for it. The grass roots of our democracy are correspondingly weaker than in the past and our individual lives are not as rich" [p. ix].

"[In recent years], America seems to be undergoing a massive reassessment. In the simplest terms, we got where we wanted to go but now we aren’t happy about where we are. We have become a suburban nation—the only one in the world… We aimed for comfort and well-stocked homes, [for] freedom from uncomfortable interaction and the obligations of citizenship. We succeeded.

"As if to seal our fate, zoning ordinances were copied and enforced all over the land, prohibiting the stuff of community from intrusion into residential areas. In the subdivisions of post-World War II America, there is nothing to walk to and no place to gather. The physical staging virtually ensures immunity from community" [p. xiii].

"Immunity from community." So, maybe we buy bigger home entertainment centers and invite folks over. We say it's too much trouble to "go out," or that we haven’t got the time to hang out anymore, but perhaps it's more because there are now so few places to go hang out in, anyway, at least not without spending a small fortune. Besides, it's safer at home, watching TV or surfing the net.

Note the considerable popularity of television programs like "Friends" and "Cheers," even in reruns. Each portrays a popular public hang-out spot where drinking and eating are secondary to the entertaining interactions of various personalities. The staying power of shows like these testifies to the resonance their satisfying environments engender in viewers, the enticing vision of a spot "where everyone knows your name." Nowadays we generally have so few such places of our own that we can actually get vicarious fulfillment from watching even a scripted "third place" in action.

Oldenburg suggests that "If we valued fraternity as much as independence, and democracy as much as free enterprise, our zoning codes would not enforce the social isolation that plagues our modern neighborhoods, but would require some form of public gathering place every block or two" [p. 23].

It may be hard to imagine that in this increasingly crowded world any of us could actually suffer from social isolation. But sheer quantity of contact does not automatically bring quality of relationship. Plus, the growing variety of electronic options that draw our attention do very little, if anything, to satisfy our face-to-face social needs. A deeper loneliness stalks many of us despite our best efforts at escapist distraction. We wonder about what’s missing in our lives, unaware that the latest American culture has actually designed for us an "immunity from community." We may or may not be safer, but we’re certainly not more secure.

Our insecurities might well be showing up in a vague dis-ease, evidenced perhaps by so many church-shoppers arriving out their singular rooms onto our congregational doorsteps, hungry for greater connection in their lives. Are they—we—coming to churches hoping to find the fulfillment that people like us used to get in third places that have now dwindled down to a precious few and far between?

I recognize that churches do not exactly fit, per se, into the framework Ray Oldenburg uses for third places. Maybe it’s a stretch to even consider that they might. But let me put some personal flesh on this philosophical skeleton and then see if it will move.

Even though in my early years I had a very supportive home life in the northern New Jersey suburbs, it was a tough neighborhood around me, rather dangerous for this gangly and naïve kid. School was safer physically, but I was pretty clumsy socially and rather sickly, so I was often lonely and behind in the work. It was stressful as well. Ah, poor me.

BUT, I was also fortunate to have had what I might now consider a "third place" in my regular routine. Early on in my young life my mother discovered the Unitarian congregation a couple towns over and it became a large part of our week—and not just on Sunday mornings. I remember well how we also all got together for a variety of social activities, many of which were informal settings like picnics and other group meals, or holiday celebrations like Easter Egg hunts or Fourth of July parties, or work projects and fund-raisers, etc. (Look in the Jan./Feb. UU World magazine for an article about "Boy-Friendly Religious Education" in which I'm quoted telling the story of how formative it was for me, at age 12, to be put in charge of the Tool Table at a church Rummage Sale.)

In that active congregational life, I got to hang around with all kinds of other kids and with adults who knew me. It was a very safe space that was a constant in my young life. (In fact, our family moved three times during those years and each time we got closer to the church.) I felt I belonged there and with that group of people. I knew those buildings inside and out.

I did learn a lot in the formal Sunday School sessions, to be sure, and I am forever grateful for the grounding I received in liberal religion. But I think I learned as much outside the classroom, especially about how to be authentic with a diversity of people. Over time—and mostly through the informal congregational life, including the youth group—I came to know many fine people of all ages, especially church adults who watched and helped me grow up. They modeled in their behavior and activities values that really mattered.

From this dynamic congregational sub-culture I developed strong group skills and a rich idealism that matured with me. It was a very significant third place for me, adding an important balance to my home and school lives.

