Church cafes: good or bad? Third place, Oldenburg, Host & Moot

3 October, 2013 — 17 Comments

Recently, for the first time, I realised church cafes could be a good idea. By “church cafe” I mean a cafe on a church premises that is obviously part of a church complex/campus/property/institution. Until now my experience of church cafes have given me the impression that they are either cafes for church people, or church tourists, and I have never seen the appeal or point of that since there are so many good cafes around, why does a church need one?

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Three weeks ago I went to Host cafe in London. They’ve been running for a year, so it’s early days, but I think it’s the best church cafe I’ve been to. If I had a “third place” test, Host would pass it. This is why:

Moot and new-monasticism

I was motivated to visit Host cafe because it is set up by the Moot community which I have followed remotely for about a decade because my friend Ian Mobsby is what they call Priest Missioner.

Moot, as their website describes:

…is a new-monastic community that seeks to live in a way that is honest to God and honest to now.

If you don’t know what a new-monastic community is, the easiest way to find out would be to click here to Moot’s page about it, but in a nutshell, it’s a fairly recent expression of being a church community based on some really old ways of being a church community.

A couple of years ago the Moot community made a 500-year-old church building (St Mary Aldermary) in central London their home, where all sorts of things now happen throughout the week. About a year ago they started Host cafe within the church building.

Before I describe why I think Host is onto such a good thing, let me describe the concept of “third place“:

Third place (or third space)

I can’t remember how I stumbled onto the concept of third place, but for many years now it has helped me interpret and critique some of the public spaces I interact with – which I consider falls into the area of communication.

Ray Oldenburg is an American urban sociologist who coined the term “third place” which:

…is the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace.

Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.

All societies have these informal meeting places and you can probably think of some you go to and enjoy. Some third places naturally happen (like the old fashioned barber shops that men used to drop into to chat and hang out), they can also be created. Oldenburg suggests the following hallmarks of a true “third place” (thanks to wikipedia).

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Food and drink, while not essential, are important
  • Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
  • Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
  • Welcoming and comfortable
  • Both new friends and old should be found there.
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My interpretation of third places is that the assessment of, or absorption into them is subjective, meaning a space I might find is a welcoming anchor that facilities community and creativity, might not be something you connect with as a third place. And this doesn’t matter.

My experience of “third place”

I have experienced some cafes and pubs that have managed to be third places for me, in fact I would nearly say my local pub four-minutes walk away from my house achieves this for me, some weeks I go there two or three times with friends. It only fails because it costs me too much to be there regularly (Oldenburg’s first point).

Getting back to church cafes. In my experience of church cafes none have drawn me in as third places, they have simply seemed to be cafeterias for church services, or post-event meeting places, or waiting rooms for play-centre parents. These are probably the planned intentions, so all is good, and since assessing third place is subjective, perhaps the church cafes of my experience have simply not been so for me (feel free to comment below sharing how these church cafes may be third places for you…)

What if churches intentionally tried to create third places? (Implemented the six points from Oldenburg.)

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Host cafe, London

The name (and logo) in itself is a nice play on words – even a baptist like me can appreciate the connection to the eucharist, as well as the more explicit link to hospitality.

I’ve never been to a cafe before where they invite you to bring your own food (lunch), and with the these-days-expected free wifi, why wouldn’t you drop in if you worked in the area and wanted a “third place” to spend your lunch time or to meet with friends?

Host does start with a few advantages: being able to turn the back third of a 500-year-old building in central London on Watling Street with lots of week-day foot-traffic into a cafe. That’s a big head-start for anyone wanting to create a church cafe.

The building and decor isn’t everything

Moot have articulated some significant “philosophy” around the existence of the cafe. I think the language they use to describe the intention of their space could be applied to any church cafe building plan, this is more important than creating a “cool” space:

Host is an enterprise of Moot, a community of spiritual pilgrims stumbling and fumbling our way towards salvation. Our home at St Mary Aldermary is a peaceful sanctuary amidst the noisy, bustling streets of London.  We built the café because we want people to feel comfortable and at home in the beautiful and relaxing space that the church offers, as we seek to restore the church building to its true vocation as a welcoming hub for the local community, a public space where friendships and connections can be developed.  Since we started running the café in September [2012] we have experienced the increase in the life and warmth that people bring to a building.

The local community are largely professionals who work in this part of the central city. The cafe is open weekdays when these people might be looking for a third space nearby.

More than just a cafe: a third place

Any church cafe could say those words I’ve quoted above, it’s the following ones that separated Host from any other I’ve experienced:

Alongside this we also want to offer the church as a ‘sacred space’, where there is permission and encouragement to give attention to what is often neglected – the deeper dimensions of life, the self and wellbeing that include the spiritual, without feeling under pressure to conform to perceived ideas of what it means to be religious and ‘go to church’.  As part of our weekly rhythm of worship and prayer at St Mary Aldermary we are building a programme of arts, meditation, yoga and discussion groups to enable those who live and work in the City to access points of stillness and reflection.

