Weekly Devotions for 12/12

Sights and Insights

Devotion for Dec. 12, 2023

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. – Acts 2:42-43 (NRSVUE)

What “third spaces” do you use? Have you heard the term “third space” before? It refers to a space besides your home and your work – that is, your first two spaces – where you spend time. Having a third space has long been linked to social health. Third spaces are spaces of socializing and building friendships. They are the social scene where joy in life can be developed. Pubs and bowling alleys have at times been popular third spaces. Shopping malls, too, have been popular third spaces. More recently coffee shops have filled that role. We are in a moment, though, when people are struggling to find third spaces.

Recently the Washington Post has been running an article series by opinion writer Renee Yaseen on the challenges that recent college graduates have in connecting socially, which she calls her Third Spaces Project. Isolation and loneliness are at all-time highs among all demographics, but those whose college experience was disrupted by Covid shutdowns are particularly notably impacting in not knowing where or how to connect socially with others. Their challenges, I think, reflect challenges that others face as well. 

Yaseen wrote last week about the barriers to finding effective third spaces for social connection. The three key barriers that she identifies are safety, awareness, and intention. First, a third space needs to feel physically safe and welcoming. Second, it can be difficult to sort through the opportunities that are around and identify ones that might be worthwhile. Third, it takes a great deal of time and commitment to connect into a community, and most people are hesitant to take the first steps given other time commitments in their lives. While the specifics are geared towards recent college graduates, I think they apply more broadly. 

When people think of the days of churches being filled with people, one of the things that they are remembering is a time when the church was seen as an ideal third space. It was a safe place with easy to identify opportunities to connect with others, and so needed less intentionality to get connected than many other places. The church has not always had this role, nor is it the most important aspect of being church together. From time to time in certain situations the church does take on this role of third space, however. The mid-20th century church boom was one of those times. There are many good things about such booms, but they can also become problematic when the church becomes overly focused on being that meeting space rather than placing fundamental emphasis on being disciples of Jesus. At the moment, though, we are in a time when the church is not seen as a viable third space at all by the bulk of people, especially those who work full time. Might it be, though, that in an age when third spaces are in crisis that there is a new opportunity for the church to become such a space for a new generation?

If this church is to offer a third space for social connection, it needs to do so in ways that fit the social needs of younger generations. This includes being a space that seems safe for the people seeking it; safety includes physical safety but also a sense that they do not need to keep their guard up for fear of being rejected for who they are. Finding ways to communicate what is available, what has often been included as evangelism, is also important. The third part, then, is to be sensitive to how hard it is to take the initial steps to show up. A judgmental word in any of these areas could easily keep potential new people away. The third space concept is not an answer to every concern the church has, but it is an angle worth considering more as we look to help people in our communities connect with one another and find God at work in their lives.