America needs more coffee shops and fewer churches?

Coffee_1This is a minor little lifestyles feature from last week, but it is still bugging me. There is a ghost in here, methinks. The topic is “third places,” which reporter Sherry Stripling of the Seattle Times defines as:

Today, instead of face-to-face encounters that help what Oregon poet Ingrid Wendt calls “keeping the human spirit in repair,” we communicate by computer, by talk radio or by finger on the freeway.

When we wonder at the divisions of our society, we need look no further, some social observers say, than at the loss of what’s been called “third places” — safe, neutral gatherings spots.

The corner store, the local pub, the coffee shop that doesn’t involve a long car ride. “Third places” cultivate deeper support and a broader range of ideas than you find at your first place (home) or second place (work).

The whole idea, of course, is that this is where people bump into other people who are different and they have nice, friendly, red-on-blue conversations in which divergent points of view are discussed and no one ever gets bent out of shape. This is where closed minds have a chance to become open minds. You got it? Think “Cheers.”

Stripling quotes Ray Oldenburg, author of “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community” as saying that third places should be:

* Cheap or free

* Close to home or work so you go there regularly

* Amenable to conversation

* A second home for old and new friends, even if it’s just the bartender

* Playful

You can probably figure out where I am going with this. The article is on to something, of course. Modern mass media and zoning laws have killed true neighborhood bars and greasy spoons, even in many American small towns. I have heard rumors that the very red-zone city of Fort Worth still has lots of neighborhood bars and, I would assume, Seattle remains the national capital of coffee sanctuaries.

But something is missing from this article, something major — religious institutions. Anyone who has ever lived in the heart of the Bible Belt knows that there is a Baptist church on every other corner and the Methodists are on every third corner. For many, many people these are third places. Maybe churches fill this role for a different class of people than those featured in this Seattle story. Then again, perhaps coffee is the only remaining sacrament in the Pacific Northwest.

It is also clear that these third places are somewhat idealized, for Stripling and the people she quotes. They may even be anti-churches. Note these comments by Seattle University professor Mara Adelman:

Just look at the polarization of Republicans and Democrats on a whole range of social issues, says Adelman, an associate professor in Seattle University’s Department of Communication. She’s studied the benefits of “weak ties” — the people you meet regularly at the dog park, the coffee shop, the bus stop.

The “strong ties” in our lives — family, friends, workmates — tend to be “birds of a feather,” Adelman says. They have certain expectations of how we’ll think or behave. The “weak ties” provide freedom of self-expression to test out new ideas — “and then you get to say good night and go home.”

Without third places, she says, “you can’t get into the gray areas and complexity.”

Now, it is true that churches — blue churches and red churches — have become some of the most birds-of-a-feather institutions in American life. But somehow I suspect that they still play a major role in public life for millions of normal Americans. Last time I checked, coffee shops and bars are not protected in the U.S. Constitution.

It is interesting that churches play no role in the Seattle article at all. Zip. Nada. Look it up.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe Perez

    Terry – Speaking as a Seattleite, I am deeply offended at your implication that coffee is the last sacrament of the Pacific Northwest. Everyone knows that the cafe latte is the last sacrament.

    Seriously though, I don’t think it would have been helpful to include churches in this article, just as it wouldn’t have been helpful to include Lions or Kiwanas clubs, or neo-pagan women’s and men’s circles for that matter. Such groups bring together people based on a collective membership and shared beliefs, whereas the writer sees “third places” as “safe, neutral spots” which are not limited based on religion or ideology. I can think of plenty of people who don’t see the corner Baptist or Methodist church as a “safe, neutral gathering spot.”

  • Al

    As another Seattleite, I agree with Joe. As a Neopagan who occasionally attends Buddhist meditation activities, I agree even more.

    A church is not a third place for me. If it is a nice church, it is just a foreign place. If it is a not-so-nice church, it is enemy territory. You might feel the same if you’d ever been spit on (literally) for your religious beliefs by “Christians.”

  • Brad

    It shouldn’t require reminding, but just in case it does, spitting on another person is a decidedly un-Christian activity (I’m aware you probably realize this, but sometimes it seems to need pointing out).

