Third Places are sometimes more churchy than church

It slips my mind, sometimes, that someone reading my posts may not know where they are written. With very few exceptions, most of my writing is done in Starbucks. If I didn’t write the actual post there, I at least scribbled notes to remind me later of the direction I’m going to take.

I don’t know all the reasons why Starbucks is my choice, but one of them is because it simply isn’t HOME. I can come here and focus, be myself, daydream and create. At home, well there’s laundry to be done, a new magazine in the mail, roaming dogs who terrorize me at every opportunity. The stuff of life. I connect with myself better — sometimes — when I’m not so surrounded by myself.

The other day I listened to two guys do the same at Starbucks. One was a regular, Dan, and I never caught the other’s name. Let’s call him Fred. These two guys began jabbering, and when I got up to go, literally two hours later, they were still jabbering. In the course of the hours they covered politics (conservative, but Dan has a liberal bent that inclines him to social justice), chiropractic (Fred is a chiropractor, and was convincing Dan — accurately in my humble opinion! — that chiropractic care could help him recover from his recent shoulder surgery), the military (both served, one flew planes, the other loved them). They covered their families, their work habits, their Starbucks drinks. They circled back around to why character and integrity matter in politics more than party affiliation, though each were registered Republicans. In short, they connected.

It was a life group in action. What do you call it at your church? At ours, during various moments, they have been life groups, journey groups, small groups, affinity groups. Whatever your definition, these two men joined a small group.

But let me ask you this question: when was the last time you saw two men begin with a passing nod acquaintance and end up with an intimacy and a feeling of belonging to the same tribe over the course of two hours?

That’s the genius of living life out in the community, in third places, shoulder to shoulder with your neighbors and strangers. Alan Hirsch, in his new book RIght Here Right now, says that “We have to be able to speak meaningfully into a culture, but in order to do that, we have to seriously examine a given culture for clues to what God is doing among a people….what is good new for THIS people?” My friend Dan was doing that. He was listening to Fred and conversing with him where he was at, the conversation meandering. And because it took place in this third place, others were welcome to join in or not. Some did, interacting as long as time and circumstances allowed. Others didn’t, living their own lives.

Either way, small group was had here in Starbucks, and a whole bunch of us got to join in.

I’m making the choice to go for community wherever possible. After all, I’m, pretty sure that’s where Jesus hung out. I just wonder if he’d have picked MY Starbucks!

The Third Place and Home


I got home this week.

It’s odd, really, because I’ve also been home all month. I’ve been home in our condo in Lexington, or on the lake in New Hampshire where I’ve spent nearly every summer of my life. I breathe in the fresh air of those places and my inner sense of being profoundly at home is magnified.

And then I arrive back in Palm Beach Gardens, my own home, my real home.

I love the process of wandering through my rooms to see the bits and pieces of my life. I enjoy seeing what has changed (lots of people in and out of our home, even when we are gone!) and what has stayed the same. I smell the scent of the air, which is a limited-time opportunity because I know my nose will habituate in an hour or so. And then — if schedule permits — I leave.

Because part of my home is the Third Place, the places in my community that feel like home to me.

Contrary to popular opinion, Starbucks is not my first stop. Whole Foods is. If I can cook a meal and know there are good things to eat in my kitchen, my little universe is set right on its axis. And then comes Starbucks. Yesterday David and I sat here in my preferred corner of Sbux and watched the regulars float in and out. I was particularly struck with the sense of community yesterday. We were greeted like old friends by staff and customers alike, and then we learned that a barista’s father had passed away suddenly. There were sympathy cards to sign, and the story to repeat. Everyone had time to hear the story and send good wishes to the grieving barista, who is due back at work today. She misses her support system, and working behind the counter is where she wants to be.

A few minutes later I was listening to a businesses woman who regularly sits in the chair next to the best electrical outlet talk to one of the more eccentric men who wanders in and out. He hums as he walks, almost involuntarily, and repeats every sentence at least twice. Conversations with him take awhile, but she was enjoying time away from her cell phone and computer.

“My baby girl, my baby girl, that’s her right there,” he said, pointing at a car pulling up outside.

“She’s your girl? I know her!” business woman says. “Hey,” she continues, poking another regular who uses headphones seemingly to drown out conversations like this one. “Hey, you know that mom with the kids that come in here all the time? She’s his daughter!” The two of them remarked over this for a few minutes, to the joy of the proud papa.

