Barnes & Noble Booksellers is possibly America’s most comforting “third place” outside of Starbucks, or maybe even including Starbucks, given the 1993 deal that now allows Barnes & Noble to sell the exalted coffee and other Starbucks’ signature bakery items in its cafe.

The concept of a third place is attributed to Ray Oldenburg, who claimed in The Great Good Place that beyond the “first place” (the home) and the “second place” (the work environment) humans look to third places (coffeehouses, pubs, diners, parks, main streets, etc.) as community hubs for social interaction. In generations past, third places included social clubs such as lodges, country clubs, YMCA’s, etc., but in the current reign of Generation Y, these venues have faded from popularity.

Churches also seem to have lost some ground in their positions as anchors for membership. According to survey findings from The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, Millennials are less likely to identify with a specific religion, denomination, or even church (measured through church attendance), despite maintaining similarities to previous generations in what they actually believe. According to the report Millennial Generation Less Religiously Active than Older Americans“Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults.”

While some individuals (even young individuals) may frequent their own church often, churches at large do not seem to be the main venue choice for third place activities. Furthermore, church buildings seem to be recognized less for their universal role as community centers and safe havens and more for their particularities of style and demographics.

That places like Starbucks and Barnes & Noble have attracted and drawn in so many people has to do with the fact that they are chain stores, inseparably linked in a business-like fashion.  And while the church should never be run like a business, I think it is reasonable to argue that churches, inseparably linked in Christian like-mindedness, should show some visible signs of similarity to the outside world, so that when asked to describe a church, an individual might use words such as “warm, comforting, and peaceful,”  instead of than “cold, sterile, boring, or anxiety-producing.”

According to the Barnes & Noble website, “If you ask a typical customer to describe the Barnes & Noble experience, words like “warm, comfortable and spacious come to mind.” To this list, I would also add the word giving, and it is this list that I think also serves as an excellent template for the church environment, if it is to reclaim its position as a first-choice third place.

1) Warm & Comfortable

When you enter a Barnes & Noble, you are greeted with warm shades of color, seemingly imported from Florence, and warm lighting that instantly evokes the feel of a personal study. If you visit their cafe, you are further enticed by the scent of bakery treats and a fresh pot of coffee, and if you stay there to study, you will most likely (if your B&N has been updated recently) be accosted by amplified icons, painted in a quasi-caricature fashion. These are the likes of Shelley, Whitman, Melville, etc., as featured in the picture below, and their presence in the cafe is exemplary and awe-inspiring, as if to motivate the humans below to equal heights of greatness.

Barnes & Noble Cafe Mural, taken from theopenend.com

On the other hand, when you walk into many churches, you are often met with a bleak and sterile shade of white, as well as disjointed decor that appears to have been collected over decades. The smells and tastes of many churches are equally negligible, and may consist of nothing more than a somewhat recently stirred pitcher of lemonade powder and a meager stack of Costco brownie bites, which have yet to be removed from their plastic container. Thoughts regarding the planning of lighting and temperature control appear to be lacking, if present at all.

*Of course, the few churches that do give thought to these sorts of things (namely megachurches) often do so to the extent that they run more like a business than a church, in which such things are done more for the purpose of attracting and maintaining members than for the purpose of caring for them.

Visually, many churches are flat and plain, giving the impression of a hotel rather than a home. Having been stripped down in iconoclast fashion (sometimes to the extreme point of even getting rid of the cross) most churches don’t even consider offering up religious portraits such as John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents, but, instead, trade them in for shallowly-disguised copy-cats of the Live, Laugh, Love genre. For example, the interior walls might be basted in phrases such as “Let God Love Through You Today,” which are often painted in some kind of contemporary scroll-style font.

*Interestingly enough, this is also a flaw of Starbucks, which sometimes makes the the mistake of being too cliche. For instance, my local Starbucks could probably do without some of the cheesy poetry on the wall.

2) Spacious

The way that Barnes & Noble uses space is ingenious. Their bookshelves, organized in a maze-like fashion, encourage browsing, and yet, they are wide enough apart that one can dart in and out rather quickly if their schedule demands it. But for those who want to stay, all paths lead to the cafe, which is often in the very center of the building, and in some locations, elevated so that it looks over all the rest of the store.

And this use of space is not neutral. Instead, it actually orients the customer’s perception of the environment. For instance, while in the upper level of the cafe, the whole store becomes one’s personal library; the individuals below, an atmosphere of entertainment.

Outside of the cafe, and in between the mazes, one will often stumble upon an open, living room sort of area. Here, little tables are spaced out between comfy, movable, easy chairs. From my perspective, it is this use of space that first distinguishes Barnes & Noble from Starbucks in the search for a third place. For unlike Starbucks, even on a busy day, when no cafe or cozy chairs are available, Barnes & Noble boasts a seemingly endless amount of space, and one can easily cop a squat right on the floor, where they can read book-in-lap style.

Like the details of comfort above, many churches fail to give any attention to the way they use space. If they are the type of church that sets up chairs, they may make rows that are too narrow, or don’t have many ways to get in and get out when people come in late or need to leave early.  If the rows are too long, they might encourage people to sit on the edge (even when the middle has not been filled) in order to avoid being blocked in. If the church site is split into multiple rooms or buildings, the location of child care centers, fellowship/snack areas, and church offices may also be lacking in proper planning. For instance, if a church fellowship area is around the back of the building, where it is out of sight from the parking lot, relocation should probably be considered, or if this is not possible, proper navigational signs should be put in place.