And I did experience something of what is described above: On Monday 2 September I turned up at 12pm for the regular half-hour directed meditation. I joined 5 other people (obviously professionals in their lunch break) in a corner of the space that was clearly set up for it. I usually appreciate guided meditation, but don’t often have it as accessible as a local space where I can also eat my lunch, get online, and buy a drink. AND, have the opportunity to enter in, as fringe or as committed, to the life of an active faith community in a busy part of a city.

For me, this added dimension that provides sustenance for spirituality and social engagement, makes it a great church-made third place.

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I get the sense that Host isn’t yet everything they want it to be. They have a business plan that sounds challenging, and they are still experimenting with what works best.

I can now say I’ve experienced a church/faith/(new-monastic) community that are running a “church cafe” which isn’t just for church people or tourists. Host is the closest third place of any church cafe I have seen. If I worked in the area I would make it my place too.

Summary (in case you just scrolled down looking at the pictures)

  • “Third places/spaces” enhance community. Cafes can be third places (not all cafes are third places).
  • Churches could create third places (for contextual, localised people groups).
  • Churches have a unique opportunity to add spiritual resourcing to third spaces.

Do you have any church cafe or third place stories?

Images: Host cafe, London, Mike Crudge.

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  • Tim Bulkeley

    I love concept of third places, but I see them not fitting into modern capitalist cultures, and as you note it’s the food and drink part that is the barrier.Even coffee at a cafe is expensive if used regularly (only Yuppies – to use an old word ;) can afford it regularly. For years churches have sought to create temporary third places with “drop in centres”. I wonder if the approach described here (as I understood it) with cheap drinks and a “bring your own food or buy ours” approach could work to pay the necessary wages, but allow access.

    • Hi Tim, yes, I was really surprised (pleasantly) to see Host cafe were happy for people to bring their own lunch/food. I never go to a cafe in NZ and just hang out – I always have to buy something (and feel that I must), whereas at Host a person could turn up and engage with one of the things put on to enhance spirituality (such as a time of guided meditation), and not have to buy anything.

      I like the line you start with in terms of third places “not fitting into modern capitalist culture” – I think you could go further with that and unpack how modern capitalist culture might be effecting church/Christian practice/expression…

      • Tim Bulkeley

        Though that would need a multi-volume practical theology, perhaps unfinished like Barth’s Church Dogmatics ;)

      • DrDon

        Mike – re: ‘third places “not fitting into modern capitalist culture” ‘
        A ponder on the word ‘capitalist’ and its meaning moves one towards the “me, myself, and I” and “I don’t care who I hurt to get what I want” mentality. Communication is more directed to listening and becoming acquainted with others who you can use to further your own interests. One word to characterise this is ‘greed’ or as an old chap at the gym says, the ‘screwers’.
        Third places are often the other side of the coin – a place where people are equal and communicate in a sharing relationship and the focus is on enjoying another’s company – perhaps even towards the ‘what can I do to help you’ mentality. Relationships cost one something. One word to characterise this is ‘give’ and your reference to ‘always have to buy something’ is part of that. As a result we become vulnerable to being ‘screwed’.
        Those people who hide behind earpieces and loud music in their ears so they won’t hear you, or those who won’t even glance at you when walking down the street, I suggest are somewhere in between – maybe not a ‘screwer’ but certainly not prepared to risk a ‘relationship’.
        (Just now as this unfolds I have a thought). I suggest (in a general context) that in Jesus’ time, the religious leaders were focussed on themselves (the ‘screwers’) – the common people are the ones who were vulnerable and were being ‘screwed’. Jesus focussed on these people, and to do that he put himself into the vulnerable position (even to the cross). He didn’t seem to have put much energy into the Pharisees, but rather the opposite (e.g. the list of ‘woes’).
        Perhaps the key here is that we need third places where those who are prepared to be vulnerable, do so in order to give to those who need a ‘relationship’, and relationship is firstly with others but primarily with God. Those who are caught up in the ‘me, myself and I culture are possibly beyond reach (e.g. the ‘rich young ruler’ who didn’t want to give up his wealth). After all, it is only God who really knows what we need, so our focus should be on being vulnerable for God – no matter what.

  • Ryan Bond

    Great post Mike. I see Crave in Morningside doing this well.

  • Jeannie Cochrane

    Very interesting reading Mike. I don’t have any third place or cafe stories but thanks for introducing me to the concept of third places. I wonder if we have much less opportunities to be part of such places, and they are not so easily and naturally created these days?