“She is all I have left in the world,” he said. He went on to describe how his wife of 38 years had died a year or two ago in a horrible, quick death. He sat and mumbled “Unbelievable” ten or fifteen times while the two regulars said how sorry they were, but how much they always enjoyed his grandchildren when they were in the store. He brightened again, and stood up to hug his daughter.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about Third Places in the community, and the need for the missional-minded among us to be out and about in the community. Yesterday I realized that “out and about” can also feel a lot like being at home. And at least for a few minutes, this Third Place felt as if it were functioning an awful lot like the body of Christ, rejoicing and comforting and being there for life’s journey.

Even if it’s only for a short time, it sure felt good to be home.

Panera Bread and authenticity

Panera Bread is unsurpassed when it comes to defining a niche market. Think about it quickly: what do you think of when you think of Panera? Amazing food? Probably not.

I am sitting at Panera now. It is 2:45, a time when most lunch spot snare hunkered down preparing for dinner. They are usually barren. Not Panera. There are businessmen,students and retired people all over this restaurant. The common denominator? They are all on their computers, iPads and phones. Like me. Panera = free Internet. Perfect niche that fills the store all day long. The process, of course, builds community. There are regulars here as anywhere.

I am kind of melancholy today to tell you the truth. This particular Panera always reminds me of a conversation I had here years ago. His name was Joe, and we had gone to church with him for years. He was retired, and his wife was active in our children’s ministry. They were the friendly older couple always serving punch at every event, if you know what I mean. This particular day Joe was bussing our table. I looked up totally surprised.

“Joe do you work here?”

“Yep. For months now. I wouldn’t know what to do without the people here. They are like family. And I need the money.” This last bit surprised me, and something in his eyes made me wonder. I casually asked about his wife.

“Haven’t seen her. She divorced me four months ago. I am all alone.”

I was shocked. I KNEW these people well. I went to church with them, knew their family history. But in the environment of church, they had never reached out for help. In fact, as I thought about it, they had kind of dropped off the radar. It was a short conversation in Panera, but Joe was finally being transparent, honest.

That is the value of community third places like Panera, and why we need to be present in them. It is why the church — as glorious and life-giving as it is — can’t fill every need. Sometimes it takes a conversation in Panera.

Joe isn’t here today, and I am fairly sure he has left the area. But for an half an hour years ago we took the moments to connect authentically.

I am glad I stopped in here today to remember.

Q Conference Session One

Just a few highlights for me from the morning…

David Aikman “The End of Christian America”
There is a huge shift in cultural values and knowledge in America. In a post-modern, post-Christian world, we need a new skill set to bring Christianity to the people around us. We need to reach the American Intelligentsia, the urban centers and the techno-generation. To do this look at the Chinese church. They value corporate and personal prayer, they are willing to sacrifice and suffer persecution, and they are missionary minded.

Tim Keller “The Both/And of the Gospel”
Bipolarization of justification by faith versus justice.
They are joined at the hip…not separate issues.. If you don’t have compassion for the poor and the outcast then you need to question whether you truly have a relationship with God. He requires it!
Justification by faith changes not just our attitudes towards the poor, but OF the poor. Grace provides an equal footing for poor and rich.

Becky Henderson – Halogen TV
This network is based off the core basics provided by NT Wright: justice, relationships, purpose and beauty. Using these, they capture compelling stories. Check out Earth Tripping (beauty) or Invisible Children (justice).

Gabe Lyons – “The Next Christians”
Today’s Christians are:
provoked – to engage with people where they are in their journey at this moment in time.
Creators – Move from being a critic of culture to being a creator.
Calling – There is a renewed sensed of vocation and calling across all the realms of our lives.
Grounding – To engage culture we need to first be firmly rooted in our faith.
Community – The church provides the basis and community from which we engage culture.
Larger Community – This is the intersection.
Countercultural – As Christians engage culture while remaining countercultural, we become an attractive force for the Gospel.

What do you want from your church?

Picture 4

I read this in my email today from our friend Buddy Hoffman at Grace Fellowship, our church when we are in Atlanta. Sometimes I run across something I hadn’t even known in my soul until someone else verbalizes it. This letter, which is his regular weekly email to his congregation, is one of those moments. This IS what I want. This IS what we need. If you aren’t finding it, get yourself to a place where you do. It’s worth it.