*Often times, all that is needed to designate an area as a “hang out” or fellowship area is the strategic placement of tables and seating.  If your church is accessible by foot (especially in a well trafficked area), placing a few umbrella-covered tables in front of your building will probably attract quite a motley crew of passersby and members alike, and not just on Sundays either, but throughout the week.

*The “comfy” factor should also not be underestimated when considering what sort of furniture to put in a pastor’s office, youth room, lounge area, etc.  Even a shabby couch, if it is comfortable will encourage sitting more than a sad-looking fold out chair or an immaculate, extravagant chair.

If this consideration of church architecture and the use of space seems out of the ordinary to you, you can at least take comfort in the fact that it is not without precedent, and I am not just talking about elegance and lavishness of detail, the financial cost of which can easily turn against the grain of the Gospel itself. What I am referring to, are the ways in which churches of the past manipulated space in order to orient their members in certain ways. Pews were communal in nature, facing forward toward a central and dominating cross. The pulpit was off to the side of the stage, emphasizing that it was not the pastor that members should worship, but Christ.

Perhaps one of the more difficult to emulate uses of space in older churches, were the ceilings, which used arches and A-line frames to draw attention up toward the heavens. While such detailing should never be sought outside a policy of good financial stewardship, it it at least thought provoking to consider the amount of care and intention that was given to the crafting of space in times past, in comparison with our own negligence of it.

3) Giving

Finally, in addition to providing physical space, Barnes & Noble is generously open in allowing people to use their facilities to do their own thing. One piece of evidence for this statement, is the fact that the employees won’t stare you down as you mosey around their store, or even expect you to buy a book from them. In fact, the amount of people moving in and out of the place gives off a comfortable vibe, in which there is no pressure to even be conscious of yourself as a “customer.”

If you are looking for a nice date spot, meeting a study partner, or even just resting with your kids while shopping at the mall, Barnes & Noble (without any ado) provides a venue for you (and for your restless kids, if you count the children’s area/corner). Furthermore, Barnes & Noble generously provides resources and materials that you can browse, while you spend part of your day there. Of course, this comes with the expectation that you will eventually, and inevitably buy something from them, as you continue to frequent their store. But nevertheless, it is a type of giving and openness that people cannot help but respond to.

My husband and I often frequent Barnes & Noble in order to browse their magazines for free, magazines that we cannot afford to individually subscribe to. However, while we are there (and without any pressure to) we are more than happy to make a purchase from the bakery so that we can munch while we read.  Furthermore, when we find a book that we really enjoy reading, we may just buy it while we are there. Such practices would not occur if the environment of Barnes & Noble was different in any way from the way it is now. In fact, without Barnes & Noble’s giving spirit, we would probably not come at all.

In returning to the church, we sometimes find that generosity and giving are often preached, but not acted out, starting with extremely limited access to the facilities. Locking your building door if your church is located in a dangerous neighborhood is one thing, but if your church is locked often, or uses a gate and a no trespassing sign, you may be sending the wrong message to your community. By allowing people access to your church, you do invite some risk, but you also invite opportunities to interact with and love others.

This interaction shouldn’t be contrived or done out of hopes to “sell” the faith, but should overflow naturally from members who already interact this way with each other.  Like the employees at Barnes & Noble, church staff and members should be open, friendly, and willing to go to great lengths to help. However, they should also be accepting and gracious to individuals who are just meandering about the premises, using the outside tables to hang out with friends, or poking in to use the bathroom. By providing these simple creature comforts freely and without stipulation, churches are sure to stand out in a society that is often over-concerned with liability and protection.

Finally, as brothers and sisters in Christ, church members should be setting a living example of generosity.  As communities, church members should be providing for each other on a daily basis.  Are there extra veggies in your garden? Bring them to share at church. Is a family in your church moving across town? Put an announcement in the bulletin or an event message on Facebook soliciting help for them.

If your church is already on this path, you might consider taking generosity one step further, and engaging in the use of a “sharing network,” (best done on a craigslist-esque website) where members can borrow and share material goods such as tools, vehicles, utilities, books, etc. For instance, why on earth would every person within the same church need to have their own power drill?  Or why on earth would every member have to own a pickup truck, a double broiler, and the same commentary on Job?

*My husband is actually in the process of introducing such a network at our local church (more updates on this to follow).

Though this level of borrowing might sound “extreme” to a culture that treasures its material goods above all else, Christians should not be bound by such concerns. Though there are real snags that have to be worked out in order to make this type of community possible, they should not be too challenging for the church community that is willing to grow and learn together, and willing to take correction and give forgiveness. In embarking on this adventure, churches would not only become intriguing examples of people living in true community (assuming they don’t get accused of being a cult), but would also free up resources and wealth that can be stewarded into surrounding communities and the world at large.

Because there has been a lot up until this point, I will try to summarize a final plea. It may just be possible that churches could take a few cues from Barnes & Noble in relearning the spirit of hospitality (warmth and comfort), intentionality (use of space), and generosity (giving and sharing). Of course churches should never be businesses, and they should never attempt to honor these principles outside of or to the detriment of other Christian fruit. But if we find ourselves in a state of mind or society where places like Barnes & Noble and even Starbucks seem more welcoming and enticing than churches, we may just need to reconsider the status quo.

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