Hirsch #3: “Third Places”

On our last day in New Orleans we joined Alan Hirsch and the staff of Journey Christian Church for breakfast at a small french restaurant. The course of our conversation was focused upon the idea of missional engagement and church structure. He encouraged both Journey and the rest of us to focus first upon mission and let that guide the development of structure and organization. Rather than letting our organizations determine the mission and focus of the church Hirsch emphasizes that the mission should determine the structure, course and look of the church.

Traditional churches rely heavily upon their buildings. Churches without buildings, like Wheatland, often want to be in buildings and sometimes feel a sense of inadequacy or illegitimacy until they have a place to call their own. Unfortunately, churches end up abandoning what some have described as third places because they own and operate their own facilities. A building is not an end unto itself and every church which owns a building would agree. However, indirectly and unintentionally the building (tail) wags the church (dog). The resources required for building ownership, in both human and financial capital, demand attention and focus that can, and often does, inhibit missional engagement.

Hirsch encourages the idea of small missional communities meeting in third places such as coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. A third place is a place of social interaction where relationships can develop and meaningful conversation entered with little risk. Having such gatherings drives missional minded people to think long and hard about the deepest necessities required for Christian community. Taking the party, of which we are a part, into the house of people who are outside of the church is not a new gimmick but a reclaimed expression of the early church.* In fact, Jesus’ incarnation is the greatest expression of missional endeavor. Jesus brought God’s presence (the “party”) into the house (the lives of his hearers) of those who were far from participating in the life of God.

I am encouraged that Wheatland has done some of this. We often invades third places with missional purpose. Paul Riley, with some help from Brad Moser, helped launch our theology pub that meets at River City Brewery. For over a year relationships have been formed and blessing exchanged with some of the employees. This is an example of the party moving from one house into another. It brings to mind Eugene Peterson’s translation of John 1:14:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.

Here is a challenge I take from Hirsch and from much of the “missional” reading and reflecting I have done over the last few years. The structures of the church, while important, must remain subservient to the mission of the church. Hirsch makes the point this way in The Forgotten Ways:

Christology determines missiology which determines ecclesiology.

While it seems so simple and so obvious I, along with many others, have made the mistake of shaping the church around patterns and models that seem familiar to me rather than allowing my understanding and commitment to Christ and his practices to establish (or re-establish) what the purpose or mission of the church is. It is important for us to always go back to the basic principles of the missio Dei. God has sent his Son, in a missionary capacity, to redeem, renew and recreate the world. Inhabiting third places, finding ways to bless our neighbors, and recognizing the presence of God’s Kingdom in this world are important disciplines for those who want to participate in the missio Dei, God’s work in the world.

The mission of God coincides with the Kingdom of God. Let’s think about how we can participate in God’s Kingdom in small, seemingly inconsequential, ways. When we do I can’t help but think we may be fulfilling what Matthew 13:33 says:

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Third places and neighborhoods, kitchens and dining room tables, breakrooms and bars, ballfields and schools are the plane on which we all find ourselves living and moving within the Kingdom.

This idea of “taking the party into their house” come from Andrew Jones and a talk he gave at Soularize many years ago. He is an uber-blogger. You can find him at: tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com
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5 comments

  1. melanie-pearl

    oh man, what a great reminder!

    one of the reasons i love big city churches is because of the open door policy. i guess that open door could be anywhere and it’s important to stay in that frame of mind.

    it’s easy for me to think a physical open door is easier to approach…but i bet that’s not the case with everyone.

  2. paulhill

    That’s true Mel. I also think that we need to keep a mindset of hospitality always before us. Just b/c we don’t own the space we meet in doesn’t mean we can’t “own” it in a sense of creating an environment of acceptance, love and hospitality.

    Thanks for reading what must have been a tedious post.

  3. 2reasons

    This is another one of those ideas that sounds so obvious that you wonder why someone else had to say it before you thought it. Of course! “Missiology determines ecclesiology!” (Or, as Steven Covey so famously put it, “Begin with the end in mind!”)

    A church is not a building (although a building can help a church accomplish many things). A church is not a weekly worship service, either, although the weekly service is an essential part of what a church does. A church is essentially a network — people working together under the lordship of Christ. I think this has become an uncommon way of looking at church, especially in our culture of individualism and constant motion and change. But if we start seeing it that way, it just might radically change the way we do things.

    Please keep us thinking about this!

  4. paulhill

    Great thoughts everyone. Yes, I think that we need to radically reconsider how church is done. And, I think we need to do this perennially. If we do it once and think that we’ve got it down then we are in just as much danger of being stuck as before.

    “Semper Reformanda!”

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