Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 9, Becoming a Third Place

In this final post of this series I want to take stock and offer some tentative "recommendations" about how the church and individuals might move in an alone, suburban and sorted world. Taking stock, we've noted the following across the previous posts:

1. Americans are socially disengaged. Mainly in the area of bridging connections, connections with people different from ourselves.

2. Bridging to difference is becoming more difficult as Americans have, over the last 30 years, been sorting themselves into communities of sameness. As our communities grow less diverse our communities of like-mindedness grow more extreme. Difference begins to seem deviant and demonic.

3. Finally, Americans have lost their third places. Consequently, even if I wanted to make bridging connections I run up against the Problem of Place: We have nowhere to go to meet people.

Now, my concern in working though all this material is less about dealing with American loneliness than about American insularity. No doubt the trends above are implicated in the epidemics of loneliness and social isolation. But I'm more interested, in this series at least, in thinking through issues of welcome, inclusion, conversation and hospitality. Let me give two personal examples as illustrations.

During the lead up to the last election (McCain versus Obama) a friend of mine (a Democrat) was talking with a female friend of his (a Republican). They were talking about how both candidates were running away from the Bush/Cheney years like they were poison. The Republican friend was confused by this. Why so much anger and disappointment with Bush/Cheney? In her personal sphere she knew of no one who had expressed disappointment with Bush/Cheney. In fact, all her associates had expressed great pride in the Bush/Cheney record. Then the Republican friend made this statement: "I don't know anybody who even knows anybody who is upset with President Bush."

The irony here was that she was talking with a person who was a Democrat, was voting for Obama and was very upset about the Bush/Cheney years.

This shouldn't be surprising. We've noted in this series how in our sorted world incidents like this are growing in regularity. In sorted communities minorities go silent to get along with bosses, work associates, neighbors and church friends. When that happens the majority group starts living in an echo chamber, living in a world where they don't know anybody who even knows anybody who dissents from the majority view. This, despite the majority swimming in a sea of dissent. In fact, the friend you are talking to disagrees with you. Strongly perhaps. They are just keeping their mouths shut. It's easier that way.

So, my concern here is that if we never get to interact with difference (political, sexual, religious, socioeconomic, ethnic, etc.) on a daily basis we lose the skills needed to be a good person. Rather than knowing actual poor people, gay people, Muslim people, or people from the other political party, we increasingly deal with abstractions and stereotypes: The poor, the gays, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans. We argue with a faceless demonic Other. Little do we know we are hurting a coworker, neighbor, church friend, child or family member. A real person we know and love. Or, at the very least, a person who we would come to love if we found ourselves in the same bowling league (see Part 1).

The second personal example that makes me concerned about all this has to do with missional initiatives at my own church. My church is made of up three discrete groups. The first two groups are White and middle-class. The first of these groups comes from the University where I work. The second group are people who work in the city. Unfortunately, these two groups have some trouble mixing with each other. The University group is basically one large office group who takes their Water Cooler conversations into the church. This group shares common interests and concerns. Workplace issues are natural conversation starters. And yet, this common conversation can be off-putting to those who don't work at the University. The University group comes off as a clique. Further, the University group tends to be more Democratic while the non-University group is more Republican. This also creates distance.

The third group is the group the church is reaching out to in the community. This group is less affluent and educated and is more Hispanic than White. It is also more unchurched. Unsurprisingly, this group has struggled to feel included by the two other groups (the White, middle-class, educated group).

There is no easy solution to dealing with this problem. And I think many churches struggle with this issue. My observation, based upon this series, is that much of the problem involves both skill and place. Over the last few decades in America we've lost the skills of social bridging. From both want of opportunity and social sorting. In addition, my church as few third places in her life, locations where the groups can regularly and informally mix to form connections and relationships. The church does try programming to address these issues but, as we've seen with third places, social mixing needs to be voluntary. You can't force people to mix.

So what are we to do about all this?

Well, it would be totally ridiculous to expect a blog post to turn the tide. The trends we've been discussing are the product of millions of isolated social decisions being made every instant, every day. Further, although I've insinuated that many of the choices leading to the alone, suburban and sorted world are bad choices, people are clearly making these choices because they see some good in living the way they are living. I'm not arguing for the notion that life in the 50s was better than life today. I think the most I'm willing to say is that millions of micro-level choices have macro-level implications and goods at the micro-level (e.g., moving to a nice neighborhood where my neighbors look like me) might not translate into macro-level goods (e.g., we end up sorting ourselves into communities of like-mindedness). The truth of the matter is that I don't think these trends can be changed. Unless something drastic happens. (For example, when oil and gas run out I think America will shift back to a pedestrian, bicycle lifestyle. Corner stores will begin to out-compete a drive to a WalMart on the edge of town. And once the corner store is back the neighborhood third places start moving back in.)

That said, with an eye on the church, let me drop a few ideas about living in an alone, suburban and sorted world:

1. Third places inside the church.
More and more people drive to church, drop their kids off and then head to a local coffeeshop. Church life is too stuffy, irrelevant, and programmatic. The trouble with this "Church at Starbucks" trend is that we remain sorted. We go to Starbucks with our friends. Church at Starbucks promotes bonding but not bridging. But if the third place was at the church then the various groups within the church would be more likely to mix and learn the skills of welcome and inclusion.