This past week, while Jody and I were on vacation, I found myself in the unusual circumstance of not having to be anywhere on Sunday. Often, even when I am not a Grace, I am somewhere else teaching. I went out for a walk and began thinking about where we would worship Sunday, and it occurred to me that this is not a question I often ask: “What do I want in a church?” Then it occurred to me that I was really contemplating another question, easier to answer: “What do I not want.”

Kind of like, when it comes time to choose a restaurant, someone asks, “Where do you want to eat?” The answer sounds easy, but not even close.
“Anywhere.” comes the answer.
“How about burgers?” you say.
“I’m not thinking burgers.” is the reply.
“How about Subway?” you say.
“Had that Thursday.” comes the answer.
Someone starts naming places, and your realize all you really know is what you don’t want.

When it comes to church, I know what I am not looking for. I have no passion to sit with people lined up in pews, sing three hymns and listen to a sermon with three points and a poem. I have no yearning to hear someone’s idea of a religious pep talk, with a few movie clips thrown in to prove they are culturally relevant. I have no desire to listen to a Christian concert put on by a hand-full of rock band wannabes. It’s not that I mind hymns, poems or relevant movie clips, and I certainly enjoy a good band.

But, unlike finding a place to eat, I do know exactly what I want in a church gathering.

I want to hear someone open the Bible to a passage of Scripture that they have prayed over, meditated on, researched and marinated in. I want to hear what they learned, I want to hear what they discovered, I want to hear not just the results of their research, not just an academic lecture, but what they have heard from God. I want to know how this passage has impacted the church, not just this church, but the church historic.

I want to know how this passage intersects with the context of the whole of Scripture – where does this fit in the meta-narrative of Scripture, the Kingdom of God. I want to know how this passage has convicted and comforted the people that have gone before me, the communion of the Saints. I want to know what this passage meant in it’s orginal context to the ones God gave it. What were their circumstances and how did this passage shape them? I want to sit with a Bible in my hand, and look into that Word and listen for that voice deep in my soul that speaks to me though His Word.

I treasure that voice, it seldom screams, it most often whispers, but it is real as the skin I am in. I want to sit with a gathering of people who also long to hear that voice. I want to look around and see that same longing on their faces I feel in my heart. I want to look across the room and see people with old Bibles that are falling apart, new bibles with pages that are still stuck together, techies with Bibles on their iphones, and people who are just trying to figure it out but sense there is something going on here that is more than a history lesson, more than a lecture, more than a pep talk. I want an encounter with God Himself.

Then I want to this same person who has been marinating in this passage to challenge us all with how this connects to today and tomorrow. I want to hear what they have heard the Spirit speak; I want to hear that prophetic voice.

Then I want some time to absorb what I have heard; I don’t want to just jump up and run out. I want a worship leader to take me deeper in my response to the Word, to the prompting of the Spirit of the Living God. I want time to repent – the word “repent” means “to change my mind.” I want my mind renewed; I need to reflect on what I have heard. I want the kind of worship leader that knows it’s more than a “set list” and leading the band; it’s turning people’s faces to the face of God. It’s giving God what God is seeking: worship.

Sometimes it’s as brief as a blink, sometimes it is more like melting a glacier, but I do not want to just run out. If worship is responding rightly to Revelation, then I want to worship. I do not mean just sing a song, although it might be a song, or it might be a prayer. It might be that I need to raise my hands in surrender and agreement. It might be I need to get on my knees, right then and there; it might mean I need to get on my face, not later but now, in humility and with abandon. And I hunger to gather with people who feel the freedom to do the same.

I might need someone to pray with me. I want to be with people I can just turn to and say, “I need prayer” without feeling they are going to think I am strange. I love feeling someone’s hand on my shoulder and hearing them pray for me without even asking.

That is want I want. I really don’t care if it is in a Cathedral or a storefront. I don’t care if it is across the street or across town. It does not matter that much to me if the teacher is ordained, wearing a robe, in blue jeans, young or old. I really have no preference concerning the size of the church or the style of the service. What I want it to hear from God and gather with people who share that hunger. I want to see young people and old people, but real people. I want to be with people of different colors and cultures, but with a common craving for the heart of God.

I want to hear the Word, I want to worship and I want to do it with a community that takes both seriously.

I know what I want.

