A Third Place – Rev. Christian Schmidt

This pandemic showed us many things: that we are all vulnerable, that we depend on each other for safety, and that we can change and adapt. And being restricted in where we could go, where was safe to go, reminded us of something important, that we need places, physical and virtual, to gather together, to share and be human. At its best, our congregations are just this: places to be with one another, to practice what it means to be human.

This is a part of what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg saw when he coined the term “third place.” For him, a third place is distinct from the first and second places, home and work. It’s not a place where you live, at least not in any permanent or semi-permanent sense. And it’s not work (or school if you’re of a certain age), a place you are obligated to go to and where the requirements placed upon you are usually both significant and specific. 

We’re going to talk a lot about home today – you’ve heard it in our music already, and will hear more. It’s a complicated topic, and one I hope to pull apart a little today! Your home may or may not be where you live, as anyone who has ever felt not at home in their place of residence can attest. It’s not always a safe place, not always one that feels right, for instance. 

Conversely, third places aren’t home, either, but at their best they are homey! A place where you feel welcome, where you feel some sense of belonging, or at least that you have as much right to be here as anywhere. 

A third place has a number of important characteristics that Oldenburg defined. I’ll try to be quick, but I want to lift them up so you can understand:

8 Characteristics of Third Places

1. Neutral ground: Occupants of third places have little to no obligation to be there.

2. Leveler (a leveling place): Third places put no importance on an individual’s status in a society

3. Conversation is the main activity: Playful and happy conversation is the main focus of activity in third places, although it is not required to be the only activity.

4. Accessibility and accommodation: Third places must be open and readily accessible to those who occupy them. They must also be accommodating, meaning they provide for the wants of their inhabitants, and all occupants feel their needs have been fulfilled.

I want to take a moment here, because this congregation knows more than many what this really means. The deaf ministry here is one of the clearest examples of this. If you aren’t using the literal language a person knows and understands, your attempts at welcoming are doomed to failure. Providing interpretation for our worship services is a foundation, but absolutely not an end, to that work.

5. The regulars: Third places harbor a number of regulars that help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and characteristics of the area. This is the Cheers effect: you want to go where everybody, or at least a lot of people, know your name! That takes time, and in a community as large as this one, it’s impossible for everyone to know everyone’s name. WE might say you want to go where some people know your name!

6. A low profile: Third places are characteristically wholesome. The inside of a third place is without extravagance or grandiosity, and has a cozy feel.

7. The mood is playful: The tone of conversation in third places is never marked with tension or hostility.

8. A home away from home: Occupants of third places will often have the same feelings of warmth, possession, and belonging as they would in their own homes.

I could expand upon every one of these! Each of those eight is probably worth a sermon of its own. What are some third places in our lives? Restaurants, coffee shops, perhaps the local library, maybe a community center or senior center. And, and, and – our congregations. Right? Maybe we could quibble that we don’t perfectly fit every characteristic, but I think we fit them pretty well.

Our congregations have a unique opportunity to inhabit this space, in which there are so few options – especially options that don’t require you to spend a bunch of money – I’m thinking of restaurants or coffee shops here. Sure, we do ask for pledges, but we’re deeply conscious that you will contribute what you can, not some amount we require.

We want people from many backgrounds, many life experiences, many generations, many beliefs, to come here and to engage in community, in the work of what the Unitarian ethicist and theologian James Luther Adams called “practicing what it means to be human.” That isn’t to say we do this perfectly, but it’s our goal and our practice. And when we fail, we will try again. We do worship, we teach, we learn, we commune in coffee hour, we go out into the world – and all of it, and all the things I didn’t just name but that you know and value, are part of the work here of making community and enriching the lives and souls of everyone whose lives intersect with this community.

And stay with me for a slight aside here, because I think it’s important to say even if it’s not my primary point today:

I wonder, too, about the role that technology plays in this. Is social media, or other online ways of gathering, a new kind of third place? Here’s where Oldenburg and I differ! I think absolutely, and he says no. I think this is, perhaps, a generational difference. But let me quote him and his reasoning:  “Is social media a new form of third place? Third places are face-to-face phenomena. The idea that electronic communication permits a virtual third place is misleading. “Virtual” means that something is like something else in both essence and effect, and that’s not true in this instance. When you go to a third place you essentially open yourself up to whoever is there. And they may be very different from you. If you don’t know your neighbors, you will be suspicious. And if you are suspicious, you will act accordingly. You don’t get neighborly on that basis. If you spend time with people you’re not going to hate them, it’s just that simple.”

I just think he’s plain wrong. It’s not a universal that social media or other virtual spaces are good at the sort of interaction he’s talking about, but heck, most places in physical space aren’t either! There are many online spots to have exactly the sort of interaction he calls for. It’s yet another reason I’ve been so strongly committed to making sure that Unitarian Universalism and UU congregations have a strong and vibrant online presence wherever possible. People need us, and we have to be where they are. I’m so glad to be sending this service out today to the world and to those who are here in person.

We are, just by being here and doing what we do, providing something necessary and important to the world, and to those who join us and those who may one day join us. Never doubt that you’re a part of something meaningful here. Never doubt that your presence isn’t both valued and needed here.

Never doubt that we love you, and that you have love to give all of us and the world. May it be so!