    A good church may feel “foreign” to start with, but alot of times people keep going despite starting with those feelings because something catches them just right. That’s when you know there’s more going on than a sermon.


  • Al

    I understand that it is unchristian behavior. My mother’s family helped found the Nazerene denomination. One of my maternal uncles is a Wesleyan minister and missionary, another is retired from it.

    The problem here is that my mother is a Witch. I am one as well (independently of each other, truth be told). We are not Christians. Our spirituality has no basis in Churches. If we work with a group, it is in people’s homes and such. We aren’t “big” religion.

    My point (and Joe’s) is that there are plenty of people in this world for whom a church will never be a friendly or comfortable place. The only time they set foot in one is one a Christian family member is married or dies. Why would we seek out companionship or sermons from the people of the Book?

    Personally, I worked out my issues with Christianity when I was a teen and in my early 20′s. I’m respectful of the beliefs of Christians, especially when actually practiced, but I don’t practice a salvation-based faith or one that believes in a singular god. It isn’t my place to gather with friends or have fellowship.

  • tmatt

    Hey folks, I said that churches have become highly polarized zones. Martin Marty says they are among the most divided places in our nation.

    But so are bars and coffee shops. I guess I was a bit amazed that this article held out the idea that there were neutral zones these days.

    Meanwhile, it is also clear that there are all kinds of religious zones, other than churches. Small groups — of every imaginable belief variant — were huge in the 1990s and that has not changed.

    So, sure, I am sure there are many Baptist churches in Lynchburg, Va., that would be less than welcoming to Joe. I am also sure that there are bars in DC that would not be warm, inviting places for Jerry Falwell.

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    I can see how a bar or a coffee shop would be considered more of a “third-place” than a church, simply because the time commitment is much smaller. I can randomly walk into a coffee shop, pick up on a conversation and jump in. If I go to a church, I’m limited to certain times of the week (Sunday morning, Wednesday evening, etc…) and have to wait until after the service to talk with anyone. Of course, I could join a small group with that church, but that brings us back to the commitment factor.

    This article does more to highlight a much bigger problem: the privatization of American culture through suburbs. We’re now down to the point where a few bars and coffee shops are the remaining venues for public life, the “third places.”

  • asc

    In case anyone’s interested, I wrote a piece a few year’s back saying synagogues, for one, could learn from Oldenburg and the “third place” concept. I wrote, “I’ve been lucky to find synagogues that have served my need for a third place. But how many Jewish leaders, at a time of much talk about ‘re-engineering’ the synagogue and 21st century religious institutions, think of the third place function in designing new shuls or community centers? How many of them, during their research, belly up to a neighborhood bar and imagine the Jewish alternative?”


  • Jill

    You know some of our churches have pretty good coffee. I can think of one in particular in Irving, Texas (a large church) that has a couple of decent coffee kiosks, an indoor children’s playground, a music lounge from which a weekly Christian radio show is broadcast (and where listeners can hang out) and other friendly spots to just sit and chat. Plus with all the activity going on there throughout the week, it’s definitely not just happenin’ on Sundays!

    The church where I work makes some decent coffee. We just put a new Senseo machine in the office that brews one or two fresh cups of Douwe Egberts at a time. Anyone is welcome to stop in and drink a cup with the pastor or secretary when the office is open.

    I realize this isn’t quite the point the article was making but . . . . church can definitely mean community (especially when you’re involved in small group life) and — it can mean better-than-average coffee!

  • Elizabeth Josephine Weston

    In “Saving America?” his recent book about faith-based social service initiatives, Robert Wuthnow has some excellent examples of how the diversity of American religion contributes to the health of civil society. One thing he mentions is how congregations serve not only to develop community bonds but also serve a bridging function in allowing ordinary people to have a connection with civic leaders and others of wealth and influence. We do lack good third places, but Wuthnow’s research suggests there is a lot of opportunities for social health in this country, and religion matters in this regard.

  • AH

    Related points without transitions:

    1. In their own thin way, comments sections of interesting blogs are third places. Since 1998, I’ve visited many, lingered for months in maybe 10, and made three genuinely close friends out of them (reciprocal visits, business ventures, the real thing.)