2. Churches running third places.
I think churches are ideally suited to own and run third places. Not needing to run a profit, a church could drop a coffeeshop or donut shop or even a local pub in the neighborhood where the church is located or reaching out. The church-run third place would be a location where the church could mix with herself and with her neighbors. Instead of hiring a community or pulpit minister you hire store managers, baristas or bartenders. The third place should seek to hire both church members and people in the neighborhood.

3. You become the third place.
In the end, we can become the third place. We can invite people over to play cards or join a bowling league (Part 1). We can move to neighborhoods that are diverse. We can frequent the third places of our town, seeking to become one of the regulars.

Importantly, we can learn to welcome difference to encourage people to share their views and who they are. If you are a Republican in a Red State you can encourage your Democratic friends to speak freely (How? Try speaking kindly of Obama.). You can encourage your gay friends to come out with you (How? Say you love Rachel Maddow.). If you are a Democrat in a Blue state you can let your Republican friends tell you why they think Rush Limbaugh makes good points (How? Speak kindly of the GOP.). Yes, debate will ensue. But if you get to this point in your life you'll know how to talk, listen and disagree in a way that elevates rather than diminishes the two of you.

I, personally, have tried to become a person where Republicans and Democrats, gay and straight, atheist and believer, saint and sinner can speak freely in my presence. It's not that I don't have any strong opinions. I do. It's just that I need to know who you are, and you need to know who I am, if we are to begin the process of loving each other, living with each other and eventually disagreeing with each other. I might yell at you. And you might yell at me. But only when we are truly and deeply in love with each other. I don't yell at strangers. Yelling is a family activity. The regulars at the third place can yell at each other. They don't yell a the stranger who just walked in. Yelling is too intimate, too loving an act, for people who don't know each other.

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7 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 9, Becoming a Third Place”

  1. Hi Richard,

    This is a thank you for helping me put words to what has alienated me from church--the lack of open ended dialog and thinking (ala sorting and polarization).

    You chose not to confront an obvious barrier to overcoming sorting: a church is a collection of "believers," and therefore--at least to a degree--to belong is to be like-minded. The central Christian symbol cam be viewed as a warning against all forms of idolatry, including intellectual. But in practice the saying of creeds or siting of texts, even if its the bible as a whole, divides believers from nonbelievers.

    Sorting this out in practice would be a nice trick. Perhaps one destined to create another sect, if successful. :-)

  2. I'm surprised at the level of negativity and pessimism in the comments of the last few posts.

    It just goes to show how much our system has put us into boxes of believing that we are incapable of breaking out. We in the West are as subjugated as we would be if we were living in a communistic country. Funny, isn't it?

    I believe the third places are created through third way people who are willing to take risks. We are so addicted to feeling safe that I think those sorts of people are thin on the ground at this point. Luckily, enthusiasm is contagious.

  3. Hi Sue,

    I'm not sure whether my comment above helped prompt yours, but it seems that it did. Does asking a hard question seems negative to you? In this context it is apt to note that people differ on that. Generally, I love hard questions. I view them as gifts--opportunities to learn, to make connections, to deepen my faith, to enjoy an interesting conversation. Hard questions excite me. To me they are positive.

    Yet I am painfully aware that many Christians view hard questions as negative, as attacks--either personally or on faith or the Church. In fact, I quite going to church to accommodate that view (and to raise my son with a more positive attitude toward intellectual curiosity). Hence my thanks to Richard for helping me understand the dynamic that was in play.

    If I misinterpreted your comment, I'm truly sorry--but there are no nonverbal clues to help with the interpretation here. My justification for pressing ahead with this comment is this. Wouldn't it be ironic if, in a comment to THIS post, a person was made to feel unwelcome because he differs in his view of the value and nature and importance of intellectual curiosity for the life of the Church?

    I hope you can agree that clarification on that question would be helpful--and interesting and positive too. But maybe not. I do know that I genuinely look forward to being corrected, if need be.


  4. Hey Tracy,

    No, not at all do I think your asking hard questions is negative. Mein Gott, we need to be asking as many hard questions as we have the stamina for :)

    I do think, however, that the ideas we have of "church" are particularly limited, and I like to view the church as the people out in the world rather than the narrower form within buildings that I patently can't stomach.

    I actually in hindsight should have posted this comment on the previous post. It's not so much that I think negativity should not be spoken - lament is necessary - but we just seem so singularly to lack vision in the West. It is as if effectively we are all tied down with invisible chains and I think, "Why?" We seriously have so much opportunity to change things and yet we continue on with the status quo, allowing ourselves to be dictated to by the market. It just baffles me.

    I am an eternal optimist that change is gonna come, but maybe it will take several hard winds falling to dislodge us from our little prisons.

  5. Hi Sue,

    Thanks for making my day. Wonderful clarification and outlook: We do need to break our chains.

    I think I'd be pleased to be part of your church. :)


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