    • Hi Jeannie. I think you’re right about there being less opportunities. Those who can afford it tend to buy into spaces that cater for some of the third place ideals (cafes, pubs, social clubs perhaps…)
      The lack of them creates a perfect opportunity for church communities to create them!

  • DrDon

    Hi Mike – I see the term ‘Third Place’ as simply a modern expression for an age old necessity. I believe humanity was created for and with the need for relationships. In society today, these could be grouped – within marriage/family; within like-minded (social) communities; in the workplace. If these relationship communities do not or cannot exist, then a person almost ceases to exist. It is often said that putting a person in solitary confinement (c.f. the penal colonies such as Port Arthur in Australia) was the worst thing you could do to a human.

    I would like to add to the six attributes that Oldenburg suggests two important attributes – Interaction is expected and welcomed; Status is not used to dominate others (i.e. mutual respect and equality are essential values). For a Christian in a relationship with God, I accept God as King and I desire to serve God, but I don’t see that as domination.

    Third places exist in many ways – e.g. the barbershop for men, the pub and I suppose night clubs for younger people. I enjoy the local gym as a third place, but only if you go at the right time – otherwise young people have their earpieces on and clearly send the “I am not interested in you” message.

    I believe that the book of Acts paints a picture of the meetings of Christians in the early church as third places – a far cry from the dominated meetings of today. I also believe that small home groups where there is a facilitator and not a dominant leader can also be a ‘third place’. Sadly in today’s world, ‘third places’ with the suggested attributes (especially for a Christian) are few and far between. Cafes are not a generic answer. What we need is a focus on making all Christian meetings/events into ‘third places’. Perhaps a 1-5 rating of the eight attributes used to provide feedback would be a good place to start?

    • Hi DrDon
      I affirm your critique of church meetings versus what we might describe as the third place attributes of the Book of Acts meetings. I wonder if Tim Bulkeley’s comment below that mentions “modern capitalist cultures” is part of the reason our current church meetings are how they are?

      I also think your thoughts around status are important, and with your comment about suitable leaders for small home groups, I wonder if all actual “third places” end up having this kind of facilitating leadership, for example, the barber in the barber shop, perhaps there are staff at your gym that fulfil this role?

      With your rating idea, do you mean give the list to a church and get them to rate each of the attributes considering their own context? It would be interesting to do this with the church leadership group, and then with a bunch of people new to the church.

      In my own church context, for six months we have been having a shared meal on Sunday nights. For various reasons we now only get a third of the number we did in the first few months. I think this is partly because it is actually harder to put yourself into a context where you’re sitting around a table talking to people that you might not always choose to talk to, compared to a traditional church service where it is much less relationally intense…

      • DrDon

        Hi To answer your question re a rating questionnaire (and that in itself is a research project). There are many factors to getting reliable feedback, or if you like – reliable research. I can only assume that within your thesis you discussed the reliability of your research methodology before drawing any conclusions from the data.

        Unfortunately, true research takes time – hence bible study takes time. But the other important points for feedback / questionnaires / research is the need for a clear reason for gathering the data AND the reliability of the data. Questionnaires at the very best cannot argue that data is based on sound truth – it is more likely to be based on a personal belief, and that in itself could be nothing more than dogma. To put it bluntly, based on what people have been brainwashed to accept as truth. In a church context, a questionnaire can only produce data based on dogma unless people have been taught how to discern truth for themselves – and on course truth comes from disciplined study of the Bible, not on passive listening to a preacher. To use your model of communication, the sender should be considered as being God with individuals as the receiver – unfortunately translation and the preacher become ‘noise’ and the message becomes distorted.

        By all means consider a questionnaire to obtain feedback, but first do your research on using questionnaires; have a very clear reason for the research; ensure utmost confidentiality by using an independent in-between person; be absolutely sure you are prepared to accept the results of the feedback; and most important first spend adequate time ensuring that people have a clear understanding of truth so that their responses reflect a comparison against truth. A commitment to researching for truth must be accompanied by a commitment to acknowledging past mistakes and implementing necessary changes – no matter what!
        That’s what I believe is meant by spiritual formation and transformation for ourselves and others – and that is why we are here on earth. All of our activities (including cafes) should have a clear focus on ‘helping each other to be transformed by the renewing of our mind’.

        • Hi DrDon
          I don’t have high expectations of lots of people reading my thesis, but I reckon you might appreciate it. I did interviews and focus groups, and have since been running a quantitative survey based on my analysis of the interview data. I look forward to being able to share all of this soon!

  • Luci B

    Thank you for this on behalf of the Moot Community. This is exactly what we’re trying to achieve, so it’s great feedback! Would you mind if we link to you on the website/ quote you? !

    • Hi Luci B – of course! Feel free to use/link/quote however you find helpful. I think what you’re doing is great.
      Mike

      • Luci B

        That’s greatly appreciated. Thank you so much.

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