See you Sunday,

Phil’s Armor


I sat in a meeting yesterday with Phil. I have known Phil and his wife for years. We’ve spent time in worship together, eaten at social events together and — memorably — served side by side on a committee of leaders committed to living life together in community. Most recently, David and I have been with Phil in a group of people learning about generosity together. So you know who Phil is: he’s the guy you know from church. You know him this well, but no more. He could be sitting in the next row from you in church this week, too. He is, in many ways, a church everyman.

Well yesterday, as I said, we were in a meeting on generosity with Phil. It was one of those meetings that could go either way. You might end up baring your soul or you might end up creating a church-wide action plan. Or you could, conceivably, end up wishing you’d kept your dentist appointment instead of attending this meeting. Now you know the kind of meeting we were in with Phil. Perfectly unremarkable.

Until Phil began talking.

He told a story about the whole armor of God. And forget the tacky Roman sword and breastplate…Phil related that passage of scripture to the gear he used during his time in Vietnam. It was a time in his life where that helmet of truth — the helmet — was more than a theory to Phil. No helmet, no head. Simple. That belt and breastplate and sword, they were the tools that kept Phil alive. He told us about a buddy, standing next to him, who was dead in an instant. With a tongue that dripped vocabulary like KIA and MIA and WIA without hesitation, Phil reminded us that living in the kingdom is living in a war zone. And maybe, just maybe, some of us are standing around without our helmets on.

Phil has a great story, and I never would have known it if I didn’t sit still long enough to hear it. And his background colors and influences everything he does. For Phil, our study in generosity means something completely different because of his experiences. It’s richer, or at least different, from mine.

I was convicted yesterday, wondering how many unique and inspiring stories like Phil’s are sitting next to me in church or the coffee shop. And I’m wondering how to tell them.

Reconnecting to the body: I needed a spinal adjustment


I’ve mentioned before that David and I (and the girls) are seeing a Maximized Living Chiropractor. Go check out the website if you want to know more about that, but in a nutshell they teach that it all comes down to your spine. If your spine is properly aligned with all its God-ordained curves (and no extras!) then your nervous system has a clear communication path to the rest of your body. This enables all the parts of your body to hear their instructions clearly, carry them out, and report back to the brain when the job is done. This lets your body heal itself and do the job it was created to do. on its own. It’s a miraculous system. On the wall of my chiropractor is one of their favorite sayings: “The power that made the body is the power that heals the body.” For this reason, after we’ve been adjusted, we’ll often say “I’ve got my power on.” In other words, I’m back in alignment and I’m feeling good!

Tonight was our first night home at Christ Fellowship since our vacation and several other trips that have taken us away from worshipping with our church family. From the moment I walked in the doors, I knew it was good to be home. I was surrounded by a group of women who have all been through — or are going through — the Alzheimer’s mother stage. “Oh yes, the driver’s license is the hardest.” Their words of wisdom from having walked the road ahead of me resonated, calmed me. The worship reminded me of what matters most as we stopped everything to sing, sit at the feet of the King. It is well with my soul. It really is. And then the sermon had some great moments as Tom Mullins and Jonathan Bonar shared the sermon. One great quote of the night? “When you’re faced with the storms of life, you need to learn to dance in the rain.”

As I was walking out of church, I realized it: the church and all it represents are the spine of the spiritual body. Once in awhile you need to go get realigned. And when you do — when the adjustment has happened — every part of the body can communicate. I know that the main part of the kingdom’s ministry happens outside of the church’s walls, but tonight I was reminded how important the church is. Those moments of worship realigned my whole week.

It’s so good to be home.

Not bricks and mortar

The blurry picture here was taken during the first ever service in our new student ministries center. It is crammed with kids of all shapes and sizes. Every chair is full. All the hallways are lined.

“Oh happy day!” they sing at the top of their amazingly powerful lungs. It is.

Tears keep pooling in my eyes and refuse to stay put. This is a place that will impact the world. Every seat has been prayed over. Every room has a purpose. This, the first official meeting in the Life Center as a whole, is living up to it’s name: Not So Silent Night. We are not silent. We are praising God across time and space.

Bricks and mortar are passé, old style, they say. Maybe. But this isn’t brick and mortar. These are lives.

Oh Happy Day!!!

Constraining creativity

Creativity is a slippery creature. If you look too hard at it, the creativity skitters around the corner out of sight. And just at the moment you despair of ever thinking another creative thought, your mind floods with new ideas. It’s a perverse master, creativity.

