Mission or Business?

“It’s good for the business of the church but bad for mission.”

That’s what Jen said yesterday as we were talking about the church building as a “third place.” Ministry strategy has been a regular topic of conversation for my wife and I as we launch Agape Ann Arbor. She’s helping me hone the language I use as I communicate what we’re doing.

OK, back to this whole church as the third place thing. The “third place” is a sociological theory popularized by the author Ray Oldenburg. In a nutshell, Oldenburg has observed that in the west we inhabit three places; (1) work, (2) home, (3) and the third place. The third place is the place we inhabit by choice. It is the center of our social life. Think Cheers or Central Perk in Friends.

Many contemporary American evangelical churches have created a ministry strategy around this observation. The philosophy of these churches is that their worship facility should be a third place. The strategy is to create environments and activities in the building that will draw people to the building. The goal is to make the physical structure in which the church meets so attractive that people want to spend time there. It’s great for business. The church members meet at the building for Bible study and buy coffee in the cafe. The church members lives revolve around that physical structure and typically they’re willing to pay for the services they receive in that place.

It’s a good business strategy. It’s a bad mission strategy. The mission of the church is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). You can’t make new disciples if all the Christians are spending all of they’re limited unallocated time with each other in a third place that non-Christians will never choose.

The theory is that if we create cool, comfortable enough environments non-Christians will join us in our cozy little third place. But why would they do that? Do we really think we can compete with Starbuck’s or the comfortable pub on the corner? The only people that want to come to our church buildings are people who are positively predisposed to them. Virtually by definition, this excludes people who are not a part of our Christian community.

This is why Agape Ann Arbor does not inhabit a specific space especially designed for our community. We want to make new disciples. This means we spend time in places where we can meet and connect with people who are not already a part of our community. We inhabit spaces inhabited by people who are not yet Christ-followers. We seek to build relationships there. And, rather than presuming that everyone there is looking for an invitation to be a part of our community we strive to be the kind of people they want to invite into their community.

Think about this: How many stories are there in the Gospels about Jesus inviting people into his community? How many stories are there in the Gospels about people inviting Jesus into their community?

Here’s a challenge for you. Read through the Gospels this week and notice all the parties that Jesus attended. As you read those stories write down where those parties are held and who hosted them.

What do you think? Is the third place a good mission strategy or a good business strategy?

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