The Pandemic and Third Place Churches

~1100 words this week. Profound implications, though. Read to the end.


Ray Oldenburg wrote an influential book, The Great Good Place, to describe social spaces apart from home and workplaces. In his formulation, the first place is home, where one lives with one’s family. The second place is the workplace, most often the place where we spend the most time.

The third place, the social space that draws us in, is where one can be themselves, in public, to join in with others in conversation, recreation, mutual support, and improvement.

Churches are in that space. But so are bars, bowling alleys, dog parks, gyms, coffee shops, barber and hair salons, and a whole list of other spaces.

It was my mentor Lyle Schaller that first pointed me to the book in the early 1990s. In church coffee shops and gathering spaces, he saw how churches were desirous to encourage people to spend more time connecting with others apart from worship and class settings.

The classic example he would share is the bar at Cheers. (fictional, of course) “Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

In sociological research, Robert Putnam, another author in his books Bowling Alone and American Grace, draws attention to the positive ways churches can encourage social capital formation, trust, and civil society by becoming these safe spaces. [I confess I have not read his latest Upswing book]

But now, there is some new thinking for church leaders to consider. Consider the following chart:

Admittedly these are pure types and not perfect. Some spaces – such as a coworking space – blend between second and third spaces. (Though purists would say they are not open enough to be third spaces.)

A small group of people who live in co-living spaces, where large groups of people live in shared quarters, would also blend first and third spaces.

In a recent presentation to Executive Pastors at a conference on church buildings, I asked this question:

Which of these spaces has been changed by the pandemic?

Answer: All of them.

Let us consider some potential implications for churches and their thinking on their program of ministry.

First Places (home) – have changed for many. The home became the place one resides with family and school and workplace for some.

Second Places (work) – also changed due to remote work or workplace restrictions in office or shop. For some that work remotely, the social isolation factors weighed heavily on them. This is perhaps driving some of “the great resignation” that is upon us. [More on that in a future article] Remote work is great for introverts, not so great for others. Those in offices or shops, restrictive patterns with spacing, masks, and even how many people are allowed into a space at one time disrupted past patterns.

Third places were thrown off as well. Gyms closed, then reopened with restrictions. Restaurants pivoted to delivery. Churches did well to move much of their ministry to other formats.

Fourth places accelerated. Digital connection spaces – both via live video and audio increased. Those “places” were used for work, recreation, study, and more.

The fifth places, as some call them – the metaverse, also got a kick start. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said it is now a Metaverse company. One where disparate groups gather to share across the world. These are spaces where one is clearly in a digital environment being present with others. Think “Second Life” with better real-time avatars and graphics.  These proponents point to several live music concerts held in the Fortnite game during the pandemic as examples.

Unlike fourth place digital environments where people use cameras to show their real faces and voice, these are likely to be Virtual Reality goggles driven with avatars of our choosing.

A complete primer on metaverse comes from venture capitalist Matthew Ball here. Here is his definition:

‘The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, data, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence’.

I don’t think we need to understand everything about this space just yet. It’s more important for church leaders to consider the implications of how the first four places could be impacted.

But some companies have begun experimenting with meetings with global participants, all wearing VR devices, to hold business sessions in virtual exotic locale-like spaces that create the sensations of being together in a relaxed space. Church at the beach during a snowstorm anyone?

More after the promo/plug away section:

A few announcements this week:

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Go here to grab it. It’s the blue one on the top right down below the fold.

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The Stewardship of YOU is conducting a research study on the state of pastors’ health in 2021. I would love for you all to participate. 

Most research has only focused on senior pastors. This study includes an emphasis on the health of staff members as well. The study will help pastors get healthier and help them understand the state of their teams.

The survey only takes 10-12 minutes to finish. And it’s confidential, so no worries there. Start Here:

If you’re interested in getting a unique or personalized study for your team, you can reach out to the leader for some options. I know he’s doing this for some groups.  (

And you can see the findings and resources from the study. Once it’s complete, you can sign up for those findings.

Story continues…..

For example:

For home space – for some, the pandemic created more investment in their home and more nesting trends. Many enhanced their home space to entertain small groups of pandemic pod friends, created shared safety circles, and formed lasting relationships in closer geographical proximity.

Some churches went all-in on micro gatherings to build community and connection throughout this season.

Will they continue to encourage this? What percentage of our congregation and mission field prefer this environment to build up faith?

For workspaces – as some companies have also encouraged more remote work, how can we support and adapt some of our physical church spaces to allow remote workers to gather during the day to find connection? When I was helping with hackathons at Leadership Network, one of the bright ideas was turning little-used church lobby space into coworking space. Some churches have purpose-built spaces to rent to solo or small firm entrepreneurs. But how can we leverage some space to serve those who find it challenging to work from home and enjoy a nearby area with a wholesome atmosphere to congregate? This requires a different way of thinking.

As churches moved to some digital worship experiences, they felt they were extending their third space. But unless there was a real connection, driven at a human level, I am not sure we can call that the third space.

The fourth space is where we see real opportunity. How can we create digital environments for ministry applications and purposes that are BETTER or 90% of the potential of physical gatherings?

This would include many administrative, team or committee meetings.

Small groups that could include those at home with children or aging parents.

Those that cannot still leave their home due to health conditions.

Recovery groups, seeker groups, discipleship groups, and more can be leveraged using the thinking.

I agree with those that still see Life on Life, Face to Face, as the BEST way to accomplish the purposes for discipleship. But should we ignore this possible alternative for a large segment of our mission field?

I see how gyms and training facilities moved to hybrid spaces. Look at Peloton, where group classes are being held via connected means to connect people at similar skill levels to ride a stationary bike or do other exercises.

And how do all of the above factors change the design of our physical structures?  How do they change our time allocations? How do they change our outreach strategies to enable new participants?

This has been a very blue-sky edition of Church Leader Insider, and I have no firm conclusions. Evangelical churches have been rapid adopters and adapters in the past to these societal trends.

I would love your thoughts as to how you are adapting. Please send them in.

My colleague and co-producer of this newsletter Greg Ligon is currently counseling several churches to establish a durable digital campus. To learn more about that process, reach out directly to him at



This week Jason Esposito of CrossWay Church.

The Italian boy from Jersey gets dunked into the Midwest. Listen to how God has led Jason and CrossWay in this season to gospel effectiveness.

And catch up as well on past editions here.

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