A good friend of mine is in graphic design school for her frst semester this year. A whiz with computerized graphic design, she’s finding this first semester involves a lot of hand drawing, pen and ink, pencils, markers. In addition, the assignments come fast and furious, requiring at least 40 hours a week of homework time in addition to her classroom time. And those assignments astound us: 300 thumbnails exhibiting elements of both an Indian tribe and a Baltimore Oriole. Create gift packaging that can also be used as a toy…and incorporate your Native American theme. Pick a design and develop an entire alphabet around it, while not repeating the exact design anywhere. She has learned to work within amazing constraints during this first semester, which we hae nicknamed her “analog phase” due to the low tech nature of her materials so far.

But we have noticed something over time.

Creativity seems to blossom within those constraints laid on the assignments. When her back is up against a wall, creativity breaks through and results in a project she could never have imagined when she sat down to draw. As much as she rails against the strict guidelines for each assignment, in the end her work has taken leaps forward because of the direction and inspiration the guidelines provide.

This got me wondering, this week. Will we all be the same as we walk through the tightened economic environment that is surely coming? Will strict guidelines (ie: a budget) force us to greater creativity, and result in an end product we might not have thought of before? I believe it will. I believe we are coming into a creative renaissance, both in our personal lives and in our communities. Churches are going to be creative; non-profits are going to get creative; even retailers will get creative. Could it be that “cookie cutter solutions” are going to fade out of style? Here’s hoping!

Uncertain economics, amazing opportunity

I’ve been thinking lately. Something seems to be afoot. It’s something unfamiliar to us, yet strangely exhilarating. It feels like a call, a challenge, a movement back to where we need to be. At times I am impatient for it to arrive, thinking that this is the moment for which our generation was created. This is our time to make a difference, to remember that Christianity is a verb, not a noun.  This is our time to finally walk boldly into our communities and neighborhoods putting into practice what we have learned in the gloated years now in the past. It’s time to use what we have.

Uncertain times historically create a surge in spiritual longings. When money gets scarce, prayer becomes common! Nearly every biblical story is set against a backdrop just like the news stories of today. Cataclysmic changes overturn the status quo, and people demand answers. Think about it: biblical cities are destroyed, kings are deposed, floods ravage or people are enslaved. In all these, God moves in a fresh direction. It is the same for us now.

There will be, if the times continue as they are, a drastic cutback of the march into consumerism that has built the church in the last decades. Expensive programs will have to give way to the reality of the weekly offering. Rather than being a curse, God can use this as a blessing if we commit to being intentional during this season of history. We need to learn and teach the spiritual disciplines that have guided the church for centuries. We can walk out of the church and become the church. We can stop eating, and start giving.

The days ahead will require a healthy dose of creativity, something at which this generation excels. We can look back a generation or two and examine what practices worked before, then adapt them to this new time. No money for the traditional Christmas festival at church? Spend time planning as a church how individuals could open their homes  — yes, the place they actually live – and celebrate Christmas in a new way. Don’t just leave this to chance: teach it! Recovery ministry in jeopardy of a budget cut? Have a cup of coffee with a struggling addict, and be willing to answer your phone when he calls late at night. Go to an AA meeting with him, and you may find your impact growing. Train a whole church to take that step of faith.

At home you will surely be facing the same constraints that will transform the church ministry offerings, as well. Take a lesson from your grandparents: adapt and don’t complain. Focus on what you do have, and use it for the kingdom. Invite someone over to supper! Do life together, rather than sit side by side in a pew. And while you are at it, look across the fence at your neighbor and invite them, too. Learn to share the resources you have already to connect with people you may previously have passed on the way to the mall. Share. Be willing to pour your life out, give yourself away. The Robbie Seay Band has a lyric in one of their songs that calls us to this action. It says, “Rise, rise people of love, rise. Give yourself away.” Hungry people, lonely people, scared people are far more likely to allow you to give yourself to them than self-sufficient satisfied ones. This is a new day in our neighborhoods, and it’s exciting.

Finally, this is the time to prepare. Think ahead. Evaluate your resources and begin to strategically think how you can maximize them for the kingdom. Pretend a hurricane is coming, if you must, and store up extra supplies. Open your home and be willing to tolerate the messiness that comes with sharing your life. Learn the art of intentional hospitality in all areas of your life. It’s time to stop talking about being missional, and take the first step out of the front door.