A third place

May 06, 2011

Last month on a flight from Minneapolis to Portland, I struck up a conversation with a young woman in the adjacent seat. I introduced myself and asked, “Are you coming or going?”

Jamey, I’ll call her, explained that she was a researcher for one of the large Minnesota food companies. She was part of a local team headed to the Pacific Northwest to monitor focus group responses to a new product line.

After some conversation about herself, Jamey inquired about me. I explained that I’m a pastor serving in an administrative role for the United Methodist Church. She paused for a moment of deep thought and then commented, “There’s a United Methodist Church somewhere in the Twin Cities, isn’t there?” With a smile I acknowledged that there are actually quite a few!

It opened the door for me to ask if she had a church home. Jamey explained that she was only sporadically involved in church growing up as the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants. Despite an outgoing personality, as a single 20-something in a large metro area, she struggles with feelings of isolation in a variety of ways.

I asked where she finds a sense of community and Jamey replied, “Well, that’s a good question. I’ve got my job that’s interesting. I’ve got my apartment where I chill out and relax, but I don’t really have any third place in my life where I can hang out with people who really know me.”

Do you have a third place? Is it the soccer field .?.?. a craft group .?.?. the hockey rink .?.?. a 12-step program .?.?. Facebook .?.?. the health club .?.?. a community band? Do you have a place where you can be yourself with people who really know you and accept you as you are?

At a conference in February I heard a marketing executive for FedEx explain branding strategies. He said, “Branding isn’t colors, fonts, logos and jingles, it’s ‘What do people think when they think of you?’”

What if people thought of church as a third place in their lives—not as a reflection of ranked priorities, not as a location bounded by walls, but as the third leg of a stool that brings stability and security for life? Maybe church is already your third place, but what would it take to make it so for others?

For Jamey’s employer, customer taste tests and packaging perceptions were so important that they flew a team of six across the country just “to listen and observe how people respond when they try our new snack bars.” If they can do that for a mixture of grain, fruit and nuts, how much more important is it for us to be both attentive and adaptable to the changing tastes and perceptions of the world around us? After all, walking the Wesleyan way together with God is profoundly nourishing sustenance for the soul!

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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