Starbucks, church, and the “third place”

(Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

First of all, I like Starbucks. I know it’s not cool to like Starbucks. But I do.

They’re consistent and reliable. They serve the authentic Pumpkin Spice Latte (no, ‘authentic’ is not the same as ‘organic’). I know exactly what I’m going to get and I can conveniently use my phone to pay. As a freelancer, the utility of Starbucks supports my livelihood: I know the wifi will be good, I know there will be ample chargers, and I know the music won’t be the kind that drowns out the writer’s voice in my head.

As much as I try to support my local shops, I can’t rely on having the same seamless experience with them (okay, maybe a couple — a nod to you, Big Shoulders Coffee).

However, this post isn’t about the customer experience of Starbucks. I want to remark on the idea that Starbucks claims to be a ‘third place’ (spaces where people spend time between their first and second places — home and work, respectively).

Now, I’ll give it to Starbucks for providing the space for a ‘third place’ to take root and flourish. And sometimes, I see people looking each other in the eye and talking there about things other than work. But to be honest, what do I mostly see at Starbucks (and this is not me bashing on Starbucks — merely an observation)?…

I see people like me, alone, on a digital device with their face in the internet. Most of us are working. Some of us are just mindlessly scrolling. But hardly any of us are doing anything we couldn’t do at home (the first place) or at work (the second place).

Starbucks is not the ‘third place’. They’re more of an extended second place (the office) for freelancers and remote workers like me.

Again, I can’t blame Starbucks for this. They’ve created the atmosphere. But like a labrador who’s presented with a cat scratching post, we Americans have no idea what to do with it. When you provide us with a nice, warm, aromatic, communal space in which to gather, what do we do?…

We put our AirPods on and work. I mean, what do you expect from the most individualistic country on the planet? You didn’t think we’d actually voluntarily talk to each other, did you?! Ha!

Now, bars, I’d say, could be really good third places. However, the advent of the flat-screen TV has ended that possibility (you’ll have to go to an authentic Irish pub in order to experience a bar that is truly a ‘third place’ — and that’s nearly impossible to find in the states).

Enter, the church as third place

Okay, let me first say that I wouldn’t dare step foot in probably 75% of churches in America (unless I was conducting a social experiment for this blog, of course).

I’m fortunate to live in an area that supports a church that’s progressive in posture and open to any race, creed, sexual/gender identity, enneagram type, skin color, voting preference and that doesn’t even try to negate science. So that gets me in the door.

But this isn’t enough. Remember, the modern American narrative resists the notion of a third place. So how does my church (the only church I can speak for) make for such a good third place amid this urban individualistic American culture?

[Note: No, I’m not trying to get you to come to my church. This is not an advertisement for them. In fact, I won’t even link to them (but if you’re really curious, shoot me an email and I’ll let you know).]

1. Be lovingly forceful with community-building

Our church has a way of intentionally getting the congregation to meet each other. The garden courtyard is very inviting. And our pastor spends his post-service time zooming around and effectively ‘smooshing’ us together. He’s a master introducer. It’s incredible to watch. He remembers people’s names and stories and he finds commonalities, makes introductions and then moves on.

The barista (or even the manager) at Starbucks doesn’t do this (thankfully, because that would just be weird).

This lovingly forceful community-building isn’t comfortable (particularly for introverts like me), but it’s SO NEEDED. As Chayenne Polimédio mentions in her fantastic article in New America

Third places serve as community builders. This means that they’re locations where, in the case of churches, people can share their worries, rejoice, and renew together.

This is a human thing to do and we have to be nudged into doing it or else we’ll continue down our algorithmically-induced digital rabbit holes that only separate us and make us feel more alone.

Church provides a tangible and algorithmically-free space where we can engage with other members of our community, and even fight for various causes hand in hand.

It’s a place where we feel safe and able to share our problems and joys with our broader community.

I get it — a lot of churches only seek to divide and exclude. They create an inner circle and an outer inner circle, thus creating status-driven strife even inside the smaller church community. If these are the only types of churches in your area, you’re better off with Starbucks. Seriously.

2. Encourage civil discourse

In her article, Polimédio goes on to say

Churches, as third places, provide a relaxed and “low-stakes” atmosphere, and they foster trust between members of communities — and in the public institutions so fundamental to a strong and resilient democracy. Political science scholars have long bemoaned the consequences weak and declining civic institutions have on the health of a democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the greatest scholars of American democracy, believed that religion, as a political institution and voluntary civic association, was key to the preservation of freedom in a democratic society.

Friends and fellow country people, we need to get together more and hash things out in-person — NOT ON FACEBOOK.

Facebook has made us all afraid to speak our truth (or, at least, those of us who aren’t narcissists or sociopaths). Removing the physical from civil discourse was a horrible move as a culture. We come from a different place when we’re in front of each other. Looking into a human’s eyes and having to speak to them is far different than typing into a text box on a digital screen.

I digress…

Important conversations carry lower-stakes in smaller, more local community-oriented settings. A couple weeks ago, my church hosted a forum titled ‘The T in LGBTQ’. Presenting was a family who shared their journey supporting each other as they embrace a transgender/gender non-conforming family member.

That small forum, hosted by my church, shifted the way I see that issue and made me a more empathetic human. They weren’t trying to force an agenda on me. They were starting a conversation, not ending it. (I don’t think a forum as politically and culturally charged as this would fly at Starbucks — probably not very stomachable by shareholders.)

This is a huge opportunity that a lot of churches can embrace. They could reclaim their spot in our culture as the third place if they’d surrender their outmoded ways and become relevant again.

But we can’t leave the brunt of the work on their shoulders. We, fellow Americans, have to be open to a third place.

And so with that, I pray — may you find your third place, wherever that is. May you bring human community and open discourse back into your life. It’s something so many of us are longing for. And it’s what our culture and democracy greatly need.