Over the years I’ve led and participated in a number of short-term missions to various places in the United States and beyond. Generally the trips are no more than two weeks long, and we end up spending that time living and working with missionaries that are serving in that location on a long-term basis. Being in a foreign culture, it can become tempting to insulate yourself at the home/base of the missionaries. In that place there is a sense of safety, comforts, and a bit of “home away from home.” But in doing so, it is also possible to spend all of your time in a foreign country without truly experiencing and interacting with the very people and culture that you came to serve.
If you really want to get out and experience a new place and get to know the people and culture you need to get out and go to where people gather. You need to spend time in restaurants, cafes, markets and parks. Some of the richest and most vivid experiences from my time on these short-term trips were spent in these places. I think of the chaos of the marketplace in Senegal, the beauty of the open-air jungle cafe in Costa Rica, and the wonderful tastes and smells of the street taco stands of Mexico. These gathering spots are the “3rd Places.”
In urban planning “3rd Places” (or “3rd Spaces”) are those spots other than home or work where people gather together. For the missional church, 3rd Places are those spots other than home or church where people gather. This could be a cafe, restaurant, park, school, gym, etc. These are places where people feel comfortable and safe. Places where food, drink and conversation flow. This is where you get to know the community and the stories that form it.
As we get moving with this new missional church, we are making a point of moving ourselves into these spaces. I’m grateful right now that I don’t have a formal office, because it makes it easier for me to find “excuses” to be out in the community. In fact, I’m sitting in a gym during basketball practice right now as I write this and I’ve already met someone I’ve never talked with before. But spending intentional time in 3rd places is not limited to individuals. We can also gather as a group. That is why, as a missional community we are going to go out to eat together at least once a month to the same location so that we can get known as “regulars” and have more opportunities to interact with the lives and stories that make up this community. Our hope is that over time this will also facilitate our ability to build relationships and make contact with those in our community that have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
There are two different ways that we, as the missional church, want to be intentional about being present in these 3rd places. First, we want to go back to at least one place often enough that we get to know that place and people well and truly become part of it. The first time that I walk into the Stanwood Starbucks and the barista knows my drink order before I say it, I’ll know I’m crossing into that special zone of belonging. Second, we want to visit 3rd places that we either haven’t been to before or might not normally visit. The reason for the latter should be obvious: if we only go where we are comfortable and fit in we will in some ways be like the short term missionary that never leaves the missionary’s home and therefore never truly gets to know and experience the culture.
So the moral here: Go out more often! Seriously! But as you go, be sure to look, listen, and pray that you will have the eyes to see your community and the people around you as Jesus does.