    2. Churches (I live in church-friendly Texas) are not necessarily hostile to other viewpoints (though I was ushered to the exit in one Methodist Church for being too Biblical). But they are very culture-bound, whatever their culture. They also are always asking, at least implicitly, for money. And they are mostly unavailable. There’s the uber-scheduled Sunday stuff. Then there’s the 9-5-weekdays-only from a bored, no-initiative office staff. The non-Sunday face of churches is a lost evangelism opportunity. It needs to be competent, fun, focused, available, full of creative, joyous, optimistic response. Where do they GET those staffs?

    3. There used to be a mail center in my neighborhood, kind of a baby Kinko’s. They’d greet me by name like Norm on “Cheers,” and I’d write out my bills at their little desk before mailing. A real Third Place, fostered by both people-skills and a little welcoming furniture, can arise almost anywhere. For many years, the improvised book store of a Jung Society was a place to drop in, network, chat, even find tiny bites of unofficial therapy. This was maintained with great discretion by the long-time bookstore manager, and retired with her.

    4. Off-beat Third Places especially appeal to me, since the established and recognized ones tend to develop pecking orders, hipness scales, and the purpose of Being Seen is too paramount at, e.g., fashionable gyms (even if not free, after a fixed cost a gym seems free) and coffee shops. One rather dotty woman uses the Post Office, with its long lines and barely-adequate seating, as one. I’m glad it’s there for her.

    5. I wonder how many Third Places are destroyed by taxes and rents. They often go out of business often not so much because the proprietor wants to maximize profit (and I’m a willing capitalist), as for reasons “upstream,” because they en masse improve the neighborhood and taxes and rents rise until only a Gap can pay them. The best evidence that they are actually numinous phenomena are how mysteriously they bubble up, sustain themselves, and move on.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    I agree that churches are not “third places” as defined in the article tmatt cited. But I also know of some coffeehouses (here in metro Atlanta) that are quite polarized as well.

    Church services are not good places to meet or interact with people, unless you get involved in a smaller class, study group, or ministry project within the church.

    BTW, my sacrament is the Shot in the Dark: a shot (or two) of espresso in a larger cup of coffee, preferably a very dark roast coffee, like Sumatra. “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.” — Turkish proverb

  • hisownfool

    Let me add my voice to those who think that churches aren’t “third plaves,” at least not as that term is usually employed. Churches, at least the modern suburban variety, lack two essential qualties of “third places”: proximity and randomness. People who attend a given suburban church may live miles apart. (Here in the DC area, it’s not uncommon for members of the same church to live 20 miles from each other.) It’s not the kind of place you just casually drop in on. You plan your visits, nearly always with a specific purpose in mind. What’s more, given the “spread,” the chances you will run into the people you go to church with outside of church is small.

    “Third places” are places that facilitate “striking up” a conversation, as often as not with someone you don’t know well. That’s where randomness comes in. “Third places” are crossroads or intersections of sorts. People who would otherwise not get together stop there.

    I admit that my perspective is that of a city kid. That’s what I am. But “third places” are also the stuff of small towns, at least the ones that haven’t been put out of business by Wal-Mart.

  • brainwise

    I have found that a theater group can be a third place. Granted, the folks there are all assembled for the purpose of producing a show, but there are several different types coming together. There are folks who work right up to the opening doing all the background details, there are the performers, and there are the rest of the backstage crew who keep it running. And on top of that, all of these people run the gamut of various spiritual practices to having no practice whatsoever. They are also a highly political bunch, believe it or not.

  • Maureen

    So…don’t churches where you live have spaghetti dinners and fish dinners and Monte Carlo nights? Or even donuts and coffee? Also Protestant churches apparently have a lot of after-church or between-service meals, and I know shuls have meals after services. Parish libraries. After-school sports. Playgrounds on church grounds.

    It’s not what people mean by a “third place”. But that’s what it is.

  • Grayham

    You’re reminding me of this tossed-out N.Y. Times line on the “wayside chapel” of Starbucks: