Church "Third Place" Design

Serving as the third place in the community is not only an important ministry in today’s church, but it is also a vibrant and integral part of American culture. It is also an equally important part of church architecture and church design. Working with your church architect to find the best solution for your third place is an important component of your design process. It is well known that Starbucks has attained commercially what other third place hospitality merchants have tried to attain since the 1950’s: a warm and inviting space where people of all ages can congregate, meet, and socialize.  Millions have been spent on market research and third place model development.  As a result, it is no wonder that most new churches and lobby designs in the last five years have incorporated third place concepts to attract and retain church goers.

The third place concept comes from Professor Ray Oldenburg and Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz.  The ‘first place’ would be your home and the ‘second place’ would be work.  Where one chooses to socialize would be the ‘third place’.  Starbucks vies to be the ‘extra place’, a home away from home and also an office or meeting place away from the office, while PlayStation advertises itself as a third place to socialize in cyberspace.(1)  The church today is also seeking it’s share of third place in the US.  Emerging, home group centered, missionary and established churches all have slightly different strategies to accomplish a social dynamic.  This article will concentrate on the established church.

Ray Oldenburg, author of Celebrating the Third Place (2000) and The Great Good Place (1991), suggests that the third place is where communities exercise their social vitality.  It’s a place where our increasingly fractalized society can find social well being that aids in psychological health.  Important qualities of the third place environment are: informal, voluntary, neutral, a place to gather, a place to connect, food and drink and in proximity to the other two places.  Any retail or community building strives to accommodate third place qualities to attract and sustain its share in the marketplace.  Social vitality is also expressed by the continual update of finishes, graphics or furniture.  As the concept of third place has become more interwoven, architects have responded by applying elements of the third place in the lobbies of retail, office buildings, medical buildings, libraries and churches.

Due to these influences the church lobby (narthex), has morphed in purpose over the last decade in response to changing dynamics in American culture.  The church has moved from the private, sacred space toward the third place model.  In doing so, it has required the fellowship area to be moved to the front door.  This creates a dynamic that supports the third place experience as defined by Oldenburg.  The key qualities to be designed into the space are voluntary participation, a place to connect, and food.

There are three major concepts for the lobby or narthex:
Mall Concept:
where “anchor store” ministries are located along a concourse that links the sanctuary to other support activities.

Spoke Flow Concept:
where a central space links several nodes and corridors.

Agora / Atrium Concept:
where a large volume sun-lit space acts as a hub with activities linked directly to it (similar to the mall concept but more compact).

Participation: the glue that binds together any community or group.  Additionally, studies have shown that any habit takes 3 weeks to establish.  In that time the church needs to make 21 positive impacts on a new prospective member.  The problem is our church buildings may be hindering our efforts by watering down life changing ministry with the initial experience of a sometimes poorly maintained or poorly functioning lobby. 

The lobby should express the culture while remaining clean and efficient.  It needs to reflect in some way the importance of the ministries and culture of the church.  The new individual or family has to be able to quickly determine where to go to participate in activities.  Everything should say, “Welcome!”  Both the building and the people should work together to accomplish this goal.  The activity and participation of people in some social activity has to be relevant and inviting.  Whether the main information area is a kiosk, a café, a welcome center, a guest services, or an ushers station, the visual clues must be very clear.  This is your beginning point for way finding.  Staff it with your most social people.  Make sure anyone has three opportunities to be greeted before arriving at their first ministry event.  Provide areas out of the main travel path for people to connect, talk, and meet.  The initial experience at the front door needs to be welcoming and well maintained.  Take into consideration all the senses. People need to participate to connect.

A place to connect
Make your third place as big as you can afford.  We now recommend a lobby or narthex area that is at least half the size of the sanctuary.  Concentrate on the first impression.  Provide nodes or areas adjacent to traffic for people to talk and catch up with one another.  These areas are where the connection can take longer than 20 to 30 seconds.  Areas should have a diversity of settings within the culture of the church.  Furniture is optional, direct connection visually to the circulation is not.  Think of a concourse in an airport. 

The key to a successful third place is a multi-purpose space for families to enter, disperse, and meet again.  In some multi-phased projects it also doubles as a fellowship hall.  It is the area that people engage in fellowship and plan their social activities for the week.  It is where meaningful conversation happens.  It is where people meet and catch up with old friends.  This area is the front door to the community, the first impression of the church, and the heart of congregational fellowship.

Just about any culture connects food with fellowship.  It may be one of the most universal forms of hospitality.  It is the center piece to the third place and it seems most projects will include some sort of food service.  Again the beverages, food, size and feel are going to reflect the culture of the church.  Facility maintenance, availability and appropriateness of the food and beverages should be carefully weighed in accordance with culture and a welcoming atmosphere.  Food and beverages should be allowed at a minimum in the area or lobby providing the third place.  Other considerations are the control of smell, operation of the café or kitchen, and adjacent restroom facilities.  There are several portable solutions (carts), which can be acquired for a minimal investment without the need of a sewer connection, for the church uncertain about the change or that want maximum flexibility.  The important factor to consider is to provide food which is appealing, quick and not too messy.  Lastly, check with the local health department for limitations and rules. 
It is important that a congregation understands the influence of the third place concept in today’s church design. Moreover, the architect chosen for this type of work should be knowledgeable and experienced with it, and be ready to provide solutions that will strengthen the church community while keeping budget in mind. As the community continues to embrace the concept, churches should frequently revisit how it fulfills its mission as the desired third place.

(1) The Third Place, From Wikipedia

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