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Steve Fridsma on the Church as a Third Place

Architects Steve Fridsma and James Vander Molen often speak at conferences such as the annual Worship Facilities Conference and Expo. But whether their topic is architecture for the emerging church or how to reuse commercial buildings as churches, Fridsma says they usually touch on a favorite subject, developing community in worship.

Architects Steve Fridsma and James Vander Molen often speak at conferences such as the annual Worship Facilities Conference and Expo. But whether their topic is architecture for the emerging church or how to reuse commercial buildings as churches, Fridsma says they usually touch on a favorite subject—developing community in worship.

Fridsma has found that building a new church often pushes congregations to rethink their notions of community and assumptions about who is welcome in the church building.

The church as neutral ground

Researching the concept of community led Fridsma and Vander Molen to the “third place” theory developed by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place.

“In the early to mid 20th century, most American communities had three gathering places for establishing one’s identity—first, the home; second, the workplace; and, third, the neighborhood hangout or hub. At these third places, such as a pub, general store, greasy spoon, or coffee shop, people could gather and interact on neutral ground.

“Oldenburg observed that third places are essential to a neighborhood’s identity and community vitality. Third places still exist in some gentrified communities. Tragically, third places in lower-income neighborhoods often can’t survive financially,” Fridsma says.

Further, he explains, many communities developed over the last 40 or 50 years have no third places or what he calls “social condensers.” Instead, development trends, zoning ordinances, and over-reliance on automobiles have created situations where “people must resort to driving to the mall to be a nameless face amongst the masses.

“Churches, which are a permitted use in residential land in almost all zoning ordinances, are now uniquely positioned to seize the opportunity to become their community’s third place,” Fridsma says.

Whether a congregation decides to become a third place depends in part, he says, on its answers to these questions:

  • How willing are we to open our doors to strangers who may or may not be far from God?
  • What cultural safety or security will we give up to treat our church property as neutral ground for the exchange of ideas?
  • What are the pros and cons of having neighbors see our building as a neighborhood destination rather than only for “church people”?

Worship as community experience

Besides working as a project leader in the ProgressiveAE Worship Environments Studio, Fridsma leads the worship/design team at CentrePointe Church in Kentwood, Michigan.

CentrePointe aims to create worship experiences that are simultaneously relevant to people “new to God, old to God, and far from God.” Sitting at tables in a café-style atmosphere, people feel free to be active participants or distant observers.

“Tables encourage certain types of multi-sensory or communal worship activities in ways that sitting in rows or pews cannot. It also allows for small grouping to happen naturally,” Fridsma says.

Sometimes the worship team asks people to discuss topics—like their biggest fears or most recent random act of kindness—with others at their table.

“This breaks down inhibitions and involves people together, whether they are guests or members, long-time Christ followers or spiritual newbies. It works because we have lots of singles and young marrieds. It’s rare for one family to take up an entire table,” Fridsma says.

Using tables helps people “reference spiritual reality in a tangible way,” instead of just hear about it from the stage. For a spiritual disciplines theme, the service metaphor was a flower bulb. Each table had a centerpiece of flower bulbs. Worship leaders invited everyone to hold a bulb during the service, then take home and plant it as a symbol of renewed desire to seek after God.

Belonging before believing

Countless churches have a larger sanctuary, smaller narthex, and basement fellowship hall. According to Fridsma, this architecture suggests that “you must first come to believe. If you learn to behave like us, then we’ll let you belong.”

But his architectural team recently completed a master plan that flips the “believe to belong” hierarchy. In the new building plan for Spring Lake Wesleyan Church in Spring Lake, Michigan, all entrances will lead to a large, bright central hub.

Fridsma says, “You won’t be able to get to the worship spaces without going through a highly intentional community space. The building experience will suggest that gathering, fellowship, and community-building (belonging) is the first primary destination.”

The master plan has amenities that the community is welcome to use—coffee shop, conversation nooks, computers, prayer chapel, drop-in youth center, playgrounds, and nature trails. The church will have two different worship spaces instead of one large sanctuary.

“We unapologetically worship God. We don’t try to hide that. When Christ is lifted up, he draws people to him. But we also try to use music and explain terms so people who aren’t believers feel comfortable. Offering multiple worship venues and formats is a key way we reach the lost.

“Many people in our culture aren’t looking to worship in a huge auditorium. They are looking for worship that is more relational and intimate. Also, for people who’ve never been in church, an actual sanctuary can be a barrier,” says Dennis Jackson, senior pastor.

Spring Lake Wesleyan has already divided its current building into two worship venues. Each offers two Sunday morning services. There’s also a Sunday evening service in the lobby. Rapidly growing children and youth programs have taken over spaces meant for adults.

“In the new building, people will come out of their worship venues and connect with others in the hub. There will be room to sit and ask, ‘What did you think of that service?’ Maybe it will facilitate evangelism,” Jackson says.

Spring Lake Wesleyan intends its new building to be physically comfortable, inviting, and safe, but not elaborate.

“People in this culture are more and more wanting a third place. Fewer people have others in their home. They’re not sure where or how to connect. We hope that providing so many connecting points will help people pause and talk on a deeper level. Maybe they’ll take the next step and invite a friend to their home,” Jackson says.