Then, suddenly but predictably, I graduated high school and was thrust out into the wider American culture of the 1970s. No more youth group, no more home church culture, but plenty of wandering and frustration as for years I moved around too much to center in any local setting, searching almost blindly for meaningful community and depth relationships, the kind I had spent years developing in my UU culture.

So I came to know the harsh contrast between having a third place and then not having one. My journey thereafter was cursed by the knowledge of what I was missing even as I did not always have language to describe it. My idealism softened on some edges, I suppose, but I came to see that my passion was for community-building, and so I eventually went into the professional ministry. (I blame my early UU experience for this.)

And so now, yes, I believe our congregations can and do provide the possibility for deeper community. Oldenburg pays only lip service to churches as third places, probably because one of the qualifications for his consideration is that it be inclusive and most traditional churches are hardly that. But I suspect that he, like too many others, may not even know about the way Unitarian Universalism has evolved to foster what are indeed ostensibly and idealistically very inclusive settings. (And yes, of course we are imperfect institutions, frequently falling short of that goal, but the vision is among us nonetheless.)

"Come, come, whoever you are," we sing, and we might even mean it. But can we back that sentiment up with a creative matrix of third place settings, so that more of the people who enter our doors might stay and build meaningful community together? In an American culture increasingly devoid of third places, can or should our congregations develop the institutional muscles required to support such dynamic informal space (which would be much more than the very transitory coffee hour)?

Now lest you think that I am advocating for churches to take up yet another job abandoned by the secular culture, let me illuminate what I believe is a qualitatively religious character to this vision, especially relevant to UUs. We religious liberals often say that we value the journey more than the destination, right? And this is a noble enough sentiment. But if you scratch past the surface of this idea, it means we are committed more to the process of the religious journey than to the content of any given destination or belief.

So how we move, grow and relate, then, is actually more important than what specifically we might move toward, grow into, say or even believe, since these are not only very personal positions but also always subject to change along the way. And unless we’re hermits, that "how" has to involve relationships and interactions. Lacking dogma or creed to unite us, any individual liberal religious journey is predicated on a healthy process that must also be part of a sponsoring community strong enough to hold diverse viewpoints and encourage fruitful conversation. Without such safe space to explore and test our path in community, the individual spiritual journey can become fragile and fraught with self-deception.

So maybe a purpose of the liberal church in the 21st century is to provide more third places for people to informally converse with each other. Structured classes and workshops are good, too, but they do not substitute for relatively loose social time together.

Might we intentionally become an ever stronger beacon for this third dimension that could urge us toward ever deeper community? There are innovative signs of this appearing already in our congregations—maybe not as traditional third place formats, but serving the same essential purpose of drawing disparate people together for relaxed but fulfilling conversation. In some ways the fast growing movement to form what are sometimes called "circles" or "covenant groups" or "small group ministry" is a response to this need.

Also, more and more churches are experimenting with a weeknight program that offers an inexpensive meal together followed by a slate of activities plus hang-out space. Can you see the connection between active participation in informal congregational life and a deeper sense of community?

A good indication of a flourishing third place, as I understand it, is that that people are regularly inspired to say, "I’m goin’ over there to see what’s happening." Do folks say that about this place? "Let’s go over to church and see what’s happening." Do you want to inspire an attitude like that here? If so, what would it mean?

If we were moved to say, "Let's go over to church and see what’s happening," maybe it would look something like this. When we arrive, the doors are open and things are happening. There might be various meetings and projects for all ages going on, but these would welcome drop-in participation. Some people would be regulars, caring for and about the accommodations, others would be newcomers or friends of friends. Simple snacks and drinks might be available, with comfortable space for spontaneous mingling and conversation, which is, of course, "lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging." Spin-off activities emerge naturally, and help the congregation thrive.

As we move among the people so gathered, "our eyes reclaim the remembered faces, their voices stir the surrounding air. The warmth of their hands assures us and the gladness of our spoken names" [K. Patton]. It feels good to be with one another in this informal space.

We have some choices to make about this next era in our largely suburban nation and what our cultural and sub-cultural landscapes will look like—how they will serve us, or not.

Social isolation… [vs.] Thriving congregation…
Immunity from community… [vs.] Hangouts at the heart…

When I listen for possibilities, I hear a new and simple—yet still probably elusive—call for liberal religion in the 21st century: Make more space for your community to be in conversation; be a beacon for casual yet meaningful association. It matters—maybe more than we realize—that we have regular gathering places where we can interact informally with others.

May we and all our congregations value "conversation [that is] lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging," as we journey deeper into this new millennium with bold intention and creative vision.

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